The conventional account-at least the one this writer encounters most often-is that in Gethsemane Jesus demonstrates his humanity, by shrinking (as any of us would) from the painful death ahead of him. Jesus is deeply distressed by the prospect not only of dying but of being killed in a cruel and violent manner. He knows what is about to happen and he is afraid.
What leads people to think this way of Gethsemane? Perhaps graphic Good Friday sermons and dramatizations such as The Passion of the Christ are to blame-visual and rhetorical portrayals of the brutal scourging, the pounding of the nails, and the thrusting in of the spear. Though true and faithful to the biblical record and to what we know of ancient Roman crucifixion, such an emphasis on the physicality of the cross often serves to obscure the full significance of Jesus’ suffering and death. After all, what is true physically about Jesus’ crucifixion may also be said of the crucifixions that occurred left and right of him. And while we do not know what anguish of soul the two malefactors experienced beforehand, we know of many martyrs-Christian and otherwise-who faced their violent end with little or no spiritual torment.
Eleazar, a Jewish scribe martyred in the second century b.c., “welcomed death with honor” and “went to the rack of his own accord” (2 Macc. 6:19). The Roman philosopher Seneca, in the moments leading up to his suicide, was unmoved, showing no signs of fear or sadness (Tacitus, Annals XV.61-2). St. Peter was so bold as to insist he be crucified upside down. The early Christian bishop Polycarp received his death sentence with a courage and joy that amazed his executioner (Eusebius, Church History IV.25). To say Jesus’ soul is “overwhelmed to the point of death” because he fears being crucified is to regard him as of weaker stuff than these others.
No, Jesus’ agony is over something other than the prospect of physical suffering and death. We learn what that is from the words he prays. His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, in fact, gives us the full meaning of what he is about to do. And the Father’s answer, in turn, reveals that the world could be saved in no other way.