The Agony in the Garden

And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground. (Lk 22:44)

Most Catholics have heard this phrase, the agony in the garden, associated with a rosary mystery. The term agony can be traced to this verse; the other gospel accounts do not use the word agony. Of interest is that Luke use the Greek word agonia, which means an agony. Here, agony does not mean suffering in the general sense – it has a particular meaning as a discrete thing. It exactly refers to a contest, specifically a struggle to win an athletic contest. Understanding this brings in a new context: Jesus is embarking on a contest, a struggle which He must win. What is this contest? Luke gives us a hint in that a bit earlier, in v.40, he tells his Apostles to "Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” Likewise a bit later in v.46 He says again, “Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation." The scene is in a garden and there is a contest. Temptation bookends the scene. There is talk of sweat and blood, angels and ground. We are to compare with the Fall in Genesis 3.

The Fall is typically understood as a contest or trial, where Adam & Eve were to win the contest by not succumbing to temptation to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Satan, the serpent, tempted them to fail the contest, leading to the introduction of sin in the world. Jesus will now enter the contest arena and defeat the devil by means of His passion, death, and resurrection – the great Paschal Mystery which is at the heart of redemption. The devil was soundly trounced.

Scripture speaks often of this contest and defeat of the devil:

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil. (Heb 2:14)

He who commits sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. (1 Jn 3:8)

Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; 32 and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself." (Jn 12:31-32)

He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him. (Col 2:15)

These randomly chosen texts point out that the devil was vanquished, that there was a contest or battle between him and Jesus. And Jesus won. The text from John includes the very weapon of the victor: the cross. Our Lucan text teaches us that the battle began in the garden of Gethsemene. It continued on the cross and it ended at the Holy Sepulcher, where sin, death and the devil were firmly defeated in the Lord’s resurrection. Interesting: Even as the battle began in a garden, so also did it continue and end in a garden.

Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb where no one had ever been laid. (Jn 19:41)

Everything points back to the Fall, to the garden of Eden. The garden represents heaven for us, the place where we belong as was intended from the beginning. It was the devil who stole this home from us and we are certainly no match to fight the devil. The Lord is our champion who defeated the devil in contest. Rest easy, Christian, and enjoy the grace of God, the protection that defeats the devil and temptation in our everyday lives.