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  Christís Prayer in the Garden

By Saint John (Maximovitch)

Having celebrated the Last Supper with His disciples and given them His precepts, the Lord walked with them to the Mount of Olive s (Matt. 26:30; Mark 14:26; Luke 22:39). On the way He continued with His final instructions. Then He turned to the Heavenly Father with a prayer for His disciples and for those who would come to believe in Him through their word (John 17l.

      Crossing the brook Cedron, the Lord and His disciples entered the garden of Gethsemane where they frequently used to gather (Matt. 26:37; Mark 14:32; John 18:1-2). Then He left His disciples, asking them to sit there while He went off to pray. Accompanied only by' Peter John and James, He went a little further. He needed to be alone, but knowing all that should come to pass, He began feeling sorrowful, sad and heavy, and He said to those with Him, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death; tarry ye here, and watch with Me (Matt. 26:38). And, having gone a little further, He fell with His face to the ground and prayed.

      Twice the Lord interrupted His prayer and walked up to Peter and the sons of Zebedee. Alas! They were still there, but they were overcome by sleep. In vain did their divine Teacher persuade them to watch and pray, so as not to enter into temptation: The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matt. 26:41; Mark 14:38). The disciples fell asleep again as ,soon as the Saviour left them to continue His prayer, which ended only when the hour drew near that the Son of Man was to be betrayed into the hands of sinners. The agony of Jesus' prayer reached its climax, and His sweat was, as it were, great drops of blood falling down to the ground (Luke 22:44).

       What was Jesus praying about so fervently? What was He entreating the Heavenly Father, thrice falling with His face to the ground? "Abba, my Father, all things are possible to Thee. Oh, if Thou wouldst deign to take this cup away from Me! If possible let this cup pass by Me; nevertheless, not as I will but as Thou wilt, not My will but Thine be done. My Father, if this cup cannot bypass me, so that I will not have to drink of it, Thy will be done."

       The Lord Jesus Christ was the God-Man. Both the Divine and the human nature, undergoing neither change nor fusion, "without confusion, without division" (dogma of the Council of Chalcedon) united in Him in one Person. In conformity to the two natures, the Lord also had two wills. As God, Jesus Christ was of one essence with God the Father and cf one will with Him and the Holy Spirit. But being perfect man, with a body and soul the Lord also had human feelings and will His human will was totally submitted to the Divine will.

      The Lord submitted His human will to that of God and sought only to do the will of His Heavenly Father (John 5:30); His spiritual food was to do the will of Him that sent Me and to finish His work (John 4:34). And He had to accomplish a task equal to none, a task which was to astonish even insensible, inanimate nature. He was to redeem mankind from sin and death, and to reestablish man's union with God. The sinless Saviour was to lift upon Himself all of mankind's sin, so that He, Who had no sins of His own, would feel the burden off the sins of all mankind and would experience such sorrow over it, as can only perfect sanctity, which clearly senses even the slightest deviation from the commandments and will of God. In His holy and sinless humanity, He in Whom Divinity and humanity were hypostatically united was to experience all the horror of man's separation from his Creator, of sinful humanity's alienation from God, the source of sanctity and light. At this moment the depth of mankind's fall was to become exposed. The man who refused to obey God in Paradise but heeded the devil who defamed Him, was now about to rise against his Divine Saviour, to slander Him, and, having declared Him unworthy of life on earth, to hang Him on a tree between the earth and the sky, thus bringing Him under the curse of the God given law (Deut. 21:22-23). The sinless Holy One, rejected by the sinful world for which and from which He suffered, was to forgive mankind this evil deed and to raise His prayer to the Heavenly Father, imploring the Divine Truth to likewise forgive mankind, which had been blinded by the devil, for this rejection of their Creator and Saviour. Such a holy prayer could not remain unheard, such power of love could not but unite the source of love, God, with those who, at least now, would become aware of this love and. having understood how far their ways were from the ways of God, would now resolve to return to God the Father through the incarnate Creator. 

      Now came the hour when all this was to come to pass. In a few hours the Son of Man, lifted up on the Cross, would draw everyone to Himself through His self-sacrifice Compelled by His love sinful human hearts would not be able to resist Him The love of the God-Man would break the stone el men's hearts. They would become aware of their impurity and darkness, of their insignificance. Only stubborn God-haters would not wish to be illumined by the light of Divine greatness and mercy'. But all those who did not turn away from the Divine call, illumined by the light of the God-Man's love, would become aware of their separation from the loving; Creator and would crave to be united with Him. The greatest mystery would take place: mankind would return to their Creator, and the merciful Lord would joyfully receive those who leave the slandering devil and hasten to the One in Whose image they were created. The wall of enmity has been destroyed. Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace, have kissed each other - righteousness looks down from Heaven, for Truth incarnate shines forth from the Cross on earth. The hour had come when all this was to happen.

      The world was as yet unaware of the greatness of the coming day. But before the eyes of the God Man all that should come to pass was revealed. He was sacrificing Himself voluntarily for the salvation of the human race. And now He has come for the last time to pray alone to His Heavenly Father. He will offer here the sacrifice that will save mankind -He will voluntarily give Himself to suffering and commit Himself to the power of darkness.

      However, this sacrifice will bring no salvation if He is to experience only His personal suffering. He has to be tormented by the painful wounds of sin which afflict mankind The heart of the God-Man fills with inexpressible grief. All human sins. beginning with Adam's transgression and finishing with those to be committed at the sound of the last trumpet, all the great and small sins of all people appear before His mental eyes. As God, He always had them before Him, "all things are manifest before Him," but now His human nature, too, experiences all their burden and abomination. The holy, sinless soul fills with horror. His suffering surpasses that of the sinners themselves, whose hardened hearts are not aware to what extent sin defiles a man and alienates him from the Creator. His sufferings are more acute because He sees this hardening of hearts. He sees that people have blinded their eyes so as not to see, and that they do not want to hear with their ears and to turn to Him to be healed (Is. 6:9). He sees that even now the whole world is turning away from God, Who has come to it in the form of a man. The hour is approaching and has already come (John 16:32) when even those would disperse who only recently assured Him of their readiness to die for Him. The God-Man will hang on the Cross, alone, ridiculed by the people who come to see this spectacle. Only a few souls would remain faithful lo Him, but even they, with their silent grief and helplessness, will only increase the suffering of the loving heart of the Virgin's Son. No help from anywhere...

      True, even in these moments He is not alone because His Father is always with Him (John 8:29; 10:30). But in order to feel the full weight of the consequences of sin, the Son of God voluntarily allows His human nature to feel the horror of estrangement from God as well. This awful moment will be unbearable for the holy and sinless One. A loud cry will escape Him: My God my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me? (Matt. 27:46). Foreseeing this hour, the holy soul is filled with horror and indignation.

      Earlier, when certain Greeks came to see Jesus, He allowed His human nature to experience the approach of this dreadful hour. When these "sheep from another fold" arrived, the God Man knew that the hour was near when people would come to see Him raised up on the Cross. His human nature shuddered, His soul was filled with indignation. But Jesus knew that without His sufferings the salvation of men was impossible, without them His life's work on earth would be as fruitless as a grain of wheat that had been lying on the earth until dried out by the sun. Therefore, He entreated the Father not to allow human weakness to take hold of the thoughts and desires of His human nature: Now is My soul troubled, and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour; but for this cause came I unto this hour. As if heartened by the remembrance of the purpose of His sojourn on earth, Christ prayed for God's will to be done -- for the salvation of mankind: Father, glorify Thy name -- glorify it on the earth, among men. Show Thyself not only as the Creator, but also as the Saviour (St Basil, "Against Eunomius," Book 4). And the voice from heaven said, I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again (John 11:27-28), thus announcing that the time had come for the fulfillment of God's mystery which hath been hid from the ages (I Col 1:26; Eph. 1:9, 3:9).

       And now this time has come. If even earlier Christ's human nature had shuddered and felt indignation at the thought of what was to come, what was He feeling now, when, waiting for the arrival of His enemies and His betrayer, He prayed privately to God for the last time? The Lord knew that any prayer of His would be heard (John 11:42). He knew that if He were to entreat His Father to deliver Him from torments and death, more than twelve legions of angels (Matt. 26:53) would appear to defend Him. But is this why He came? To refuse, in the last moment, to fulfill that which was foretold by the Scriptures?

       The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Even now Jesus' spirit was aflame, desiring only one thing: To accomplish God's will. But as a man, in His human nature, He would have turned away from suffering and death. ( An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, 3:18, 20, 23, 24; Blessed Theophylact; St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, ch. 6, "On remembrance of death"). The Son of God had voluntarily adopted this weak human nature. So He now offers Himself to death for the salvation of the world. And He is victorious, although overcome bv the feeling of an approaching fear of death and loathing of sufferings (Climacus, Ibid.; Blessed Augustine; Exact Exposition, 3:24). Now these sufferings will be particularly terrible, terrible not as such, but because the soul of the God-Man is shaken to its very depths.

      Man's sins, which Jesus has taken upon Himself, are inexpressibly burdensome. They press heavily upon Him, making the imminent sufferings unbearable.

      Christ knows that when these sufferings reach their utmost intensity, He will be all alone. Not only will there be no human being capable of alleviating them -- I waited for one to grieve with Me, but there was none; and for one to comfort Me, but I found none (Ps. 68:21; Is. 63:5) -- but in order to feel the full burden of sins, He would be made to experience the torment of separation from the Heavenly Father. At this moment His human will might wish to avoid the sufferings. But let it not be! May His human will not depart from God's will even for a moment. This is what the God-Man prays for to His Father. If it is possible for mankind to reestablish its union with God without this dreadful new crime against the Son of God (St. Basil the Great, Ibid.), may this hour be averted. However, if this is the only way for mankind to be brought to its Creator, let God's will be fulfilled. Let His will be done and may Jesus' human nature in these terrible moments desire nothing but the fulfillment of God's will, the accomplishment of the Divine economy. This, then, is what Christ prayed for in the Garden of Gethsemane, in the days of HIS flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto Him that was able to save Him from death (Heb. 6:7).

      Indeed, He offered up prayers and supplications to the One capable of saving Him from death, but He did not pray to be delivered from death. The Lord Jesus Christ was saying, as it were, to His Divine Father, "Abba, My Father, the Father of the One whom Thou sent to unite the people of Israel and the scattered children of God, the heathens, in order to create out of two peoples a new people, and to reconcile them both with Thyself through the Cross. Everything is possible for Thee, everything that corresponds to Thy boundless perfection. Thou knowest that it is characteristic of human nature to turn away from sufferings, that man always wants to see good days (I Peter 3:10). But whoever loves Thee with all his heart, with all his soul and with all his mind, desires only that which is pleasing to Thy good and perfect will. I, Who came down to earth for the fulfillment of Thy wise will and for this purpose became clothed in flesh and blood and took upon Myself human nature with all its weaknesses, except sin, 1, too, would wish to escape sufferings, but only under one condition -- that this be in accordance with Thy holy will. If it is possible for Thine economy to be accomplished without this horrendous crime of men; if it is possible for Me not to experience these sufferings of the soul, to which in a few hours will be added the terrible agony of the body; if this is possible, then deliver Me from these present sufferings and the impending trials and temptations. Spare Me the necessity of suffering the consequences of Adam's transgression. However, this entreaty is being suggested to Me by the weakness of My human nature. But let it be as it is pleasing to Thee. Let not the will of weak human nature prevail, but rather Our common pre-eternal counsel. My Father! If according to Thy wise economy it is necessary that I offer this sacrifice, I do not refuse to do so. I pray for one thing only: May Thy will be fulfilled. May Thy will be done always and in everything. Just as in Heaven, both Thou and I, Thine Only-begotten Son, have one will, so let also My human will here on earth not for one moment desire anything contrary to Our common will. May that be fulfilled which We decided upon before the creation of the world, may the salvation of mankind be accomplished. May the sons of men be delivered from their enslavement to the devil, redeemed at a high price -- by the sufferings and selflessness of the God-Man. And let not the burden of men's sins, which I am taking upon Myself, as well as the added torments of soul and body, make my human will waver in its desire to fulfill Thy holy will. May I comply joyfully with Thy will Thy will be done."

           "Thou hast prayed that the voluntary cup of the redeeming Passion be removed as if it were not voluntary" (Sunday Matins, Tone 5, Canticle 8 of the canon), thus demonstrating two desires of two natures and asking God the Father to render His human will unwavering in its submission to God's will (Exact Exposition, 3:24). And there appeared an angel unto Him from heaven, strengthening Him [His human nature] (Luke 22:43). Nevertheless, while offering His self sacrifice, Jesus prayed with increased fervor, until He became bathed in a bloody sweat. And for His reverence and His constant submission to His Father's will, the Son of Man was heard.

    Thus strengthened and encouraged, Jesus rose from His prayer (Exact Exposition, lbid.). Now He was sure that His human nature would not waver any more, that soon the burden of human sins would be lifted from Him, and that, through His obedience to God the Father, He would bring to Him errant human nature. He walked up to His disciples and said, Sleep on now, and lake your rest Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going: behold, he is at hand that doth betray Me (Matt. 26:4546), rise and pray, lest ye enter into temptation (Luke 22:46).

      Going forth to meet those who came after Him, the Lord voluntarily gave Himself into their hands. When Peter, anxious to defend his Teacher, struck the chief priest's servant with a sword and cut off his ear, the Lord healed the latter and reminded Peter that He is giving Himself into their bands voluntarily: Sheathe your sword, He said Am I not to drink of the cup which My Father gave Me? Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He shall presently give Me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then shall the Scriptures be fulfilled that thus it must be? (Matt. 26:53). And, having voluntarily emptied the cup of sufferings of body and soul, Christ glorified God on the earth; He accomplished the task no lesser than the creation of the world itself. He restored fallen human nature, reconciled God and mankind, and made men partakers of the Divine nature (I1 Peter 1:4).

      Having accomplished the work which His Father had given Him to do, Christ was glorified also in His human nature with that glory which, as God, He had before the world was (John 17:5), and with His human nature He sat down on the right hand of God the Father from henceforth expecting till His enemies be made His footstool (Heb. 10:13).

      Having become the author of eternal salvation for all who obey Him (Heb. 5:9), even after His Ascension into Heaven He remains known "in two natures without confusion" (Sunday dogmatikon, Tone 6), "For Thou hast borne two wills according to each of Thy two natures, O Thou Who art Christ for ever" (Sunday canon, Tone 5, canticle 8). But His glorified body can no longer suffer and is in no need for anything, and likewise also His human will can in no wise depart from God's will. In this very, body Christ will come on the last day "to judge the living and the dead," after which, as King not only according to His divinity but also in His humanity, He will subject Himself with all His eternal kingdom to God the Father, that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28). 

Translated by Olga Oleinikov from Slova (Sermons of Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco), Russkiy Pastyr, San Franciso 1994.

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