The Power of Prayer and the Agony in the Garden

This past Saturday, I went to the Arlington Diocese’s second annual Men’s Conference.  It was great, and one of my favorite priests, Fr. Arne Panula, spoke on the subject of “Building Your Prayer Life.”  He gave an incredible example on the power of prayer from Scripture.

On the night of Holy Thursday, Jesus is physically and emotionally exhausted.  He’s got good reason to be.  The people of Jerusalem who He loved in a special way, celebrated His entry into their city, but only because they thought He was going to be a military leader (Luke 19:28-44).  Jesus, seeing their misguided praise of Him, and knowing what would happen both to Him and to Jerusalem, actually begins to weep, and tries once more to warn them (Luke 19:41-44).  The Pharisees, meanwhile, are plotting to kill Him (Luke 19:47).  His own Disciples are pretty clueless, and spend the Last Supper arguing over who’s the greatest (Luke 22:24), and on the Disciples, Judas, gets up to betray Jesus in the middle of the meal (John 13:30).  In short, those who He’s trying to help either don’t get it, or are trying to betray or kill Him, or both.  In addition to all of this, He knows with Divine certainty that the next day, He’s going to be tortured and killed.

Matthew then describes the events after the meal, into the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-45):

36 Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
43 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.
45 Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”
St. Luke, a physician (Colossians 4:14), includes a medical detail that the other Gospels omit. Namely, that when Jesus goes to pray in the Garden that night, “being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Luke 22:44).  This is a rare medical condition called hematohidrosis, brought about by extreme stress, and it speaks to the depth of our Lord’s agony.
While the three Synoptic Gospels focus on the intensity of Jesus’ agony and sorrow (something which must have been quite shocking to the Disciples), John’s Gospel tells us what happens next (John 18:2-8):

2 Now Judas, who betrayed him, knew the place, because Jesus had often met there with His disciples. 3 So Judas came to the garden, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and the Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons.
4 Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to Him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?”
5 “Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied.
“I AM HE,” Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.) 6 When Jesus said, “I AM HE,” they drew back and fell to the ground.
7 Again He asked them, “Who is it you want?”
“Jesus of Nazareth,” they said.
8 Jesus answered, “I told you that I AM HE. If you are looking for Me, then let these men go.” 9 This happened so that the words He had spoken would be fulfilled: “I have not lost one of those You gave Me.”

Fr. Arne describes Jesus here as a “Tower of Strength.”  And rightly so.  Jesus speaks with such force that Judas, the Jewish officials, and the Roman soldiers all fall to the ground. Never mind that they’re a mob with torches, lanterns and weapons! Not only that, but Jesus successfully negotiates the release of the other Apostles.  Remember that from a Roman perspective, these men are a band of revolutionaries who want to overthrow Caesar.  Yet instead of capturing and executing them as they were supposed to, the mob lets everyone but Jesus go.  Peter, wide awake now, is so emboldened by Jesus’ strength here that he acts impulsively, cutting off a servant named Malchus’ ear (John 18:10), which Jesus miraculously heals (Luke 22:51).  Peter then decides to follow Jesus and the mob at a distance (Matthew 26:58).

Fr. Arne asks, “What brought Jesus from where He was at the start of His time in the Garden, emotionally and physically exhausted, to the tower of strength that He was by the end of His few hours there?” The answer, of course, is prayer.  Jesus prayed, and was strengthened.  Even comparing His first (Mt. 26:39) and second and third prayer (Mt. 26:42-43), we see a difference.  Jesus already has transitioned towards total acceptance of the Crucifixion, and resolve in facing His Death. Compare this with the Disciples, particularly Peter.  Jesus warns Peter personally that it’s important that he pray, lest he fall into temptation (Matthew 26:40-41).  Peter sleeps instead (Mt. 26:43).  Then, emboldened by Jesus’ leadership, but without a foundation in prayer, Peter charges forward — into temptation — and crumples (Mt. 26:69-75).

Fr. Arne’s point is clear.  It’s great that we’re inspired and passionate about Christ, but if we don’t take the time to pray, we’re not going to have the foundation needed to resist temptation.  At this point, he invoked Jesus’ parable from Matthew 7:24-27,

24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

As Father noted, both houses face the torrential storm: the pouring rains, the rising streams, and the winds beating against the houses.  A strong prayer life doesn’t prevent us from being challenged, even battered, by life. But it does give us the necessary foundation to get through it.  And Jesus is a living testament to this fact even in His own life.


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