Near the foot of the Mount of Olives lies a small olive grove named Gethsemane, which literally means ‘Olive Press”. We don’t know exactly where the actual garden is as there are still a number of olive groves in the area until the present day. Various branches of the church have laid claim to what they believe is the actual spot of Jesus’ agonising prayer but, we simply don’t know. What we do know for certain is that it was a much-loved place for Jesus, and his followers, to pray as the Apostle John tells us.
Judas, his betrayer, knew the place because Jesus and his disciples went there often. – John 18:2
It was likely a secluded spot with a fence encircling a small woodland of olive trees and possibly a hollow holding an olive press used each autumn at harvest time. It may well have belonged to a Jesus follower who had dedicated it to be a place of rest, sleep and prayer for the master and his disciples. Prayer in the garden was certainly not a new experience for the tiny community of believers and in some small way the familiarity would have brought some comfort to Jesus as previous times of prayer, hearing the voice of the father, would have been stimulated by the well-known surroundings.
Someone once said: ‘Learn to hear the voice of God in the calm so you will recognise it in the storm.’ This night, of all nights, a storm was raging in Jesus’ world as the immanence of the next few hours weighed heavily on Jesus’ body and spirit. He steps into the garden leaving eight of his disciples outside bringing with him his inner circle of James, John, and touchingly he brings Peter whose head is still spinning having been told only a short time ago he would turn his back and walk out on his master.
In the next few paragraphs, we see Jesus in a way we have never seen him before in any of the stories that have been written about his life. Jesus often referred to himself as the ‘son of man’ emphasising his humanity. In the garden we see it pulsing through his agonising prayer time as God’s plan and God’s will become clearer and more immediate than ever before for Mary’s son. Matthew records that he was ‘plunged into an agonizing sorrow’ to the extent that he said, ‘This sorrow is crushing my life out.’ Jesus was not serenely floating over all his problems without a care in his world. His humanity was distressed, troubled, pained and grieving. His suffering was real and overwhelming.
He knew Judas was on the way to bring his treachery to a devastating conclusion. He knew his friend Peter would fall at the first hurdle. In fact, all his followers would disappear. He knew the High Priest would condemn him and Pilate sentence him. His enemies would torture and ridicule him. Soldiers would hold him down and drive spikes through his hands and feet and many who cheered him just a few days before would jeer and spit on him as he struggled for breath on a cross. Did he see the tsunami of God’s Wrath coming towards him because of our sin? All this and more he would face alone, more isolated than any other human has ever been, as the Father turned his loving face away from The Son causing Jesus to later cry out ‘My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?’
Eighteenth-century prolific hymn writer James Montgomery penned over 400 songs in his lifetime. The words of one specifically centres on our saviours suffering in the olive grove the night our saviour was betrayed,
Go to dark Gethsemane,
You who feel the tempter’s power;
Your Redeemer’s conflict see;
Watch with Him one bitter hour;
Turn not from His griefs away;
Learn of Jesus Christ to pray.
In this world our suffering is real. The Holy Spirit seems at pains to reveal the extent of the ‘son of man’s’ anguish to us in holy scripture. Whilst understanding the why behind the suffering of Jesus, we are yet to find a satisfactory answer to ‘our why’ in suffering. But let us ‘Learn of Jesus Christ’ and pray like we never have before.
Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio writes about Francis of Assisi :
His life indicates to us that if we persevere in prayer we will find God in the centre of our lives and the bitter will become sweet; however, if we stay on the plain of mediocrity then the bitter may remain bitter. To trust in the power of God’s grace through darkness, isolation, bitterness, and rejection is to be on the way to becoming prayer because it is the way to freedom in God. For prayer, that deep relationship of God breathing in us, requires change and conversion. And where there is change, there is the letting go of the old and the giving birth to the new. To pray is to be open to the new, to the future in God. The way to life passes through change and ultimately the change from death to life. Prayer is the way to life because in prayer we are invited to change and to grow in love.
More From This Series
View the other Devotionals in our “For the Joy” series