Garden of Gethsemane

Holy Week
- Agony in the Garden

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The Ven Clive Hillman Archdeacon Assisting and Locum Tenens in the Parish of Swanbourne-Mt Claremont

The developed liturgical tradition of the church for Holy Week is the richest in terms of liturgical services, devotions, and symbolism. Whatever church tradition we personally identify with, there are always deep truths to be engaged with and deep realties to revisit.

Whether simply or with rich liturgies we find ourselves following in real time the last days and the new hope, breaking Bread in an Upper Room, on the way to Calvary, standing at the foot of the cross, entering a tomb and back in the Upper Room meeting Our Risen Lord and Saviour.

Psychologically it can be a demanding journey, and emotionally one that challenges us with the reality of the saving work of Jesus Christ, who is both Priest and Victim in the atoning sacrifice of His self-offering.

As someone who has attended the services of Holy Week for my whole adult life and presided over the mysteries of the Triduum nearly every year for the last twenty-eight years, I am always struck by the depth of the symbolism and how each part of the worship draws you in differently at each reiteration.

For me the place of greatest exposure of my own faith and vulnerabilities to the loving mercy and grace of God is the Vigil before the Altar of Repose. I realise that not all Anglicans keep the tradition of setting up an Altar of Repose, where after The Maundy Thursday Eucharist (Mass) of the Last Supper we gather in a place that represents Gethsemane to wait with Jesus as the betrayal comes closer. In the tradition that I follow, the Gospel of the Agony is read through the night in stages, according to the Gospel of the Year, and the Gospel of the Betrayal is read at midnight and the congregation, like the disciples, scatter.

John does not give us an account of the Agony in the Garden, so we rely on the synoptic Gospels, which give us two quite distinct traditions. In Mark 14 and Matthew 26 we find Jesus shares his concerns with his disciples, ‘He took with him Peter and James and John and began to be distressed and agitated.’ And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’

However, in Luke 22 the focus is found in Jesus’ personal space, ‘Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.’ The last two verses (43 and 44) are not attested in all early sources, but in them we find the depth of Jesus’ distress and agitation.

There are, of course, many depictions of the Agony in the Garden in the artistic tradition, often depicted through the lens of the times and of the artist themselves. A piece that speaks to me personally is the work of the Danish Artist Frans Schwartz, painted in 1898. An important artist in the Danish School, who studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, and who was responsible for many monumental works, altar pieces and the mural of The Wise and Foolish Virgins, his Agony in the Garden speaks to the Lukan tradition of the comforting angel.

The piece obviously speaks to the theme of light in darkness, the angelic being radiating light in both the physical darkness of the night and the emotional darkness of anxiety. The light falls upon Jesus in such a way that we can see his clenched hands, furrowed brow, and downcast features. The angel is other, but in its light and love holds Jesus.

This is not a comfort of words, or therapy or explanation, but of being. It is the presence of the angel, resting hands, arm, and cheek on Jesus that conveys such deep concern and care.

We do not know which angel is sent, although there is in Matthew’s Gospel (18.10) a reference to personal angels who ‘continually see the face of my Father in heaven.’ However, that the Gospel of Luke feels that we need to know that Jesus was comforted by an angel and that Jesus’ humanity was real both in physical and spiritual needs, helps us in our own journey following Him who has gone before and knows our own needs. As we are reminded in Hebrews 4.15 ‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.’

Agony in the Garden Frans Schwartz

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