The Sadness of Christ
The Sadness, the Weariness, the Fear, and the Prayer of Christ Before He Was Taken Prisoner. Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22, John 18.
"When Jesus had said these things, they recited the hymn and went out to the Mount of Olives."1
Though He had spoken at length about holiness during the supper with His apostles, nevertheless He finished His discourses with a hymn when He was ready to leave. Alas, how different we are from Christ, though we call ourselves Christians: our conversation during meals is not only meaningless and inconsequential (and even for such negligence Christ warned us that we will have to render an accounting)2 but often our table talk is also vicious, and then finally, when we are bloated with food and drink, we leave the table without giving thanks to God for the banquets He has bestowed upon us, with never a thought for the gratitude we owe Him.
[Paul of Saint Mary, Archbishop of] Burgos,3 a learned, holy man, and an outstanding investigator of sacred subjects, gives some convincing arguments to show that the hymn which Christ at that time recited with His apostles consisted of those six psalms which, taken together, are called by the Jews "The Great Alleluia"--namely Psalm 112 and the five following it. For from very ancient times the Jews have followed the custom of reciting these six psalms, under the name "Great Alleluia," as a prayer of thanksgiving at the Passover and certain other principal feasts, and even now they still go through the same hymn on the same feastdays.
But as for us, though we used to say different hymns of thanksgiving and benediction at meals according to the different times of the year, each hymn suited to its season, we have now permitted almost all of them to fall out of use, and we rest content with saying two or three words, no matter what, before going away, and even those few words we mumble merely for form's sake, muttering through our yawns.
"They went out to the Mount of Olives," not to bed. The prophet says, "I arose in the middle of the night to pay homage to you,"4 but Christ did not even lie down in bed. But as for us, I wish we could truly apply to ourselves even this text: "I thought of you as I lay in my bed."5
Moreover, it was not yet summer when Christ left the supper and went over to the mount. For it was not that much beyond the vernal equinox, and that the night was cold is clearly shown by the fact that the servants were warming themselves around charcoal fires in the courtyard of the high priest.6 But this was not the first time that Christ had done this, as the evangelist clearly testifies when he says "as He customarily did."7
He went up a mountain to pray, teaching us by this sign that, when we prepare ourselves to pray, we must lift up our minds from the bustling confusion of human concerns to the contemplation of heavenly things.
Mount Olivet itself also has a mysterious significance, planted as it was with olive trees. For the olive branch was generally used as a symbol of peace, which Christ came to establish between God and man after their long alienation. Moreover, the oil which is produced from the olive represents the anointing by the Spirit, for Christ came and then returned to His Father in order to send the Holy Spirit upon the disciples so that His anointing might then teach them what they would not have been able to bear had it been told them only a short time before.8
"Across the stream Cedron to the outlying estate named Gethsemane."9
The stream Cedron lies between the city of Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives, and the word "Cedron" in Hebrew means "sadness." The name "Gethsemane" in Hebrew means "most fertile valley" or "valley of olives." And so there is no reason for us to attribute it merely to chance that the evangelists recorded these place-names so carefully. For if that were the case, once they had reported that He went to the Mount of Olives, they would have considered that they had said quite enough, if it were not that God had veiled under these place-names some mysterious meanings which attentive men, with the help of the Holy Spirit, would try to uncover because the names were mentioned. And so, since not a single syllable can be thought inconsequential in a composition which was dictated by the Holy Spirit as the apostles wrote it, and since not a sparrow falls to the earth without God's direction,10 I cannot think either that the evangelists mentioned those names accidentally or that the Jews assigned them to the places (whatever they themselves intended when they named them) without a secret plan (though unknown to the Jews themselves) of the Holy Spirit, who concealed in these names a store of sacred mysteries to be ferreted out sometime later.
But since "Cedron" means "sadness," and also "blackness," and since this same word is the name not only of the stream mentioned by the evangelists but also (as is sufficiently established) of the valley through which the stream flows and which separates the city from the estate Gethsemane, these names (if their effect is not blocked by our drowsiness) remind us that while we are exiled from the Lord (as the apostle says)11 we must surely cross over, before we come to the fruitful Mount of Olives and the pleasant estate of Gethsemane, an estate which is not gloomy and ugly to look at but most fertile in every sort of joy, we must (I say) cross over the valley and stream of Cedron, a valley of tears and a stream of sadness whose waves can wash away the blackness and filth of our sins. But if we get so weary of pain and grief that we perversely attempt to change this world, this place of labor and penance, into a joyful haven of rest, if we seek heaven on earth, we cut ourselves off forever from true happiness, and will drown ourselves in penance when it is too late to do any good and in unbearable, unending tribulations as well.
This, then, is the very salutary lesson contained in these placenames, so fittingly chosen are they. But as the words of holy scripture are not tied to one sense only but rather are teeming with various mysterious meanings, these place-names harmonize with the immediate context of Christ's passion very well, as if for that reason alone God's eternal providence had seen to it that these places should long beforehand have been designated by such names as would prove to be, some centuries later, preordained tokens of His passion, as the comparison of His deeds with the names would show. For, since "Cedron" means "blackened," does it not seem to recall that prediction of the prophet that Christ would work out His glory by means of inglorious torment, that He would be disfigured by dark bruises, gore, spittle, and dirt?--"There is nothing beautiful or handsome about his face."12
Then, too, the meaning of the stream He crossed--"sad"--was far from irrelevant as He Himself testified when He said, "My soul is sad unto death."13
"And His disciples also followed Him."14
That is, the eleven who had remained followed Him. As for the twelfth, the devil entered into him after the morsel and made off with him,15 so that he did not follow the master as a disciple but pursued Him as a traitor, and bore out only too well what Christ said: "He who is not with me is against me."16 Against Christ he certainly was, since, at that very moment, he was preparing to spring his trap for Him, while the other disciples were following after Him to pray. Let us follow after Christ and pray to the Father together with Him. Let us not emulate Judas by departing from Christ, after partaking of His favors and dining excellently with Him, lest we should bear out that prophecy: "If you saw a thief you ran away with him."17
"Judas, who betrayed Him, also knew the place, because Jesus frequently went there with His disciples."18
Once again the evangelists take advantage of mentioning the betrayer to emphasize for us, and to recommend to us by such emphasis, Christ's holy custom of going together with His disciples to that place in order to pray. For if He had gone there only on some nights and not frequently, the betrayer would not have been so completely convinced he would find our Lord there that he could afford to bring the servants of the high priest and a Roman cohort there as if everything had been definitely arranged, for if they had found that it was not arranged, they would have thought he was playing a practical joke on them and would not have let him get away with it unscathed. Now where are those people who think they are men of stature, who are proud of themselves as if they had done something fine, if sometimes, on the vigil of a special feast, they either continue their prayers a little longer into the night or get up earlier for their morning prayers? Our Savior Christ had the habit of spending whole nights without sleep in order to pray.
Where are those who called Him a glutton for food and wine because He did not refuse to go to the banquets of the publicans and did not think it beneath Him to attend the celebrations of sinful men?19 Where are those who thought that, by comparison with the strict regimen of the pharisees, His morals were hardly better than those of the common rabble? But while these gloomy hypocrites were praying on the corners of the main thoroughfares so that they might be seen by men, He was eating lunch with sinners, calmly and kindly helping them to reform their lives. On the other hand, He used to spend the night praying under the open sky20 while the hypocritical pharisee was snoring away in his soft bed. How I wish that those of us who are prevented by our own laziness from imitating the illustrious example of our Savior might at least be willing to call to mind His all-night vigils when we turn over on the other side in our beds, half asleep, and that we might then, during the short time before we fall asleep again, offer Him thanks, condemn our slothfulness, and pray for an increase of grace. Surely if we set out to make a habit of doing even the least little bit of good, I feel certain that God will soon set us forward a great way on the path of virtue.21
"And He said, 'Sit down here while I go over there to pray.' And He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee with Him. He began to feel sorrow and grief and fear and weariness. Then He said to them, 'My soul is sad unto death. Stay here and keep watch with me.'"22
Commanding the other eight to stop somewhat lower down, He went further on, taking with Him Peter, John, and his brother James, the three whom He had always singled out from the rest of the apostles by a certain special privilege of intimacy. Now even if He had done this for no other reason than that He wanted to, no one ought to have been envious because of His generosity.23 But still there were certain reasons for this which He might well have had in mind. For Peter was outstanding for his zealous faith and John for his virginity, and his brother James was to be the very first of all to suffer martyrdom in the name of Christ. Furthermore, these were the three to whom He had formerly granted the secret knowledge and open sight of His glorified body. It was only right, then, that those same three whom He had admitted to such an extraordinary vision and whom He had invigorated with a momentary flash of the eternal brilliance so that they ought to have been stronger than the others, should have assigned to them the role of His nearest supporters in the preliminary agony of His passion. But when He had gone on a little way, He suddenly felt such a sharp and bitter attack of sadness, grief, fear, and weariness that He immediately uttered, even in their presence, those anguished words which gave expression to His overburdened feelings: "My soul is sad unto death."24
For a huge mass of troubles took possession of the tender and gentle body of our most holy Savior. He knew that His ordeal was now imminent and just about to overtake Him: the treacherous betrayer, the bitter enemies, binding ropes, false accusations, slanders, blows, thorns, nails, the cross, and horrible tortures stretched out over many hours. Over and above these, He was tormented by the thought of His disciples' terror, the loss of the Jews, even the destruction of the very man who so disloyally betrayed Him, and finally the ineffable grief of His beloved mother. The gathered storm of all these evils rushed into His most gentle heart and flooded it like the ocean sweeping through broken dikes.
Perhaps someone may wonder how it could be that our Savior Christ could feel sadness, sorrow, and grief, since He was truly God, equal to His all-powerful Father. Certainly He could not have felt them if He had been God (as He was) in such a way as not to be man also. But as a matter of fact, since He was no less really a man than He was really God, I see no reason for us to be surprised that, insofar as He was man, He had the ordinary feelings of mankind (though certainly no blameworthy ones)--no more than we would be surprised that, insofar as He was God, He performed stupendous miracles. For if we are surprised that Christ felt fear, weariness, and grief, simply on the grounds that He was God, why should we not also be surprised that He experienced hunger, thirst, and sleep, seeing that He was none the less divine for doing these things? But here, perhaps, you may object, "I am no longer surprised at His capacity for these emotions, but I cannot help being surprised at His desire to experience them. For He taught His disciples not to be afraid of those who can kill the body only and can do nothing beyond that;25 and how can it be fitting that He Himself should now be very much afraid of those same persons, especially since even His body could suffer nothing from them except what He Himself allowed?
Copyright © 2003 by Thomas More Preface by Joseph Koterski, S.J.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.