For Christians, this week is the holiest of all weeks. And yet, it is holy in a most ironic way. In this week, those who follow Jesus seek to remember and commemorate the final days and hours of Jesus’s life are commemorated. They are holy days as we struggle to understand the suffering and agony of Jesus. Beginning with Maundy Thursday and traversing through the horror of Good Friday and Holy Saturday, Christians attempt to comprehend and remember the passion of Jesus in his suffering prior to celebrating his resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday.
His final hours were spent in prayer. Yet the Gospel of Luke tells us that there was nothing unusual about him being in prayer: “And he came out and proceeded as was his custom to the Mount of Olives…and when he arrived at the place…he withdrew from them…and knelt down and began to pray” (Luke 22:39-41). As was his custom, he would go to pray. We do not often hear the content of these prayer times, but in this case, in these final hours, we see him gripped with passion. Luke tells us that he was in such agony that his sweat “became like drops of blood” (22:44). Modern medicine surmises that under extreme conditions of duress, capillaries in the head burst forth drops of blood literally pouring out of the skin like perspiration. Whatever the case, Jesus had never been in this much distress before—even in his wilderness testing—we have no other portrait of such extreme duress in prayer.
And being in agony he was praying very fervently, Luke says. I’ve often wondered about the nature of these agonized prayers. Was Jesus in agony over the physical torture and death he was about to endure? Was he in agony over his disciples; one who would betray him and the others who would all abandon him in his time of need? Certainly, the latter is a real possibility as he exhorts his disciples at least two times to watch and pray that you might not enter into temptation (Luke 22:40; 46). I’m sure he prayed fervently because of both of these reasons.
Whatever the reason for his agony, Jesus’s humanity was on full display in his prayer. He did not want to walk the path that was unfolding before him, and he pleads with God to provide an alternative path, a “plan B” as it were. Matthew’s gospel reveals more of his struggle. He tells his disciples, “I am deeply grieved, to the point of death. Then he prays to God, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but your will be done” (Matthew 26:38-39). The way of suffering unfolded before him and he would go to his death, despite his anguished prayers for another way.
As I meditate on Jesus’s passionate prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, his human agony and suffering on full display, I am reminded how often I also long for God to provide another way for me in the face of suffering. All Christians struggle with following Jesus down the via dolorosa, the way of suffering. We are more comfortable with following Jesus in his victorious into Jerusalem to be enthroned and crowned the king. We often clamor for that kind of victory borne out in our lives as the absence of difficulty or struggle. We are tempted towards the glory and the grandeur of Palm Sunday. But as author Kim Reisman has noted, “[T]hat is not the Jesus way. God doesn’t dispense with death. God resurrects us from it. The truth is that the Jesus way isn’t about God taking pain away from God’s people; it’s about God providing us with strength, courage, and meaning, with abundant life, often in the midst of pain.”(1)
I am always thankful then, for this very human portrait of Jesus struggling with his own suffering in agony. Jesus struggled as I do. And while I often reluctantly say to God, “Not my will but yours be done,” I put my faith in the God who is able to transform the evil of suffering and affliction into salvation and death into life for all who believe.
Margaret Manning is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington.
(1) Kimberly Dunnam Reisman, Following At a Distance (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 75.