"And being in an agony, He prayed".
Luke xxii. 44.
WHEN the last supper was over, and the last hymn had been sung, our Lord and His Apostles—with the one traitor fatally absent from their number—went out of the city gate, and down the steep valley of the Kidron to the green slope of Olivet beyond it. Solemn and sad was that last walk together; and a weight of mysterious awe sank like lead upon the hearts of those few poor Galileans as in almost unbroken silence,— through the deep hush of the Oriental night,—through the dark shadows of the ancient olive-trees,—through the broken gleams of the Paschal moonlight, — they followed Him their Lord and Master, who, with bowed head and sorrowing heart, walked before them to His willing doom.
That night they did not return as usual to Bethany, but stopped at the little familiar garden of Gethsemane, or "the oilpress." Jesus knew that the hour of His uttermost humiliation was near,—that from this moment till the utterance of that great cry which broke his heart, nothing remained for Him on earth, save all that the human frame can tolerate of torturing pain, and all that the human soul can bear of poignant anguish;— till in that torment of body and desolation of soul even the high and radiant serenity of His divine spirit should suffer a short but terrible eclipse. One thing alone remained before that hour began ; a short space was left Him, and in that space He had to brace His body, to nerve His soul, to calm His spirit by prayer and solitude, until all that is evil in the power of evil should wreak its worst upon His innocent and holy head. And He had to face that hour,—to win that victory,—as all the darkest hours must be faced, as all the hardest victories must be won,—alone. It was not that He was above the need of sympathy, — no noble soul is; — and perhaps the noblest need it most. Though His friends did but sleep, while the traitor toiled, yet it helped Him in His hour of darkness to feel at least that they were near, and that those were nearest who loved Him most. "Stay here," He said to the little group, " while I go yonder and pray." Leaving them to sleep, each wrapped in his outer garment on the grass, He took Peter and James and John, the chosen of the chosen, and went about a stone's throw off. But soon even their presence was more than He could endure. A grief beyond utterance, a struggle beyond endurance, a horror of great darkness, over-mastered Him, as with the sinking swoon of an anticipated death. He must be yet more alone, and alone with God. Reluctantly He tore Himself away from their sustaining tenderness, and amid the dark-brown trunks of those gnarled trees withdrew from the moonlight into the deeper shade, where solitude might be for Him the audience-chamber of His Heavenly Father. And there, till slumber overpowered them, His three beloved Apostles were conscious how dreadful was the paroxysm through which He passed. They saw Him sometimes with head bowed upon His knees, sometimes lying on His face in prostrate suffering upon the ground. And though amazement and sore distress fell on them, though the whole place seemed to be haunted by Presences of good and evil struggling in mighty but silent contest for the eternal victory,—yet, before they sank under the oppression of troubled slumber, they knew that they had been the dim witnesses of an unutterable agony, in which the drops of anguish which dropped from His brow in that deathful struggle looked to them like gouts of blood, and yet the burden of those broken murmurs in which He pleaded with His Heavenly Father had been ever this, " If it be possible,—yet not what I will, but what Thou wilt".
What is the meaning, my brethren, of this scene for us? What was the cause of this midnight hour? Do you think that it was the fear of death, and that that was sufficient to shake to its inmost centre the pure and innocent soul of the Son of Man? Could not even a child see how inconsistent such a fear would be with all that followed;—with that heroic fortitude which fifteen consecutive hours of sleepless agony could not disturb;— with that majestic silence which overawed even the hard Roman into respect and fear; — with that sovereign ascendancy of soul which flung open the gate of Paradise to the repentant malefactor, and breathed its compassionate forgiveness on the apostate priest ? Could He have been afraid of death, in whose name, and i. whose strength, and for whose sake alone, trembling old men, and feeble maidens, and timid boys have faced it in its worst form without a shudder or a sigh? My brethren, the dread of the mere act of dying is a cowardice so abject that the meanest passions of the mind can master it, and many a coarse criminal has advanced to meet his end with unflinching confidence and steady step. And Jesus knew, if any have ever known, that it is as natural to die as to be born;—that it is the great birthright of all who love God;—that it is God who giveth His beloved sleep. The sting of death—and its only sting — is sin; the victory of the grave—and its only victory—is corruption. And Jesus knew no sin, saw no corruption. No, that which stained His forehead with crimson drops was something far deadlier than death. Though sinless He was suffering for sin. The burden and the mystery of man's strange and revolting wickedness lay heavy on His soul; and with holy lips He was draining the bitter cup into which sin had infused its deadliest poison. Could perfect innocence endure without a shudder all that is detestable in human ingratitude and human rage ? should there be no recoil of horror in the bosom of perfect love to see His own,—for whom He came,—absorbed in one insane repulsion against infinite purity and tenderness and peace ? It was a willing agony, but it was agony; it was endured for our sakes; the Son of God suffered that He might through suffering become perfect in infinite sympathy as a Saviour strong to save.
May we not all learn something from this fragment of that thrilling story, that—"being in an agony, He prayed " ?
For every one of us, I suppose, sooner or later the Gethsemane of life must come. It may be the Geth-semane of struggle, and poverty, and care;—it may be the Gethsemane of long and weary sickness; —it may be the Gethsemane of farewells that wring the heart by the deathbeds of those we love;—it may be the Gethsemane of remorse, and of well-nigh despair, for sins that we will not, but which we say we cannot, overcome. Well, my brethren, in that Gethsemane—ay, even in that Gethsemane of sin—no angel merely,—but Christ Himself who bore the burden of our sins,—will, if we seek Him, come to comfort us. He will if, being in an agony, we pray. He can be touched, He is touched, with the feeling of our infirmities. He too has trodden the winepress of agony alone; He too has lain face downwards in the night upon the ground; and the comfort which then came to Him He has bequeathed to us—even the comfort, the help, the peace, the recovery, the light, the hope, the faith, the sustaining arm, the healing anodyne of prayer. It is indeed a natural comfort—and one to which the Christian at least flies instinctively. When the water-floods drown us,—when all God's waves and storms seem to be beating over our souls, — when " Calamity Comes like a deluge, and o'erfloods our crimes Till sin is hidden in sorrow "— oh then, if we have not wholly quenched all spiritual life within us, what can we do but fling ourselves at the foot of those great altar stairs that slope through darkness up to God ? Yes, being in an agony, we pray; and the talisman against every agony is there.
And herein lies the great mercy and love of God, that we may go to Him in our agony even if we have never gone before. Oh, if prayer were possible only for the always good and always true, possible only for those who have never forsaken or forgotten God, — if it were not possible for sinners and penitents and those who have gone astray,—then of how infinitely less significance would it be for sinful and fallen man! But our God is a God of Love, a God of mercy. He is very good to us. The soul may come bitter and disappointed, with nothing left to offer Him but the dregs of a misspent life;—the soul may come, like that sad Prodigal, weary and broken, and shivering, and in rags; but if it only come—the merciful door is open still, and while yet we are a great way off our Father will meet, and forgive, and comfort us. And then what a change is there in our lives ! They are weak no longer; they are discontented no longer; they are the slaves of sin no longer. You have seen the heavens grey with dull and leaden-coloured clouds, you have seen the earth chilly and comfortless under its drifts of unmelting snow; but let the sun shine, and then how rapidly does the sky resume its radiant blue, and the fields laugh with green grass and vernal flower ! So will it be with even a withered and a wasted life when we return to God and suffer Him to send His bright beams of light upon our heart. I do not mean that the pain or misery under which we are suffering will necessarily be removed,— even for Christ it was not so ; but peace will come and strength will come and resignation will come and hope will come,—and we shall feel able to bear anything which God shall send, and though He slay us we still shall seek Him, and even if the blackest cloud of anguish seem to shroud His face from us, even on that cloud shall the rainbow shine.
The Silence and the Voices of God, p. 187.