“In the days when he was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death” (Hebrews 5:7).
When we think about the events surrounding Jesus’ anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane we probably picture it as described in St. Mark’s gospel. In great agony Jesus prays three times, asking his Father if there was another way He could accomplish His will than by, and Jesus was well aware of this, being slowly tortured to death:
“…[H]e said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.’ When he returned he found them [the disciples] asleep. …Withdrawing again, he prayed, saying the same thing. Then he returned once more and found them asleep, …He returned a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest?…” (Mark 14:35-41).
Luke and Matthew’s versions of events are a little different from Mark’s, and when we sort out the three evangelist’s respective accounts we get a much fuller picture of what likely occurred the night Jesus was betrayed.
Luke records Jesus as only praying once, at which time an angel appeared:
“After withdrawing about a stone’s throw from them and kneeling, he prayed, saying, ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.’ 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. When he rose from prayer and returned to his disciples, he found them sleeping from grief” (Luke 22:41-45).
Note that the angel is there to “strengthen Jesus”. So Jesus is asking his Father in intense emotional distress whether it was at all possible that the suffering and death be avoided; the angel then appears in order to encourage and strengthen Jesus’ resolve to complete his mission. Since the angel is sent by the Father with this intention, it then represents God’s direct answer to his son’s request, and the answer was no; there was no other way to accomplish his Father’s will.
Like Mark, Matthew has Jesus praying three times, but unlike Mark, the second and third prayers are different from the first:
“He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.’ When he returned to his disciples he found them asleep. …Withdrawing a second time, he prayed again, ‘My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done!’ Then he returned once more and found them asleep, for they could not keep their eyes open. He left them and withdrew again and prayed a third time, saying the same thing again” (Matthew 26:39-44).
The difference in the wording of the second (and third) of the three prayers is not insignificant. Unlike the first, in which the conditional clause reads, “if it is possible…”, the second one begins, “if it is not possible…”. In the second prayer Jesus is not requesting a forbearance of his suffering. Moreover, the statement in the first prayer, “not as I will but as you will”, is structured in a different grammatical form in the second one, “your will be done!” The verb “be done” is in the imperative mood, which is the form of a verb in Greek used to express a command or exhortation. This is why the statement is punctuated in the English translation with an exclamation point. Jesus is fully submitting himself to his Father’s will in spite of the suffering he now knows he would soon endure.
We can propose from the accounts of the three evangelists, when taken together, that in the Garden, Jesus’ human nature trembled with fear as his “hour” had arrived. He did not know if he would be able to go through with it. He then prays that he would not have to drink the cup of suffering and death, yet he remained in submission to God’s ultimate will. Although Jesus was strengthened by the angel, he prays in even greater agony. The prayer now reflects that whatever hope Jesus had felt that God might have an alternate plan was lost. He was now ever more resolute to fulfill his Father’s will, fully accepting the mission he was sent to accomplish, pleading with his Father for help to endure it.