|Painting of the risen Jesus in the Cave of Gethsemane|
- St. Philip Neri
Ever wonder why the Sanhedrin paid Judas a huge sum of money to simply lead their soldiers to a garden? And just how did Judas know exactly where to go in a garden full of trees to find Jesus?
Many of these sorts of questions were answered on my recent trip to the Holy Land. There were many moments when I exclaimed, "WHAT, that is not what I was taught!" One such moment was when we entered the cave of Gethsemane. That's right, Gethsemane is a cave.
Scripture scholars believe that Jesus' agony was not actually in a garden, as most Christians believe, but rather in a cave nearby where olives were pressed. It is believed that Jesus knew the owner of the cave and he allowed Jesus and his disciples the use of the cave for a meeting place. The early Christians apparently agreed with scholars, as the Cave of Gethsemane was one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in the third and fourth centuries.
Neither Matthew, Mark or Luke mention a "garden" when they speak of Gethsemane. Rather, they use the Greek words for "property" and "place." John uses a Greek word that means "cultivated piece of land" in the relevant passage but he never conflates it with Gethsemane, just the area around it, which is full of olives trees. Instead, when John describes the disciples entering Gethsemane, he uses the Greek phrase that means "to enter into," which implies that some kind of wall surrounded it. We also see that Jesus “went out” of something within the garden to meet the soldiers (John 18:4).
The Greek word "Gethsemane" also suggests a cave, as it comes from the Aramaic or Hebrew word that means "oil-press." Archaeological excavations have found that the Cave of Gethsemane was used for oil pressing, a typical scenario because the warmth within the cave helped the process of pressing oil. Incidentally, the warmth of the cave is also another reason why Jesus and his disciples were probably staying the evening there on what the apostle John tells us was a cold night (John 18:18).
After recovering from the shock of having to revise my traditional image of Jesus' agony under an olive tree, I began to feel a warmth spread through me as my body reacted to the reality that I was standing in the place where Jesus often met with his disciples and most likely shared intimate teachings. But this was also where he agonized over the sins of humanity and where he was betrayed, and I let this knowledge sink in as I sat in the cave before Mass.
Father John, one of the priests with us on the trip, gave a moving homily. He suggested to us that the bulk of Jesus' suffering took place in Gethsemane. It was here that Jesus felt the weight of all of our sins. Fr. John invited us to enter into this suffering that Jesus felt that night by remembering how we contribute to the pain he felt that night. Even if we think that we are doing well, Fr. John reminded us that we can abandon Jesus at any moment. He told us that St. Philip Neri woke up every day, looked in the mirror and begged God not to let him betray him like Judas. My eyes filled with tears at this moment in the homily as I could immediately empathize with this feeling.
I did not always understand this beautiful sentiment of St. Philip Neri. In the period after my conversion and before I entered formation for religious life, I was astonishingly complacent. I was numb to the ways that I could betray God. I was on the right course, or something close to it, so I easily fell into the belief that I was not so bad, at least in comparison to how I used to be and I could always find others who were not doing as well as I was in the spiritual life.
Unfortunately, it did not occur to me that we cannot ever know others' hearts and we certainly do not know where their souls are ending up for eternity, so this line of thinking does not do much good. It was not until I leaned closer to the mouth of God and heard what He was really asking of me, that I realized that if I really took my faith seriously, I needed to do more than lead a pretty good life. I needed to follow God's inspirations in every moment, in the big things and the small things.
Now, after beginning the road down religious life, I am much less complacent. I can honestly say that I have the urge to cut and run from God's will for me, in the big and little things, just about every day. Sometimes I give in, sometimes I don't.
An entry in my journal recently shows this wrestling with my inner Judas:
I'm lost, like a kid running around the block with her suitcase. I know I can't really run from your will but I wish I could. I'm just a kid wishing she could make her own plans. Wishing for summer all year long and junk food for dinner. Help me Jesus.
Truly, help me Jesus.
Help us all to realize the depth of our sin, the seriousness of all that we are capable of doing, and the endless possible ways that we may end up contributing to your terrible suffering on that lonely night in Gethsemane.
Save us every day dear Jesus from becoming yet another Judas to you.