The Agony of Jesus

[Reading: Mark 14: 32-42]

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

The Paschal meal had been completed and having noted Judas’ departure from the group and given some home truths to Peter, Jesus retreated to the Garden of Gethsemane where, as we heard in our Gospel reading tonight, he was so distressed and agitated that he had thrown himself to the ground. [verses 33 & 35] It is this scene, in the garden, that is often referred to as the Agony of Jesus. If you think about it, it might seem odd that it should be that moment which was so described – rather than the scene in Pilate’s court where the emotion of the triumphant entry of Palm Sunday had been so brutally destroyed before Jesus’ eyes; or the horror of the crucifixion where Jesus’ nailing to a cross would truly have been agonising. However, in the court of Pilate rather than agony, Jesus had shown a quiet, forbearing courage; and on the cross, apart from a momentary cry of despair – ‘why have you forsaken me?’ – Jesus had shown a supernatural calm – forgiving us all, ensuring his mother would be looked after, welcoming the repentant thief and finally yielding his spirit. No, those had not been scenes of Jesus’ agony, that had occurred in a garden of ancient olive trees where he had thrown himself to the ground in profound distress.

The scene in the Garden of Gethsemane has captured the imagination of artists and poets over the centuries. From early orthodox icons through to modern times, artists have sought to express what our Lord went through in those hours in the Garden before his arrest. Artists such as Bellini, Caravaggio, Blake, Hoffman and Gaugin and many more have attempted the task of communicating to us by brush stroke what Jesus experienced that night. While it is an interesting exercise to google the vast array of such portrayals on the net, I don’t intend tonight to provide a summary of such varied interpretations of the Agony of Christ. Instead, I want to comment on the perspectives of just one artist – Eugene Delacroix [1798-1863]. I say ‘perspectives’ plural because, over the course of his adult lifetime, Delacroix had painted three distinct perspectives of the agony of Christ. Those three are copied in the printed version of this sermon.

In the first, painted about 1827, Delacroix’s Christ was portrayed in a pose resonant with most artistic representations of that incident – he painted Jesus leaning back on his elbow with hand reaching up to the heavens, his face dark in thought but hardly distressed, and with angels accompanying him. In the second, completed about a decade later, a more dishevelled Christ was shown; in this painting Jesus sat disconsolately on the ground, his hands now pleadingly open before him in a seeming gesture of ‘Why?’; and this time, reflecting God’s silence, there were no angels were in attendance. The third version, painted two years before Delacroix died, showed Christ in a state of total collapse, lying on the ground with his hands and arms only just managing to prevent him lying totally prone; Jesus no longer reached up, and he was profoundly alone. Whilst the public persona of Delacroix over these three or so decades was that of a romantic school artist who painted heroic secular images of revolution (notably his painting ‘Liberty leading the people’), it seems his private reflections were taking him in a different and darker directions.

Daniel Larkin, writing about Delacroix, has written:

Few artists of the early C19 understood melancholia as profoundly as Delacroix. Only Francisco Goya could stand as his rival when it came to such powerful depictions of defeat, loss, sadness, bitterness and resignation.

Perhaps it was such personal experience of melancholia that enabled Delacroix to understand the anguished spirit of others. In 1830 Delacroix had written this about Michelangelo:

I picture him late at night, struck with fear at the spectacle of his creations, rejoicing in the secret terror that he wanted to awaken in men’s souls … it was then this expression of a profound melancholy, or perhaps his agitation, his dread, in thinking of his future life: … the fear of an obscure and frightening future.

So too perhaps it was this melancholic temperament which enabled a maturation of his understanding of what Jesus confronted that night in the Garden; developing from his first somewhat clichéd painting of a quietly troubled Christ through to his last, gut-wrenchingly dramatic portrayal of the Son of God – the Son of Man – almost clawing the earth in his distress.

But why? Why had Jesus been reduced to such a state of existential distress? Jesus had known the plan; indeed, after the deep turmoil of his distress, Jesus readily acknowledged God’s purpose – ‘Not my will but thine’. Nevertheless, despite knowing the plan and finally accepting it, Jesus had thrown himself to the ground not in histrionics but sincere distress.

The ‘but why?’ question is therefore that which thrusts itself before us every time we hear this story. In order to answer it, we are called to move the reading from a narrative to an imperative so that it may speak to us and our own condition.

In his book The Agony of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Father Padre Pio, C20 saint from Pietralcino, sought to explore this episode of divine and human agony. In his effort to understand that dreadful time in the Garden, Padre Pio understood his own limitations:

Oh that I could penetrate to the innermost recesses of the Heart of Jesus to read there the essence of His bitterness, which brought Him to the point of death in the Garden …

In doing so, he tried to connect himself directly to the story:

… that I could comfort Him in the abandonment by His Father and His own. Oh, that I could unite myself with Him in order to expiate with Him.

Do we read the story of the Agony of Jesus in the same way? Let me put the question another way: as we read this story, are we external observers to the climax of Christ’s passion there in the Garden or are we there in that very moment with him?

Sarah Covington, in her essay The Garden of Anguish: Gethsemane in early modern England, has quoted Bernard of Clairvaux answering that question for his part:

I am the cause of thy sorrows [p287]

She further noted Gertrud Schiller’s view of our co-presence with Christ in that dreadful scene:

The Man of Sorrows thus conveys new emotional qualities such as ‘intimacy, compassion, exaltation and intercession’, but only in order that ‘the suffering Son of God and the sinful man [may] seek one another in their love.’ [p287]

Such comments change how we might look upon the scene of the prone and despairing Christ. Our hearts may melt reading these gospel verses as we, as casual observers, may feel for the humanness of Christ forcing his human fear upon his divine nature and confronting his Father with that fear. Such a picture may enable us to empathise with Christ – sharing a comprehension of his suffering knowing that we too are human. However, Bernard of Clairvaux and Gertrud Schiller challenge us from a totally different direction.

The scene they would have us see is that of a broken Christ, broken because of us and soon, in the looming hours ahead, to be broken by us. In their view, we are now no longer audience but actors in the dark drama of the moment.

The poet and priest George Herbert [1593-1633] in his poem The Agony invited each of us to that moment:

Who would know Sin, let him repair

Unto mount Olivet, there shall he see

A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,

His skin, his garments bloody be.

What might we then expect if we repair ourselves to that scene? St John of the Cross, the C16 Spanish mystic, during imprisonment by the Inquisition, wrote Night of the Soul about being in a garden of his own despairing gethsemane. Here is an extract from that poem:

O guiding night!

O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.

St John of the Cross had repaired to that Garden where Jesus lay and there found salvation from his own night of despair. There he encountered God reaching out to him, and like Jesus, deep within himself now felt the outreaching love of God, transforming the darkness into a ‘night that has united the lover with his beloved’. It was at just such a moment Jesus had then said:

Not what I want, but what you want. [v36]

Those words of Jesus had been uttered through no sense of defeat but were an affirmation that the hand of God would bless; and not just bless him, who still had a crucifixion to endure, but bless all those whose despair had brought Christ not just to his knees but collapsed on the ground out of his love for them.

Shortly we will hear the Choir sing tonight’s Anthem – these lines stand out:

It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed:

Because his compassions fail not.

They are new every morning.

In the Gregorian chant there is a line which translates as:

Remember, O Lord, Thy bowels of compassion.  

That night, in the Garden of Gethsemane, through the bowels of his agony, Jesus’ despair for us was answered and so His Father’s compassions failed not.

Over years of reflecting upon that night in the Garden of Gethsemane, Eugene Delacroix came to a discomforting understanding of the agony of Christ. May we too come to a discomforting understanding as we discover ourselves the focus of Christ’s agony, for then we may find revealed to us:

(A) night more lovely than the dawn!
(A) night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,

Which can make us worthy of the price of Christ’s agony. May we not sleep as the disciples had done that night in the Garden but remain awake to his agony.