Agony in the Garden of Olives

Jesus, praying in the Garden of Olives, begged God to release him from the terrible future that awaited him. But then, strengthened by prayer, he accepted his fate and faced the soldiers who came to arrest him.

Gethsemane / the Garden of Olives

Jesus and his most trusted disciples had just completed the meal we call the Last Supper, where he told them that one of their tight-knit group would betray him to the authorities, and that he would be killed.

Now they moved away towards the Garden of Gethsemane.

A large olive grove This olive orchard was part of an estate at the foot of the Mount of Olives. It was bordered by the road coming up from the Kidron Valley, and was probably surrounded by a stone wall. It seems to have been open to the public and at Passover time it provided welcome relief from the crowded city.

Jesus and his disciples gathered there, as they must have done many times before. Their mood was sombre. They were frightened – for Jesus and for themselves.

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Gethsemane

Gethsemane is in the middle right of the map above, which shows a possible route to Calvary.
For more on each stage of this journey, and a larger map, see The Road to Calvary

Jesus prays

Topographic map of the area around Jerusalem

Topographic map of the area around Jerusalem

What happened?

When they got to the olive garden, a familiar retreat, Jesus took Peter, James and John and moved further up the hill, away from the larger group of disciples. Alone with his three closest friends, he let his feelings show. He was horribly aware of what was to come – he had seen other men tortured and crucified, and he staggered with shuddering horror at what lay ahead. He was ‘sorrowful, even unto death’.

This was the crucial moment, the time of testing. All he had to do was walk out of the garden and take the road up the hill, over the Mount of Olives and out into the desert to the east. He could hide there, and quietly make his way north to Galilee, where he would be relatively safe. Would he stay in Jerusalem and endure a dreadful death, or would he slip away?

Jesus walked a little way further into the garden and began to pray. He fell on his knees – most people at that time stood to pray – and asked God to spare him, if it was possible. If God willed it. Then he went back to his three friends.

What is special about Jesus’ prayer?

  •  Jesus in the Garden of Olives, from the film Passion of the ChristJesus was praying not just to avoid a terrible death, but to discover God’s will and to find the strength to cope with what was coming; he was providing a concrete example of the value of prayer
  • When he used the term ‘Abba’ in his prayer, he showed the absolute trust of a child; the use of this familiar term in a prayer to God would have seemed disrespectful to Jewish people at the time
  • At this terrible moment, Jesus turned to God in prayer: ultimately he was focused on God, and if this led to his death, so be it.

A note on the Angel: the evangelist Luke often uses angels to transmit a message from God or to provide assistance; in this case the angel helps Jesus to endure his mental agony by strengthening him for battle, giving him the resolve he needs.

A note on Jesus’ words in the Garden: if he was alone, how do we know what he said? In the ancient world, people usually prayed aloud. Someone who was in the olive garden at that time – though not the sleeping disciples – must have heard and remembered Jesus’ words or prayer. Jesus and the disciples would certainly not have had the garden to themselves.

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Peter, James and John are tested, and fail

Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Fra AngelicoEmotionally exhausted, Jesus turned to his disciples, the very ones who had been so adamant at the Last Supper that they would stand by him. They had fallen asleep.

He reproached them. In this terrible moment of mental agony, couldn’t they even stay awake? He urged them, instead of sleeping, to pray. Surely they knew how he needed their support? Surely they ought to be praying for strength for themselves, if not for him?

Then he moved back up the hill and began to pray again, alone. When he returned, they were sleeping again. When he reproached them for failing him (and themselves) a third time, they had no answer.

In this crucial moment they were failures, unable to pull themselves out of their sleepy stupor. They seemed oblivious to his suffering – overcome with the Passover meal, the wine, and the late hour. The weakness of the flesh should never be underestimated.

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Jesus accepts God’s will

Jesus and the Angel in the Garden of OlivesAs he prayed, an ‘angel’ had come to him, giving him strength. Only this, God’s direct response, can account for the transformation that follows. He had been terrified of the future and had prayed. Now in the final moments in the garden, he was suddenly strong, resolute. He had asked God to save him from death. God’s strengthening angel has responded, giving him courage to face what was coming.

Jesus turned his face resolutely towards the crowd of soldiers moving towards him through the darkness. ‘Rise, let us be going’ he said to his frightened friends. Strengthened by prayer, Jesus stepped forward to meet his fate.

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Mary bears a sonThe Birth of Jesus 4

According to Matthew, it was Joseph who chose the name of the child. Names were much more important in that culture than in ours. They were meant to point to the actual character and destiny of the child, and so a great deal of thought went into selecting the right name.

‘Jesus’ is the Greek form of the Hebrew Joshua, ‘the Lord saves’. Joshua was the heroic warrior who led the Hebrews into the Promised Land after Moses died. To the first Christians, Jesus was the prophet who would save them and lead them into a different, heavenly Promised Land.

Naming a child had an another function: it was a way of claiming a child as your own. When Joseph named Jesus, he was establishing Jesus’ Davidic lineage through his own ancestry – which makes Joseph very significant in the story of Jesus.

Mary would not have been alone when she gave birth to Jesus, as pious legend likes to picture her. Even if she was travelling and not at home, she would have been helped by a number of women, some from her own family. It was rare for a husband and wife to travel alone together, without any family members around them, and it seems most unlikely in the case of a heavily pregnant woman like Mary.

Luke’s gospel makes a point of saying that ‘there was no room for them at the inn’, so the birth probably happened in one of the storage caves hollowed out of the rock near each house. Imagine an over-crowded Palestinian peasant house: a single-roomed home with an animal stall under the same roof. Jesus was placed in one of the animals’ feeding troughs.

A question sometimes asked is: what happened to the placenta? In modern Jewish tradition, the placenta is buried as soon as possible after the birth of the child. Since the Jewish purity laws and rituals today are much the same as they were then, it is safe to assume that something similar happened at the birth of Jesus. The midwives would have taken the placenta, dug a hole outside the boundary of the village, and buried it.

No-one really knows the date that Jesus was born. The early Christian church named the shortest day of the year as his birthday: after that, each succeeding day becomes lighter and longer. The implication was that the birth of Christ brought light and life into the world.

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Summary

For the early Christians who needed strength in their own time of trial, this story provided encouragement. They sometimes failed Jesus, as the disciples did and would do again in the coming days. But they looked to Jesus’ example: fully aware of what was to come, he had nevertheless instructed his followers to ‘Get up. Let us advance to meet (our fate.)’

In the story of Adam and Eve, rebellion brought Death. In another garden, Gethsemane, submission to God’s will brought Life to Jesus’ followers.

What happened next? See Annas questions Jesus

‘Go to Dark Gethsemane

Ye who feel the tempter’s pow’r

Your Redeemer’s conflict see

Watch with him one bitter hour

Turn not from his grief away

Learn of Jesus Christ to pray’

James Montgomery

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What  the  Gospels say

1 Gethsemane, where it happens: Read the blue text

2 Jesus prays: Read the green text

3 Peter, James and John fail the test: Read the red text

4 Jesus accepts God’s will: Read the black text

Mark 14:32-42

32 And they went to a place which was called Gethsemane;

and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I pray.” 33 And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. 34 And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch.” 35 And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36 And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt.”

37 And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? 38 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

39 And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words.

40 And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to answer him. 41 And he came the third time, and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough; the hour has come; the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.

42 Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”

Matthew 26:36-46
Candle with book and pointing finger

36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go yonder and pray.”

37 And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.”

39 And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”

40 And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? 41 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

42 Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, thy will be done.”

43 And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy.

44 So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words.

45 Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.

46 Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”

Luke 22:39-46
Agony in the Garden, Bloch, detail

39 And he came out, and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives;

and the disciples followed him. 40 And when he came to the place he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.”

41 And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, 42 “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” 43 Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. 44 In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.

45 And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow,

46 and he said to them, “Why do you sleep? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”

Find Out More

Gethsemane
Gospel text for this story
Jesus Christ
Modern images of Jesus and Mary
Birth of Jesus