“He knew. He had to have known.” A parishioner, recently returned from the Holy Land, was sharing an insight that came to him while on the Mount of Olives. From there, one can look across the Kidron Valley to the Temple Mount, about half a mile away. “He would have been able to see the torches leave the city gates and make their way down and then up the valley, knowing, all the while, that they were coming for him.”
This parishioner’s personal insight is a core tenant of the Gospels. Each evangelist insists in his own way that the crucifixion was not a calamity that befell Jesus but rather a carefully chosen destiny.
The crucifixion was not a calamity that befell Jesus but rather a carefully chosen destiny.
Verses 43 and 44 of St. Luke’s 22nd chapter have always been accepted as canonical by the Catholic Church. Scripture scholars disagree if they are original to the Gospel or were added later. They are found in some of the oldest manuscripts but are curiously missing in many others.
And to strengthen him an angel from heaven appeared to him.
He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground.
The verses are quite Lucan in theme. Jesus prays before his baptism and at the time of his transfiguration. At both of those moments, he hears a voice from heaven. Here, again at prayer, an angel comforts him—in a Gospel where angels appear frequently.
The Greek word agōnia means anguish, distress or struggle. The last is significant. It suggests that Jesus knows what the Father has asked of him, and he must strive within himself to accept his fate. In the garden, the voice of the Father has fallen silent, as if to give the Son his own space. The Father has made known his will. The Son struggles to accept it. Yet heaven remains close to Christ in the consolation of the angel.
Christ could have escaped, but then there would be no escape for us.
There is a rare medical condition, already attested to in the ancient world, in which sweat becomes tinged with blood. Without question, St. Luke wants us to know that the great agony of Christ has already begun. Before the soldiers arrive, before the physical attacks, in the silence of the night, the soul of Christ struggles in agony.
In its way, the terrible foreboding of Christ exonerates all of his contemporaries, Jewish and Roman. The Gospels insist that Christ did not die as the victim of scheming villains. No, he sacrifices himself to save us from vile sins. As the evangelists see it, Christ could have escaped, but then there would be no escape for us.
In St. Luke’s Passion, Jesus—somewhat wryly—tells his disciples that “two swords are enough.” Only one will be needed to enact the deeply human foible of striking a servant’s ear. Christ will emerge from his spiritual suffering without any act of self-defense. In silent agony, the last vestiges of a human will that might yet have resisted the divine will have been sweated out of him. When he stands, he is ready to be the sacred, sacrificial lamb who will suffer for the sins of the world.
The Lord God is my help,
therefore I am not disgraced;
I have set my face like flint,
knowing that I shall not be put to shame (Is 50:6-7).