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Humble and Repetitive Prayer
Lessons from the Garden of Gethsemane
Following the institution of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper, Jesus takes His disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. There, we are told, Jesus pleads with His Father to “remove this cup” from Him. Why is God the Son asking God the Father to deliver Him from the torment for which He was born into the world?
The answer is tied to the Incarnation itself. Jesus became a man to empathize with us and to make salvation understandable in human terms. He was made flesh of the Blessed Virgin Mary for our sake, not His own. And when He took on our nature, He took on many of our weaknesses (save only sin, for He remains God and without fault). But the Gospels tell us many things – that Jesus experienced sorrow on several occasions (the evening on the Mount of Olives being one such time), and that He experienced natural weariness in the heat of the day amid His travels (see John 4:6).
Jesus retained His divine and eternal Personhood, but He had the added dimension of human nature. Since He became fully human, Jesus's human nature is a body-soul composite like any other human being's. Every soul has an intellect and will. Thus, Jesus too took on a human will and intellect, both of which He had full control of.
Still, being human and naturally inclined not to seek out suffering, Jesus was saddened. (Perhaps He was even more saddened at the thought that He would suffer only to have so many of those He loves not accept the mercy and salvation He extended to them – for which He died for them.) Our Lord Jesus Christ had a decision to make. And so the human will of Jesus had to bend to the divine Will of God the Father Almighty, Whom He affectionately calls “Abba” during His prayer in Gethsemane.
This whole discourse, the conflict of the human will and the divine Will being reconciled in the humility of Christ, is once again for our benefit. Jesus knew what He must do, and He knew what would happen before it took place. But this prayer, this asking for relief from completing His Passion (alluded to in the reference to drinking the fourth cup of the Passover sacrifice) – like anything in Jesus's life – is done to be observed and emulated. We are shown how to submit our desires to the Will of God.
Hence, we can take this lesson to our own prayer lives – to ask our desires of God with the stipulation that His Will be done in all things, rather than our own.
But reflecting on this incident in the garden prior to the betrayal of Judas, there is another aspect of the prayer of Christ that we need to understand: its sheer persistence. Jesus brings His petition to the Father not once, but three separate times. After His initial prayer, He lays the same intention at His Father's feet again and again.
This shows that we should be diligent in our prayer life too, that we should batter heaven persistently, and that through it we have the hope of clarity of action. Jesus was not delivered from His Passion, but He was given the strength to endure it.
Lastly, several of the synoptic Gospels provide us with the fact that Jesus repeated Himself in these three periods of prayer. When He returned from intervals of speaking with the drowsy Apostles, Jesus went back and entered into prayer, “saying the same words” (Matthew 26:44; Mark 14:39) as before.
This fact strikes me. Jesus prayed the same prayer, the same intention, saying the same words. Raised a cradle Catholic, I've found in recent years that the rather Catholic formulaic style of prayer feels dry, and I feel myself wanting to develop more personal conversations with God. (However, faith isn't all about feelings.) But this scene from the Gospels clearly shows that formulaic prayer is wholeheartedly endorsed by our Savior Himself.
This account has shown me that, while it is good that I want to cultivate personal and genuine encounters with God (Whom I too can call “Abba”), formulaic and repetitive prayers are no less genuine in the eyes of God. When we converse with God, especially when sharing with Him our ills and longings, let us strive to be more like Jesus who teaches us how to pray.