Mark moves directly into Jesus’s prayer in the Garden: “They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’” Matthew begins differently, saying “Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane.” As Harrington notes, by naming Jesus first Matthew highlights that Jesus is directing the events of the Passion. But both point to an almost instantaneous change in his emotions. Jesus takes with him three people from his innermost circle—Peter, James and John, three of the earliest disciples—and he “began to be distressed (ekthambeisthai) and agitated (adēmonein).”
Those two words indicate extreme emotions, and translations vary from “sore amazed…and very afraid” to “grieved and agitated.” Raymond Brown, in his book The Death of the Messiah, perhaps the most comprehensive study of the Passion narratives, expounds on those two powerful words:
Ekthambeisthai, “to be greatly distraught”…indicates a profound disarray, expressed physically before a terrifying event: a shuddering horror. Adēmonein, “to be troubled,” has a root connotation of being separated from others, a situation that results in anguish.
Only when Jesus is alone with three close friends do his emotions surface. Often when we are straining to withhold our emotions it is not until we are with those closest to us that we can “let go.” At the wake before my father’s funeral, I remained relatively unemotional, until one of my closest friends entered the room, smiled and hugged me. A surge of sadness overtook me and I wept. Somehow the presence of my friend enabled me to be myself and to honestly express how I felt. Here Jesus, shielded from the larger group of disciples, is able to share himself. His emotions welled up as soon he is alone with his friends. They must have been very close to him, and he to them.
Episodes such as this and the story of Jesus’s weeping at Lazarus’s tomb reveal that Jesus is not a cool, distant sage, but a flesh-and-blood human being. The time in the Garden gives us an extraordinary window into his heart.
Excerpts from “Jesus: A Pilgrimage” by James Martin, S.J.