"And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly"

ZENIT

Here is a translation of the Lenten sermon delivered on March 17, 2006, by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa in the presence of Benedict XVI and officials of the Roman Curia. The Pontifical Household preacher delivered it in the Mater Redemptoris Chapel of the Apostolic Palace.

"And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly" (Luke 22:44)

"Life Is Strewn With Many Little Nights of Gethsemane"

4. Baptized in his death

"Being in agony, he prayed more earnestly"

These words were written by the evangelist Luke (22:44), with a clear pastoral intention: To show the Church of his time, subjected already to situations of struggle and persecution, what the master taught in such hardships.

Human life is strewn with many little nights of Gethsemane. The causes can be very numerous and different: a threat to our health, a lack of appreciation of the environment, the indifference of someone close to us, the fear of the consequences of some error committed. But there can be more profound causes: the loss of the meaning of God, the overwhelming awareness of one's sin and unworthiness, the impression of having lost the faith. In short, what the saints have called "the dark night of the soul."

Jesus teaches the first thing to be done in these cases: to turn to God in prayer. We must not deceive ourselves: It is true that Jesus in Gethsemane also sought the company of his friends, but, why did he seek it? Not so that they would say good words to him, to be distracted or consoled. He asks that they support him in prayer, that they pray with him: "So you could not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray" (Matthew 26:40).

It is important to observe how the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane begins, in the oldest source, which is Mark: "Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee" (Mark 14:36). The philosopher Kierkegaard makes illuminating reflections in this respect. He says: "The decisive question is that for God all things are possible." Man falls into real despair only when he no longer has before him any possibility, any task; when, as one says, there is nothing to do.

"When one faints," continues Kierkegaard, "one goes in search of smelling salts; but when one despairs, one must say: 'Find an opportunity; find him an opportunity!' The opportunity is the only remedy; give him an opportunity and the one in despair regains his appetite, is reanimated, because if man remains without an opportunity, it is as if he was lacking air. Sometimes the inventiveness of human imagination can suffice to find an opportunity, but in the end, when it is a question of believing, only this serves: that for God all things are possible."9

This possibility, always within reach for a believer, is prayer: "to pray is like breathing."10 And if one has already prayed without success? Pray again! Pray "prolixius," with greater earnestness. One might object that, however, Jesus was not heard, but the Letter to the Hebrews says exactly the opposite: "He was heard because of his piety." Luke expresses this interior help that Jesus received from the Father with the detail of the angel: "And there an angel appeared to him from heaven, who comforted him" (Luke 22:43). But it was a "prolepsis," an anticipation. The Father's great help was the resurrection.


The difference between the law and grace consists precisely in this: In the law, God says to man: "Do what I command you!"; in grace, man says to God: "Give me what you command me!"


God, St. Augustine observed, hears even when he does not hear, that is, when we do not get what we ask for. His delay in responding is also him listening, so that he can give to us more than we asked for.11 If despite everything we continue praying, it is a sign that he is giving us his grace. If Jesus, at the end of the scene pronounces his resolute: "Rise, let us be going" (Matthew 26:46), it is because the Father has given him more than "twelve legions of angels" to defend him. "He has inspired him," St. Thomas says, "with the will to suffer for us, infusing love in him."12

The capacity to pray is our great resource. Many Christians, including truly committed ones, experience their powerlessness in face of temptations and the impossibility to adapt themselves to the very high exigencies of Gospel morality, and sometimes conclude that they can't, and that it is impossible, to fully live the Christian life.

In a certain sense, they are right. It is impossible, in fact, on their own, to avoid sin; grace is needed; but in addition — we are taught — grace is free and cannot be merited. What should we do then: despair, surrender? The Council of Trent says: "God, giving you the grace, commands you to do what you can and to pray for what you cannot."13

The difference between the law and grace consists precisely in this: In the law, God says to man: "Do what I command you!"; in grace, man says to God: "Give me what you command me!" The law commands, and grace demands. Once he discovered this secret, St. Augustine, who until then had struggled in vain to be chaste, changed his methods; rather than struggling with his body he began to struggle with God. He said: "O God, you command me to be chaste; well then, give me what you command and command me what you will!"14 And we know he obtained chastity!

Jesus gave his disciples ahead of time the means and words to unite themselves to him in trials — the Our Father. There is no state of soul that is not reflected in the Our Father and that does not find in him the possibility of being translated into prayer: joy, praise, adoration, thanksgiving, repentance. But the Our Father is above all the prayer of the hour of trial. There is an obvious similarity between the prayer that Jesus left to his disciples and the one he himself raised to the Father in Gethsemane. In fact, he left us his prayer.

The prayer of Jesus begins as the Our Father, with the cry: "Abba, Father!" (Mark 14:36), or "My Father" (Matthew 26:39); he continues, as the Our Father, asking that his will be done; he asks that this chalice be removed from him, as in the Our Father we ask to be "delivered from evil"; he asks his disciples to pray so as not to fall into temptation and makes us end the Our Father with the words: "Lead us not into temptation."

What consolation in the hour of trial and darkness, to know that the Holy Spirit continues in us the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane, that the "unspeakable groans" with which the Spirit intercedes for us, in those moments, reach the Father mixed with the "prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears" which the Son raised to Him when "his hour" was upon him! (Hebrews 5:7).



5. In agony until the end of the world


We must take up one last teaching before taking leave of the Jesus of Gethsemane. St. Leo the Great says that "the Passion is prolonged until the end of time."15 He is echoed by the philosopher Pascal in the famous meditation on the agony of Jesus:

"Christ will be in agony until the end of the world. During this time, we must not sleep.

"I was thinking of you in my agony: Those drops of blood I shed for you.

"Do you always want to cost me the blood of my humanity, without you shedding a tear?

"I am more of a friend to you than this or that one, because I have done more for you than they, and they would never suffer what I have suffered for you, they would never die for you in the moment of your infidelity and cruelties, as I have done and am willing to do in my chosen ones and in the Holy Sacrament."16


"Christ will be in agony until the end of the world. During this time, we must not sleep."


All this is not simply a way of speaking or a psychological constriction; it corresponds mysteriously to the truth. In the Spirit, Jesus is also now in Gethsemane, in the praetorium, on the cross. And not only in his Mystical Body — in which he suffers, is apprehended or killed, but, in a way that we cannot explain, also in his person. This is true not "despite" his resurrection, but precisely "because" of the resurrection which has made the Crucified One "alive in the centuries." Revelation presents to us the Lamb in heaven "standing," that is, risen and alive, but with the signs of his immolation still visible (Revelation 5:6).

The privileged place where we can find this Jesus "in agony until the end of the world" is the Eucharist. Jesus instituted it immediately before going to the Garden of Olives so that his disciples would be able, in every age, to make themselves "contemporary" with his Passion. If the Spirit inspires in us the desire to be one hour at the side of Jesus in Gethsemane this Lent, the simplest way to achieve it is to spend, on Thursday afternoon, one hour before the Blessed Sacrament.

Obviously, this must not make us forget the other way in which Christ "is in agony until the end of the world," that is, in the members of his Mystical Body. More than that, if we wish to give solidity to our sentiments toward him, the obligatory way is precisely to do something for someone else that which we cannot do for him who is in glory.

The word Gethsemane has become a symbol of all moral pain. Jesus has not yet suffered in his flesh, his pain is altogether interior, and yet he only sweat drops of blood here, when it is his heart, and not yet his flesh, which is crushed. The world is very sensitive to bodily pains, it is easily moved by them; it is much less so in face of moral pains, which at times it even derides, interpreting them as hypersensitivity, autosuggestions and whims.

God takes the pain of the heart seriously and we should too. I think of those who have had their strongest bond in life broken and find themselves alone — more often women; those who are betrayed in their affection, are anguished in face of something that threatens their lives or a loved one; in whom, unjustly or rightly — there is not much difference from this point of view — see themselves pointed out, from one day to the next, for public derision. How many hidden Gethsemanes there are in the world, perhaps under our own roof, next door, or in the next work desk! It is our task to single out someone this Lent and come close to the one who is there.

May Jesus not have to say among these, his members: "I look for compassion, but there was none, for comforters, but found none" (Psalm 68[69]:21). On the contrary, let it be that he is able to make us feel in our hearts the word that compensates all: "You did it to me."

Endnotes:

  1. St. Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos 120, 6: CCL 40, p. 1791.
  2. St. Augustine, Cartas, 55, 14, 24 (CSEL 34,2, p. 195).
  3. Il libro della B. Angela da Foligno, Quaracchi, Grottaferrata 1985, p. 148.
  4. R. E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah. From Gethsemane to the Grave. A Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels, I, Doubleday, New York, 1994, p. 216.
  5. Brown, p. 233.
  6. Cfr. St. Hilary of Poitiers, De Trinitate, X, 37.
  7. Cfr. St. Maximus Confessor, In Mattheum 26,39 (PG 91, 68).
  8. Tagore, Gitanjali, 50 (trad. ital. Newton Compton, Roma 1985, p. 91).
  9. S. Kierkegaard, "La Malattia Mortale," Part I, C, in "Opere," edited by C. Fabro, pp. 639 ff.
  10. Ibid., p. 640
  11. St. Augustine, "On the First Letter of John," 6, 6-8 (PL 35, 2023 ff.).
  12. St. Thomas Aquinas, "Summa Theologiae," III, q. 47, a. 3.
  13. Denzinger-Schonmetzer, "Enchiridion Symbolorum," No. 1536.
  14. St. Augustine, "Confessions," X, 29.
  15. St. Leo the Great, "Sermo," 70, 5: PL 54, 383.
  16. B. Pascal, "Pensées," n. 553 Br.

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