Bring Your Grief to Gethsemane

The Healing Wounds of Maundy Thursday

Perhaps you bring no specific sorrows or griefs into this Maundy Thursday. Count it as God’s grace in a world as broken as ours — with the sober recognition that it will not always be so.

The rest of us find ourselves carrying some identifiable grief or pain this Holy Week. To you, I extend the invitation to join me in bringing your griefs to Gethsemane. They are welcome here on this holy Thursday. There is room for them in the garden. There is healing for them here, and at Golgotha, like nowhere else.

Not that our griefs are the focus. Which is why Maundy Thursday is so precious, and offers the real help and healing we need.

Loud Cries and Tears

Outside of the Gospels, Hebrews 5:7 is the most specific reference to Jesus’s evening of agony in the garden of Gethsemane:

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.

The mention of “loud cries” might flash our minds forward to the cross and his cry from Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And the mention of his tears might send us back to his weeping at the grave of Lazarus in John 11. But his offering up “prayers and supplications,” with the mention of “him who was able to save him from death,” brings us unavoidably to Gethsemane.

Hebrews says that Jesus “was heard because of his reverence.” Which raises the question, “Wait, didn’t Jesus die the next day? Was he really heard? Was he saved from death?” It doesn’t seem like he was saved from death. Or was he?

Three Times He Prays

In the garden, Jesus first prays for the cup to pass — that, if possible, he would not have to go to the cross:

He fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39)

On his knees in Gethsemane, he pleads, “If possible, let this cup pass.” That’s his first prayer. Still, he concedes, “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”

Then, Matthew 26:42 tells us that Jesus prays a “second time”: “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” This second prayer is different, subtle as it may seem. Now the accent is not on the cup passing, but on doing his Father’s will.

Finally, according to Matthew 26:44, Jesus goes away again to pray for a third time: “He went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again.” So, Matthew reports no developments from the second to the third prayer; they are essentially the same. But the first and second are not the same. They are not contradictory; nor are they “the same words.” But there is a shift in emphasis between Jesus’s first prayer and his second. What happened?

Jesus Strengthened

The Gospel of Luke provides a further detail:

[Jesus] knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” [This matches the first prayer in Matthew.] And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly [another distinct time of prayer]; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. (Luke 22:41–44)

“The one who once prayed with loud cries and tears in Gethsemane, now prays for us with glorified sympathy.”

Let’s put the pieces together. We have a first prayer in Luke, which matches the first prayer in Matthew, with the accent on let this cup pass; remove it from me — and with the added concession, “Nevertheless, not my will be done but yours.” Then we have a second prayer (with the third being essentially the same). And in this second prayer, Jesus shifts his emphasis to what he conceded in the first: “Your will be done.”

So, first prayer: Let this cup pass. Second: Your will be done. And between them, Luke says, Jesus is strengthened by an angel from heaven.

Strengthened for What?

Let’s ask, “Strengthened for what?” and see how that brings us back to Hebrews 5:7. What is the strength Jesus needs here in Gethsemane? He needs strength for the task that now lies ahead. There is no other way to honor his Father and rescue his people and finish his course. He must go to the cross. This cup cannot pass or be removed. Now he is sure of it.

Perhaps the angel confirms this unavoidable path, or maybe Jesus himself freshly realizes it or comes to grips with it in some new way. Either way, the Father sends one of heaven’s finest to strengthen his Son’s human heart and steady his human will for the literally excruciating work ahead of him.

At one level, Jesus is strengthened simply not to run from the garden but to remain and give himself into custody. But at a deeper level, he is strengthened in his inner man to close with resolve on the work before him, to voluntarily choose, even embrace, his Father’s will — and in so doing, make the divine will to be his own as man.

The temptation of the moment is not just to flee with his feet, but to fail in his heart and soul. The peril in the hours ahead will be to abandon faith in the face of such terrible obstacles. Will his heart prove stronger than the horrors of his circumstances? Or will the sharp edges of these sorrows shatter into pieces his tender trust for his Father and his self-sacrificing love for their people?

In his second prayer in the garden, Jesus says, in effect, “Father, given that this cup cannot pass, help me to persevere through suffering and death.” Help my soul to endure in faith and not give out. Help me hold my original confidence in you firm to the end.

So, the angel visits. Jesus is strengthened — and, freshly resolved, he does not continue to pray for the removal of the cup. Now he prays for victory in drinking it.

Our Sorrows and Griefs

Now back to Hebrews 5:7. Jesus’s being heard by his Father, who was able to save him from death, doesn’t mean that God removed the cup of suffering and death, but that he saved his Son through it. The Father preserved his faith through the faith-assaulting cross. He kept his soul. He upheld him. He did not let Jesus’s heart or obedience fail. The Father saved his divine-human Son through the trial of death, and then saved him from death by raising him on Sunday morning.

This brings us back to our own sorrows and griefs this Maundy Thursday. I mean not only the regular pains of human life in a fallen world, but the specific pains and sorrows you are carrying, and the griefs you are bearing, even this week, even right now.

Our Father does spare us many sorrows. Oh, how many he does remove and let pass. But typically, he manifests his greatest power not in saving us from them on the front end, but first through them, and then from them on the back end. And as he brings us through them, he does not leave us alone in them without someone to strengthen us — both human fellows also rescued, and the one who is far better even than an angel from heaven.

Hebrews 5:7 is on the very cusp of this letter’s heart. The author will make the case in chapter 7 for Jesus as our Great High Priest, who sympathizes with us, and draws near to us, and graciously helps us in our time of need. And Hebrews doesn’t stop with Jesus as a sympathizing high priest. Chapters 9 and 10 show us that our Great High Priest is himself the great once-for-all sacrifice for our sins.

Jesus not only draws near, as priest, to have compassion on us in our sorrows, but he also goes to the cross on Good Friday, as our sacrifice, to solve the greatest problem we have, by far — which not only puts all our sorrows into perspective but guarantees they will not have the last word.

Grace for Every Grief and Sin

The gravest problem in my life, and in yours, isn’t our sorrows, great as they may be. Our greatest peril is our own sin. However terrible your griefs, the gravest danger to your soul is not how anyone else has treated you, or how unfortunate are your circumstances, or how weary and tired you’ve become. Your gravest problem, like mine, is how you have treated God, and that his righteous, omnipotent wrath stands against us in our sin.

Which is why, even in the descending darkness of Maundy Thursday, a bright ray of hope shines out. Jesus not only grieves in the garden as our priest, but he dies tomorrow as our propitiation. He sympathizes with our many sorrows, and he saves us utterly from our own sins through his atoning sacrifice. He draws near, and with his own wounds he heals ours (Isaiah 53:5), some of them in this life, and all of them in the life to come.

The one who once prayed with loud cries and tears in Gethsemane, now prays for us with glorified sympathy, on the very throne of heaven.

So, bring your griefs to Gethsemane. Bring your own loud cries and tears. Bring your sorrows. And bring your sins — and a prayer of childlike faith for his rescue. Draw near to this throne, where now sits your Great High Priest, ready to show mercy and give grace to help in your time of need.