Watching with Christ in the Garden
The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) give us a penetrating account of Christ’s agony in the garden shortly before His arrest. I would like to begin with the narrative as found in Matthew, and then go over its meaning according to St. Thomas’s biblical commentaries and his quotations from the Church Fathers. I am also including the context in which the agony is found. So let us begin by reading the text:
And a hymn having been said, they went out to Mount Olivet. Then Jesus said to them: you will all be scandalized in me this night. For it is written: I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed (Zech 13:7). But after I will be risen again, I will go before you into Galilee. And Peter answering, said to Him: although all will be scandalized in you, I will never be scandalized. Jesus said to him: amen I say to you, that in this night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times. Peter said to him: even if I must die with you, I will not deny you. And in like manner said all the disciples. Then Jesus came with them into a country place which is called Gethsemane; and He said to His disciples: sit here, while I go over there and pray. And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, He began to grow sorrowful and to be sad. Then He said to them: my soul is sorrowful even unto death: stay here, and watch with me. And going a little further, He fell upon his face, praying, and saying: my Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me. Nevertheless not as I will, but as you will. And He came to his disciples, and found them asleep, and He said to Peter: what? Could you not watch one hour with me? Watch and pray that you do not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. Again the second time, He went and prayed, saying: my Father, if this chalice may not pass away, but I must drink it, your will be done. And He came again and found them sleeping: for their eyes were heavy. And leaving them, He went again: and He prayed the third time, saying the same word. Then He came to His disciples, and said to them: sleep now and take your rest; behold the hour is at hand, and the Son of man will be betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us go: behold he is at hand who will betray me. (Matthew 26:30-46)
The first thing we should notice in this passage is that Jesus and the disciples begin by going to the Mount of Olives (or Mount Olivet), and it is there, on the Mount of Olives, that Jesus foretells that they will all be scandalized at Him, while immediately afterward also telling them that He will rise again.
And here on the Mount, Peter responds that although all others are scandalized at Jesus, he, Peter, will not be: “even if I must die with you, I will not deny you. And in like manner said all the disciples.”
Now they arrive at Gethsemane, and the agony is about to begin. Aquinas explains that Jesus “declares His intention of praying: and He said to his disciples: sit here, while I go over there and pray.” St. Thomas points out that “here [St. John] Damascene raises a question. Prayer is an ascent into God, but Christ’s intellect was [already] joined to God [in Incarnation]; how then was God, who did this, in need [of prayer]?
“So [St. Thomas answers] let it be said that [Jesus] did not pray for his own sake, but for our benefit. And this benefit is of two kinds, for He prayed [first] in order to give us an example, that in affliction we may have recourse to the Lord; in my trouble I cried to the Lord (Ps 119:1). [Second] Likewise, [He prayed] to show that He was from another [that is, from the Father], and that He had everything from another; hence He says, the Son cannot do anything of Himself (John 5:19). And in the same book, I do nothing of myself (John 8:28).”
“Therefore [Christ] gives an example of praying, and how one should pray. For the first condition for prayer is that it should be a humble prayer, which is indicated because he went into a valley; the prayer [pleas] of the humble and the meek has always pleased you (Judith 9:16). Likewise, [prayer] should be devoted; hence he was in Gethsemane, namely in the ‘valley of richness’…. Likewise, that it be solitary, … enter into your chamber, and, having shut the door, pray to your Father in secret (Matt 6:6).” Now, of course this does not mean that that there should not also be public prayers, such as the Mass, but that prayer, even vocal prayers, need this interior aspect, carried out with devotion, rather than done for show.
“It says therefore, and taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee. [Christ] took three men with him. And why those rather than the others? One reason is because they were stronger, and since weakness scandalized all of them, he willed to show his weakness to these rather than to the others. Likewise, he had shown them glory [they were the same ones present at his Transfiguration]; so he wished that, as they had seen his glory, so they should see weakness, that they might know that neither did the weakness swallow up the glory, nor the glory the weakness.”
“There follows the description of the weakness. And first, by deed/fact; second, by word.” “With regard to the first [showing weakness in fact or deed], he began to grow sorrowful and to be sad. There are two errors to be avoided here. For some have said that he sorrowed according to the divinity; but this cannot be, because he sorrowed because he was passible [able to suffer], but the divinity was not passible [not able to suffer]. Also, the opinion of the Arians, and at another time the Eunomians, was that there was no soul in Christ, but the Word in place of [his] soul. And why did they say this? So that they could refer everything having to do with defect [weakness] to the Word, to show that he was less than the Father. And this is false. Therefore he suffered according as he was able to suffer, that is, according to his [human] soul.” Not as God. He did not suffer as God, but as man.
“Then he said to them: my soul is sorrowful even unto death. He does not say: I am sorrowful, because ‘I’ points to the person [and Christ is a divine person], but he did not sorrow insofar as he was [God] the Word, but according to his [human] soul; therefore the error of Arius and of Apollinaris is excluded; likewise the error of Manichaeus, who held that he did not truly suffer. Hence it is clear [that] he suffered [in his human nature, not his divine nature].”
“Then he excludes the others, [telling them] stay here, and watch with me.” [Here we see his solitude in prayer.]
Now we saw that there are three traits or conditions to Christ’s prayer. First condition/trait of Christ’s prayer: With regard to solitude in prayer, the Gospel of Matthew says “going a little further, because he [Jesus] separated himself even from those whom he had chosen; …. But notice that he does not go much further, but a little, that one may notice that he is not far off from those who call upon him; the Lord is near unto all those who call upon him (Ps 144:18). Also, that they might see him praying, and receive the form [of teaching]. [All of Christ’s actions are instruction for us.]
Second condition/trait of Christ’s prayer: “So there follows humility: he fell upon his face, by which he showed an example of humility. And first, for the sake of common humility, for humility is necessary for prayer [in general]; the prayer of him who humbles himself, will pierce the clouds (Sir 35:21). Also for the sake of a particular humility, namely Peter’s, because he had said, even if I must die with you, I will not deny you. So the Lord fell down, to signify that one should not confide in his own strength; above, learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart (Matt 11:29).”
Now in St. Thomas’s Catena Aurea, he cites Origen, an early Greek Christian writer, as explaining that Jesus “took with Him the self-confident Peter, and the others, that they might see Him falling on His face and praying, and might learn not to think great things, but little things of themselves, and not to be hasty in promising, but careful in prayer.”
“Likewise, the [third] condition of piety or devotion is indicated, when he says, my Father. For it is necessary for one who prays that he pray out of devotion; hence it says, my Father, for he himself is a Son in a singular way, and we [are sons] through adoption [as united to the mystical body of Christ]; [so Christ tells St. Mary Magdalene] I ascend to my Father and to your Father (John 20:17), as though to say, mine in one way and yours in another.”
Note that there are two interior acts of the virtue of religion: devotion and prayer. There are also Exterior acts of religion (which must include interior acts if they are to be authentic.)
So what is devotion? “Devotion is an act of the will to the effect that one surrenders himself readily to the service of God [now this service is not necessarily external, but it is the interior will to surrender oneself to God’s service, the desire to do God’s will]. Now every act of the will proceeds from some consideration, since the object of the will is a good understood [when we, using our intellect, consider something to be good, our will moves towards it]…. Consequently, meditation is a cause of devotion, insofar as through meditation one conceives the thought of surrendering oneself to God’s service” (ST II-II, q. 82, a. 3, resp.)
And regarding this devotion, Thomas cites Origen, who says that Jesus “shows His devotion in His prayer, and as being beloved and well-pleasing to His Father,[when] He adds, “Not as I will, but as thou wilt,” teaching us that we should pray, not that our own will, but that God’s will, should be done.
And as He began to have fear and sorrow, He prays accordingly that the cup of His Passion may pass from Him, yet not as He wills, but as His Father wills; wills, that is, not according to His Divine and impassible Substance, but according to His human and weak nature. For in taking upon Himself the nature of human flesh, He fulfilled all the properties of it [that is, as really human, Jesus had a natural repugnance to death, and experienced emotions], that it might be seen that He had flesh not in appearance only, but in reality. [And this is to teach us that] The believer indeed must in the first instance be loth to incur pain, seeing it leads to death, and he is a human being of flesh; but if it be God’s will, one acquiesces because he is a believer. For as we ought not to be too confident that we may not seem to make a boast of our own strength [as Peter did]; so neither ought we to be distrustful, lest we should seem to charge God our helper with weakness.” That is, sometimes we act as if God didn’t have the power to save us, but we ought not to distrust his providence.
Aquinas continues, “It is agreed that Christ had the natural will of a man, and this is what is such as to flee from death: therefore, that he might show that he was [truly] man, he asked that the chalice pass from him… Similarly, he said, if it be possible, let this chalice pass, i.e., [the chalice meaning] the passion.”
“Nevertheless not as I will, but as you will, [in other words,] if it fits with your justice [Father], I do will it; this is why he says, not as I will. Hence he touches on [the fact that there are] two wills [in Christ]: one which He had from the Father insofar as [Christ] is God [so He has a divine will], …. Also, another will which He had insofar as He is man [a human will]: and He submitted this will to the Father in all things, by this giving us an example, that we might submit our will to God’s will; I came down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent me (John 6:38), the Father.”
“When He had prayed, He came to his disciples, and found them asleep. And there is a literal reason for this, for a part of the night had already passed, so they were heavy with sleep. Another reason was that they were sorrowful, and sleep easily creeps over such men…. Likewise, it signifies that as Christ went up to the passion for us, many slept, just as [in the parable of the virgins who fell asleep when the Bridegroom was delayed], they all slumbered and slept, …. (Matt 25:5).”
“And [Jesus] said to Peter: what? Could you not watch one hour with me? But why, St. Thomas asks, did He speak especially to Peter? The reason is that Peter had boasted more of himself, that he would stay near him in his need: so there was already a presage of his fall. Could you not watch one hour with me? And why did He speak to everyone after that? Because they had all made promises along with Peter; for it said above, And in like manner said all the disciples.”
Then Jesus gives them this warning: “Watch and pray that you do not enter into temptation. …[It is as if Jesus were to say,] You have confidence in yourselves; but you should flee to the intercession of prayer; hence, pray that you do not enter into temptation. …[Earlier in teaching them the Our Father, Christ] teaches all [of us] to pray this [way]: and lead us not into temptation (Matt 6:13). And He puts watchfulness first, for preparation; before prayer prepare your soul (Sir 18:23), i.e. prudence is necessary.”
“The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak; as though to say: the spirit is ready to do what you promised, but still prayer is needed not on account of the spirit, but on account of the flesh, which is weak; this is why watchfulness is necessary.” Because we are weak.
And St. Thomas explains that “there can be two sorts of weakness. One, an evil weakness which inclines toward sin…. Another, a good weakness, according to which the body fails in readiness… [but our spirits remain willing]. And for this reason one should keep watch, … as one who has a great treasure diligently watches, to guard it.”
“Again the second time, He went and prayed. Here He prays a second time. According to [St. John] Chrysostom, He prays a second time to show more strongly the truth of His human nature.” [by showing that human weakness and need for prayer.]
“What He says, if this chalice may not pass away, but I must drink it, your will be done, can be explained in [different] ways. First, in this way. [Earlier], He had prayed with a condition [if it be possible that the cup might pass], but here, since it had been made certain that it could not be otherwise than that He drink it, He asks that [the Father’s] will be done; as though to say: if it cannot be otherwise than that I will pass over to immortal glory…. But it could not have passed from Himself and from His members; hence if He did not drink it, it would not pass from His members. He wishes therefore to say: if it cannot pass from me, and from my members [that is, the members of the mystical Body of Christ], your will be done.” In other words, we are all in Christ, just as we were all in some sense in Adam, and received original sin from Adam, so, as St. Paul says, we are all members of Christ’s mystical body, and so just as Christ passes through death to life by drinking the chalice of his passion, so we also will pass through death to life in Him. So Christ drinks the cup, not because He has to, but for our sakes. So in His drinking the chalice, we drink it with Him.
And St. Thomas points to “[St.] Hilary explains it this way: if it cannot come about that the other saints drink the chalice of the passion except by my example, your will be done; for the other saints took example from Christ’s passion. He wishes therefore to say: if it cannot pass from me into the disciples unless I drink it, that they might be made stronger for drinking it, your will be done.” So Christ gave us an example, and not only an external example, but also the power to be able to drink the cup with the help of his grace.
“Next the disciples’ second sleep is set down: and he came again and found them sleeping: for their eyes were heavy with sleep, that is, owing to sleepiness, and owing to sorrow.”
The Gospel of Matthew “says, and leaving them, he went again: and he prayed the third time, saying the same word. But what does it mean that he prayed three times? [various possible interpretations:] He prayed three times to free us from present, past, and future evils.
Also, to teach that our prayer should be directed to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; hence it is always said in the prayers of the Church: glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Also, that by a triple prayer he might unloose Peter’s triple denial; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail (Luke 22:32).”
“Then he came to his disciples, and said to them: [Sleep now and take your rest]. And first, he concedes sleep; second, he arouses [them], at rise, let us go.”
“Then he gives the reason: behold the hour is at hand. He did not have to do this out of some necessity, but by the divine decree; they sought therefore to apprehend him: but no man laid hands on him, because his hour was not yet come (John 7:30). But [now] this hour had come; Jesus knowing that his hour was come, that he would pass out of this world to the Father (John 13:1).”
“And when he says, rise, he shows his own readiness; hence John says that he went out to them (John 18:4) [to those who were coming to arrest him].
And why [should they rise]? Behold he is at hand who will betray me.”
So let’s look more deeply at prayer and meditation itself. Now Aquinas explains that “in the consideration of Christ’s Passion there is something that causes sorrow, namely, the human defect [our own sin], the removal of which made it necessary for Christ to suffer [Christ suffered for my sin], and there is something that causes joy, namely, God’s loving-kindness to us in giving us such a deliverance.” That is, as Christ tells us in the Gospels, “No greater love is there than this, that one should lay down his life for a friend.” And St. Paul declares, “yet while we were still enemies [after original sin], Christ died for us.”
Two primary considerations that should lead us to God: “The one is the consideration of God’s goodness and loving kindness, according to Ps. 72:28, It is good for me to adhere to my God, to put my hope in the Lord God: and this consideration [of God’s goodness] awakens love which is the proximate cause of devotion.
The other consideration is that of one’s own shortcomings [our weaknesses and failings], on account of which one needs to lean on God, according to Ps. 120:1, 2, I have lifted up my eyes to the mountains, from whence help shall come to me: my help is from the Lord, Who made heaven and earth; and this consideration shuts out presumption by which one is hindered from submitting to God, because he leans on his own strength” (ST II-II, q. 82, a. 3, resp.) We don’t want to be presumptuous, as if we could get to heaven or be holy on our own.
In the prayer that we began this talk with, St. Thomas asks the Lord that “I may not falter whether in prosperity or adversity, that I may not be puffed up in the former, nor depressed in the latter.” It is important in the spiritual life to keep an even keel, a balance. So when there is adversity, and things are difficult, it is helpful at these times to consider God’s goodness and love, that I may have gratitude and love him in return.
And in times of prosperity, when all is going well, as it is easy for us then to fall into presumption or vainglory, thinking we are doing it all on our own, Aquinas explains that it is good to humbly recall our own weakness, failings, and even sins, not so that we become despondent but to remind ourselves that as Christ says in the Gospels, “apart from him we can do nothing,” that is, nothing good. Aquinas teaches that humility involves this recognition of our complete dependence on God, so it is good for us to remember that it is God who gives us every good, and to be grateful for that and give him glory.
Christ says “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Aquinas teaches that Christ as God, is the Truth and the Life, but in his humanity, he is also the Way. That is, as God he is the destination toward which we are journeying, but in his human nature, he shows us how to live our lives, particularly in times of suffering and trial.
So this is the mystery of the Cross. When I bear the Cross with Love, I am following Christ, who said, “Whoever wishes to be my disciple must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me”. Why the Cross? Because the Cross is the way of humility. Humility is truth, truth about the Love of God and my absolute dependence upon Him for every good, and the Truth about myself, my own fragility, weakness, imperfection, and sin. It is not that I embrace evil, but that I embrace the truth about myself, not with despair, but with hope in the One who can save me, who came to save me by dying on the Cross.
And this is the Wisdom of the Cross: Christ has turned the evil that Satan intends on its head. God uses the very things that would otherwise destroy me: my weakness, imperfection, even my sin once I have repented, to instead, redeem me, to purify me, to humble me, to unite me more and more to Himself in Charity, supernatural Love.
So there is no longer any need to be afraid to hear the truth about myself, nor to see the truth more clearly, as St. Paul says, “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10), if only I give myself completely to Christ, who told St. Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).
In embracing the Cross, I am embracing the One whom My soul loves, desires, yearns for. The One who alone has the power to change and transform me, making me like himself, both now in part and then in glory, full union and completion, wholeness and holiness forever.
It is God alone who can save me, purify me, and perfect me, so that I may truly share in His Splendor and Glory. It is the Cross that will teach me the way of true virtue, because on that Cross is Christ, the One who loves me, and desires to raise me up to life, just as he himself rose from the dead, so we too will share in His resurrection. And the blessedness, or beatitude, that we hope to share in heaven, begins already right now here on earth, when we are united to Christ in humility and love. This is the Glory of the Cross.
 Super Mt, c. 26, lect. 5, n. 2218.
 Super Mt, c. 26, lect. 5, n. 2218.
 Super Mt, c. 26, lect. 5, n. 2219.
 Super Mt, c. 26, lect. 5, n. 2221.
 Super Mt, c. 26, lect. 5, n. 2222.
 Super Mt, c. 26, lect. 5, n. 2223.
 Super Mt, c. 26, lect. 5, n. 2224.
 Super Mt, c. 26, lect. 5, n. 2228.
 Super Mt, c. 26, lect. 5, n. 2230.
 CA in Mt, c. 26, lect. 11.
 Super Mt, c. 26, lect. 5, n. 2230.
 CA in Mt, c. 26, lect. 11.
 Super Mt, c. 26, lect. 5, n. 2232.
 Super Mt, c. 26, lect. 5, n. 2232.
 Super Mt, c. 26, lect. 5, n. 2234.
 Super Mt, c. 26, lect. 5, n. 2235.
 Super Mt, c. 26, lect. 5, n. 2236.
 Super Mt, c. 26, lect. 5, n. 2237.
 Super Mt, c. 26, lect. 5, n. 2237.
 Super Mt, c. 26, lect. 5, n. 2238.
 Super Mt, c. 26, lect. 5, n. 2239.
 Super Mt, c. 26, lect. 5, n. 2239.
 Super Mt, c. 26, lect. 5, n. 2240.
 Super Mt, c. 26, lect. 5, n. 2242.
 Super Mt, c. 26, lect. 5, n. 2243.
 Super Mt, c. 26, lect. 5, n. 2245.
 Super Mt, c. 26, lect. 5, n. 2246.
 ST II-II, q. 82, a. 3, ad 1.