Best of Daily Reflections: Experiencing the Prayerful Agony of Jesus, Part 2
He walked away, about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed.
From the top of the Mount of Olives, Jesus “walked away about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed” (22:41). Indeed, if you had a strong arm, you could throw a stone from the top of the Mount down to the Garden of Gethsemane. (By the way, the Greek literally says Jesus went away “about a throw of a stone.”)
Luke is clear that Jesus knelt when he prayed in the Garden. The original language emphasizes that Jesus put his knees on the ground, but it doesn’t tell us anything more about his physical posture. The Gospel of Mark says that Jesus “fell to the ground” (14:35). Matthew records that Jesus “bowed with his face to the ground” (literally, “fell on his face,” 26:39). Some Christians believe that they have identified the precise rock where Jesus prayed. It is in the Church of All Nations (also known as the Basilica of Agony) in the Garden of Gethsemane. Others place the exact location of Jesus’ prayer in other locations nearby.
When you read that Jesus “knelt down and prayed,” what do you picture? I immediately see a painting by Heinrich Hofmann, “Christ in Gethsemane.” (You can see a photo of that painting here.) This immensely popular painting has influenced millions of Christians in America and throughout the world. I had a small wooden plaque of this painting by my bedside when I was young. In Hofmann’s portrayal, a calm, European-looking Jesus kneels reverently beside a rock. As he gazes up into the heavens, a ray of light from the sky enlightens his face, complementing the halo around his head. This Jesus seems to be peaceful and resolute, ready to die for the sins of the world.
Though I once loved Hofmann’s painting, I now believe it misses the emotional intensity and theological power of the scene. Matthew and Mark have Jesus falling down in prayer. Luke adds that he prayed fervently, “and he was in such agony of spirit that his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood” (22:44). The Passion of the Christ captured this kind of agonizing prayer in the garden. So does a small sculpture in the wall outside of the Church of All Nations (you can see it here). Here, Jesus is not praying placidly with his eyes filled by a heavenly beam. Rather, he is face-down upon a rock, in obvious distress.
When we take seriously the physical posture and the emotional state of Jesus, we realize just how deeply troubled he was. We glimpse the reality of his humanity. We sense, perhaps in new ways, the horror of what lay before him. We also realize we have a Savior who understands our weakness, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, grief just like ours, and so much worse.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: How have you envisioned Jesus in the garden? What has shaped your perception? How does the image of an anguished, agonizing Jesus impress you? When you go through hard times, do you believe that Jesus can relate to your suffering? Does this make a difference to you?
PRAYER: Dear Lord, I must confess that it’s easy for me to minimize your struggle. You are the Son of God, for goodness’ sake (or should I rather say, for God’s sake.) You knew that you were about to die. You also knew that you would be resurrected. So I can overlook what is so plain in Scripture. I can neglect how you actually prayed in great agony.
Help me, I pray, to pay close attention to Scripture. Help me to envision accurately what you experienced that night in the garden. Help me to sense in a new way the reality of your humanness and the genuineness of your struggle to embrace your destiny. Keep me from minimizing that which was so real and painful and horrific to you.
O Lord, thank you for knowing how it feels to struggle and suffer. Thank you for being, literally, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. And, more than this, thank you for enduring such difficulties so that you might save humanity, including me. Amen.