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Meditation on the Passion

By Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap. 
Lenten meditations for Pontifical Household
"And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly" (Luke 22:44) 
Jesus in Gethsemane
Baptized in his death 

In the Advent meditations, I tried to bring to light the need we have at present to rediscover the "kerygma," that is, that original core of the Christian message in the presence of which the act of faith in God normally flowers. This core, the passion and death of Christ, represents its essential element. 

From the objective point of view, or the point of view of faith, it is the resurrection, not the death of Christ, which is the qualifying element: "It is no great thing to believe that Jesus has died," writes St. Augustine, "pagans and reprobates also believe this; all believe it. But what is really great is to believe that he has risen. The faith of Christians is the resurrection of Christ."

[1] But from the subjective point of view or the point of view of life, the Passion, not the Resurrection, is the most important element for us. "Of the three things that constitute the most sacred triduum -- crucifixion, burial and resurrection of the Lord -- we," St. Augustine also wrote, "realize in the present life the meaning of the crucifixion, while we hold by faith and hope what burial and resurrection mean."[2] 

It has been written that the Gospels are "accounts of the Passion preceded by a long Introduction" (M. Kahler). But sadly the latter, which is the most important part of the Gospels, is also the least appreciated in the course of the liturgical year, as it is read only once a year, in Holy Week, when, because of the duration of the rites, it is moreover impossible to pause to comment and explain it. There was a time when preaching on the Passion occupied a place of honor in all popular missions. Today, when these occasions have become rare, many Christians reach the end of their lives without ever having experienced Calvary. 

With our Lenten reflections we intend to fill, at least in some measure, this lacuna. We need to remain a while with Jesus in Gethsemane and on Calvary in order to be prepared for Easter. It is written that there was a miraculous pool in Jerusalem and that the first to plunge into it, when its waters were stirred, was cured. We must now throw ourselves, in spirit, into this pool, or into this ocean, which is the passion of Christ. 

In baptism, we have been "baptized in his death," "buried with him" (Romans 6:3 ff.): That which happened once mystically in the sacrament, must be realized existentially in life. We must give ourselves a salutary bath in the Passion to be renewed, reinvigorated and transformed by it. "I buried myself in the passion of Christ, wrote Blessed Angela of Foligno, and I was given the hope that in it I would find my liberation."[3]

2. Gethsemane, an historical fact 

Our journey through the Passion begins, as that of Jesus, from Gethsemane. Jesus' agony in the Garden of Olives is a fact affirmed in the Gospels on four foundations, that is, by the four evangelists. John, in fact, also speaks of it, in his own way, when he puts on Jesus' lips the words: "Now is my soul troubled (which remind us of the "my soul is sad" of the synoptic Gospels) and the words: "Father, save me from this hour!" (which reminds us of the "remove this cup from me" of the synoptic Gospels (John 12:27 ff.). There is also an echo of it, as we shall see, in the Letter to the Hebrews. 

It is something altogether extraordinary that an event so minutely "apologetic" should have found such an outstanding place in tradition. Only one historical event, strongly affirmed, explains the relevance given to this moment of the life of Jesus. Each one of the evangelists gave the episode a different hue according to his own sensitivity and the needs of the community to which they wrote. But they did not add anything truly "foreign" to the event; rather each one brought to life some of the infinite spiritual implications of the event. They did not do, as we say today, "eis-egesis," but "ex-egesis." 

Those which, according to the letter, are reciprocally contrasting and exclusive affirmations in the Gospels, are not so according to the Spirit. If an external and material coherence is absent, a profound concord, instead, is not lacking. The Gospels are four branches of a tree, separated on the top, but united in the trunk (the common oral tradition of the Church) and, through it, in the root, which is the historical Jesus. The inability of many scholars of the Bible to see things in this light depends, in my judgment, on ignorance in regard to what happens in spiritual and mystical phenomena. They are two worlds governed by different laws. It is as if someone wanted to explore the heavenly bodies with the instruments of submarine exploration. 

An eminent Catholic exegete, Raymond Brown, who was able to combine scientific rigor and spiritual sensitivity in an exemplary way in the study of the Bible, summarizes as follows the content of the initial episode of the Passion: "Jesus who separates himself from the disciples, the agony of his soul when praying that the cup be removed from him, the loving response of the Father who sends an angel to support him, the solitude of the master who three times finds his disciples asleep instead of praying with him, the courage expressed in the final resolution to go out to meet the traitor: Taken from the different Gospels, this combination of human pain, divine support and solitary self-giving has contributed much to make believers in Christ love him, becoming the object of the art of meditation." [4] 

The original core around which the whole scene of Gethsemane developed seems to have been that of the prayer of Jesus. The memory of the struggle of Jesus in prayer in face of the imminence of his Passion, finds its roots in a very ancient tradition, on which Mark, as well as the other sources, depend [5], and it is in this aspect on which we wish to reflect in the present meditation. 

The gestures he makes are those of a person who struggles in mortal anguish: "He fell on the ground," he rises to go where his disciples are, he kneels again, then rises again … he sweats drops of blood (Luke 22:44). From his lips comes the supplication: "Abba, Father! All things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me" (Mark 14:36). The "violence" of the prayer of Jesus in the imminence of his death is highlighted above all in the Letter to the Hebrews, which states that Christ "[i]n the days of his flesh, offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death" (Hebrews 5:7). 

Jesus is alone, before the perspective of a great suffering that is about to befall him. The awaited and feared "hour" of the final combat with the forces of evil, of the great test (peirasmos), has arrived. But the cause of his agony is even more profound: He feels himself burdened with all the evil and indignities of the world. He has not committed this evil, but it is the same, because he has freely assumed it: "He bore our sins in his body" (1 Peter 2:24), that is (according to the meaning this word has in the Bible), in his own person, soul, body and heart at the same time. Jesus is the man "made to be sin," says St. Paul (2 Corinthians 5:21). 

3. Two different ways of struggling with God 

To remove every pretext of the Arian heresy, some ancient Fathers explained the episode of Gethsemane in a pedagogical vein with the idea of "concession" (dispensation): Jesus did not really experience anguish and dread; he only wanted to teach us with prayer how to overcome our human resistances. In Gethsemane, writes St. Hilary of Poitiers, "Christ is not sad for himself, and does not pray for himself, but for those whom he advises to pray with attention, so that the chalice of the Passion will not befall them" [6]. 

After Chalcedon and, especially, after surmounting the Monothelite heresy, the need is no longer felt to take recourse to this explanation. Jesus in Gethsemane does not pray only to exhort us to do so. He prays because, being true man, 'in everything like us, except sin,' he experiences our own struggle in the face of what human nature loathes [7]. 

But, although Gethsemane is not explained only with a pedagogic intention, it is true that such a concern was present in the mind of the evangelists who transmitted the episode to us, and it is important for us to take it up. In the Gospels, the account of an event cannot be separated from the call to imitation. "Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps," says the letter of Peter (1 Peter 2:21).

The word "agony" said of Jesus in Gethsemane (Luke 22:44) must be understood in the original sense of struggle, more than in the present one of agony. The time comes when prayer becomes combat, effort, agony. I am not speaking, at this moment, of the struggle against distractions, namely, the struggle with ourselves. I am speaking of the struggle with God. This occurs when God asks us to do something that our nature is not ready to give him, and when God's action becomes incomprehensible and disconcerting.

The Bible presents another case of struggle with God in prayer and it is very instructive to compare the two episodes. It is Jacob's struggle with God (Genesis 32:23-33). The setting is also very similar. Jacob's struggle takes place at night, on the other side of a ford -- that of Yabboq -- and, similarly, Jesus' takes place at night, on the other side of the torrent of Kidron. Jacob leaves behind his slaves, wives and children, to remain alone; Jesus also moves away from his last three disciples to pray. 

But why does Jacob struggle with God? Here is the great lesson we must learn. "I will not let you go," he says, "until you have blessed me," that is, until you do what I have asked you. He even asks: "Tell me your name." He is convinced that, using the power given by knowing God's name, he will be able to prevail over his brother Laban, who follows him. God blesses him, but does not reveal his name to him. 

Jacob struggles therefore to bend God's will to his. Jesus struggles to bend his human will to God's. He struggles because "the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Mark 14:38). Spontaneously we wonder: Who are we like when we pray in difficult situations? Are we like Jacob if, like the man of the Old Testament when, in prayer, we struggle to induce God to change his decision, more than to change ourselves and accept his will; so that he will remove that cross, rather than to be able to carry it with him. We are like Jesus if, even amid groans and the flesh sweating blood, we seek to abandon ourselves to the will of the Father. The results of the two prayers are very different. God does not give his name to Jacob, but he gives Jesus the name which is above every name (Philippians 2:11).

At times, persevering in this kind of prayer, something strange happens that it is good for us to know in order to not miss out on a valuable moment. The roles are inverted. God becomes the one who prays and one becomes him to whom one prays. We begin to pray to ask God for something and, once in prayer, we realize little by little that it is He, God, who stretches his hand to us asking us for something. We have gone to ask him to take away that thorn of the flesh, that cross, that trial; that he free us from that function, that situation, the closeness of that person … and behold, God asks us in fact to accept that cross, that situation, that function, that person. 

A poem of Tagore helps us to understand what it is about. It is a beggar who speaks and recounts his experience. It goes more or less like this: I had been begging from door to door on the streets of the city, when in the distance a golden carriage appeared. It was that of the King's son. I thought: This is the occasion of my life; and I sat down opening wide my sack, hoping to receive alms without even having to ask for them; beyond that, that riches rain down to the ground around me. But what was my surprise when, reaching me, the carriage halted, the King's son got down and stretching out his hand said to me: "Can you give me something? What a gesture of your royalty, to stretch out your hand!" … Confused and uncertain I took out a grain of rice from my sack, only one, the smallest, and gave it to him. But what sadness when, in the afternoon, searching in my sack, I found a grain of gold, only one, the smallest. I wept bitterly for not having had the courage to give all."[8] 

The most sublime case of this inversion of roles is precisely the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane. He prays that the Father remove the cup from him, and the Father asks him to drink it for the salvation of the world. Jesus gives not one, but all the drops of his blood, and the Father compensates him, constituting him Lord, also as man, so that "just one drop of that blood is enough to save the whole world" (una stilla salvum facere totum mundum quit ab omni scelere).

4. "Being in agony, he prayed more earnestly" 

These words were written by the evangelist Luke (22:44), with a clear pastoral intention: To show the Church of his time, subjected already to situations of struggle and persecution, what the master taught in such hardships. 

Human life is strewn with many little nights of Gethsemane. The causes can be very numerous and different: a threat to our health, a lack of appreciation of the environment, the indifference of someone close to us, the fear of the consequences of some error committed. But there can be more profound causes: the loss of the meaning of God, the overwhelming awareness of one's sin and unworthiness, the impression of having lost the faith. In short, what the saints have called "the dark night of the soul." 

Jesus teaches the first thing to be done in these cases: to turn to God in prayer. We must not deceive ourselves: It is true that Jesus in Gethsemane also sought the company of his friends, but, why did he seek it? Not so that they would say good words to him, to be distracted or consoled. He asks that they support him in prayer, that they pray with him: "So you could not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray" (Matthew 26:40). 

It is important to observe how the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane begins, in the oldest source, which is Mark: "Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee" (Mark 14:36). The philosopher Kierkegaard makes illuminating reflections in this respect. He says: "The decisive question is that for God all things are possible." Man falls into real despair only when he no longer has before him any possibility, any task; when, as one says, there is nothing to do. 

"When one faints," continues Kierkegaard, "one goes in search of smelling salts; but when one despairs, one must say: 'Find an opportunity; find him an opportunity!' The opportunity is the only remedy; give him an opportunity and the one in despair regains his appetite, is reanimated, because if man remains without an opportunity, it is as if he was lacking air. Sometimes the inventiveness of human imagination can suffice to find an opportunity, but in the end, when it is a question of believing, only this serves: that for God all things are possible."[9] 

This possibility, always within reach for a believer, is prayer: "to pray is like breathing."[10] And if one has already prayed without success? Pray again! Pray "prolixius," with greater earnestness. One might object that, however, Jesus was not heard, but the Letter to the Hebrews says exactly the opposite: "He was heard because of his piety." Luke expresses this interior help that Jesus received from the Father with the detail of the angel: "And there an angel appeared to him from heaven, who comforted him" (Luke 22:43). But it was a "prolepsis," an anticipation. The Father's great help was the resurrection. 

God, St. Augustine observed, hears even when he does not hear, that is, when we do not get what we ask for. His delay in responding is also him listening, so that he can give to us more than we asked for. [11] If despite everything we continue praying, it is a sign that he is giving us his grace. If Jesus, at the end of the scene pronounces his resolute: "Rise, let us be going" (Matthew 26:46), it is because the Father has given him more than "twelve legions of angels" to defend him. "He has inspired him," St. Thomas says, "with the will to suffer for us, infusing love in him." [12] 

The capacity to pray is our great resource. Many Christians, including truly committed ones, experience their powerlessness in face of temptations and the impossibility to adapt themselves to the very high exigencies of Gospel morality, and sometimes conclude that they can't, and that it is impossible, to fully live the Christian life. 

In a certain sense, they are right. It is impossible, in fact, on their own, to avoid sin; grace is needed; but in addition -- we are taught -- grace is free and cannot be merited. What should we do then: despair, surrender? The Council of Trent says: "God, giving you the grace, commands you to do what you can and to pray for what you cannot."[13] 

The difference between the law and grace consists precisely in this: In the law, God says to man: "Do what I command you!"; in grace, man says to God: "Give me what you command me!" The law commands, and grace demands. Once he discovered this secret, St. Augustine, who until then had struggled in vain to be chaste, changed his methods; rather than struggling with his body he began to struggle with God. He said: "O God, you command me to be chaste; well then, give me what you command and command me what you will!" [14] And we know he obtained chastity! 

Jesus gave his disciples ahead of time the means and words to unite themselves to him in trials -- the Our Father. There is no state of soul that is not reflected in the Our Father and that does not find in him the possibility of being translated into prayer: joy, praise, adoration, thanksgiving, repentance. But the Our Father is above all the prayer of the hour of trial. There is an obvious similarity between the prayer that Jesus left to his disciples and the one he himself raised to the Father in Gethsemane. In fact, he left us his prayer. 

The prayer of Jesus begins as the Our Father, with the cry: "Abba, Father!" (Mark 14:36), or "My Father" (Matthew 26:39); he continues, as the Our Father, asking that his will be done; he asks that this chalice be removed from him, as in the Our Father we ask to be "delivered from evil"; he asks his disciples to pray so as not to fall into temptation and makes us end the Our Father with the words: "Lead us not into temptation."

What consolation in the hour of trial and darkness, to know that the Holy Spirit continues in us the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane, that the "unspeakable groans" with which the Spirit intercedes for us, in those moments, reach the Father mixed with the "prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears" which the Son raised to Him when "his hour" was upon him! (Hebrews 5:7).

5. In agony until the end of the world

We must take up one last teaching before taking leave of the Jesus of Gethsemane. St. Leo the Great says that "the Passion is prolonged until the end of time."[15] He is echoed by the philosopher Pascal in the famous meditation on the agony of Jesus: 

"Christ will be in agony until the end of the world. During this time, we must not sleep. 

"I was thinking of you in my agony: Those drops of blood I shed for you. 

"Do you always want to cost me the blood of my humanity, without you shedding a tear? 

"I am more of a friend to you than this or that one, because I have done more for you than they, and they would never suffer what I have suffered for you, they would never die for you in the moment of your infidelity and cruelties, as I have done and am willing to do in my chosen ones and in the Holy Sacrament."[16] 

All this is not simply a way of speaking or a psychological constriction; it corresponds mysteriously to the truth. In the Spirit, Jesus is also now in Gethsemane, in the praetorium, on the cross. And not only in his Mystical Body -- in which he suffers, is apprehended or killed, but, in a way that we cannot explain, also in his person. This is true not "despite" his resurrection, but precisely "because" of the resurrection which has made the Crucified One "alive in the centuries." Revelation presents to us the Lamb in heaven "standing," that is, risen and alive, but with the signs of his immolation still visible (Revelation 5:6)

The privileged place where we can find this Jesus "in agony until the end of the world" is the Eucharist. Jesus instituted it immediately before going to the Garden of Olives so that his disciples would be able, in every age, to make themselves "contemporary" with his Passion. If the Spirit inspires in us the desire to be one hour at the side of Jesus in Gethsemane this Lent, the simplest way to achieve it is to spend, on Thursday afternoon, one hour before the Blessed Sacrament. 

Obviously, this must not make us forget the other way in which Christ "is in agony until the end of the world," that is, in the members of his Mystical Body. More than that, if we wish to give solidity to our sentiments toward him, the obligatory way is precisely to do something for someone else that which we cannot do for him who is in glory. 

The word Gethsemane has become a symbol of all moral pain. Jesus has not yet suffered in his flesh, his pain is altogether interior, and yet he only sweat drops of blood here, when it is his heart, and not yet his flesh, which is crushed. The world is very sensitive to bodily pains, it is easily moved by them; it is much less so in face of moral pains, which at times it even derides, interpreting them as hypersensitivity, autosuggestions and whims. 

God takes the pain of the heart seriously and we should too. I think of those who have had their strongest bond in life broken and find themselves alone -- more often women; those who are betrayed in their affection, are anguished in face of something that threatens their lives or a loved one; in whom, unjustly or rightly -- there is not much difference from this point of view -- see themselves pointed out, from one day to the next, for public derision. How many hidden Gethsemanes there are in the world, perhaps under our own roof, next door, or in the next work desk! It is our task to single out someone this Lent and come close to the one who is there. 

May Jesus not have to say among these, his members: "I look for compassion, but there was none, for comforters, but found none" (Psalm 68 [69] :21). On the contrary, let it be that he is able to make us feel in our hearts the word that compensates all: "You did it to me." 

--- --- --- 

[1] St. Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos 120, 6: CCL 40, p. 1791. 

[2] St. Augustine, Cartas, 55, 14, 24 (CSEL 34,2, p. 195). 

[3] Il libro della B. Angela da Foligno, Quaracchi, Grottaferrata 1985, p. 148. 

[4] R. E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah. From Gethsemane to the Grave. A Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels, I, Doubleday, New York, 1994, p. 216. 

[5] Brown, p. 233. 

[6] Cfr. St. Hilary of Poitiers, De Trinitate, X, 37. 

[7] Cfr. St. Maximus Confessor, In Mattheum 26,39 (PG 91, 68). 

[8] Tagore, Gitanjali, 50 (trad. ital. Newton Compton, Roma 1985, p. 91). 


[9] S. Kierkegaard, "La Malattia Mortale," Part I, C, in "Opere," edited by C. Fabro, pp. 639 ff. 

[10] Ibid., p. 640 

[11] St. Augustine, "On the First Letter of John," 6, 6-8 (PL 35, 2023 ff.). 

[12] St. Thomas Aquinas, "Summa Theologiae," III, q. 47, a. 3. 

[13] Denzinger-Schonmetzer, "Enchiridion Symbolorum," No. 1536. 

[14] St. Augustine, "Confessions," X, 29. 

[15] St. Leo the Great, "Sermo," 70, 5: PL 54, 383. 

[16] B. Pascal, "Pensées," n. 553 Br. 


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