Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour. (John 12: 27)
This profound and moving passage in St. John’s Gospel mirrors the passages relating to the Garden of Gethsemane in the synoptic accounts. It allows us to have an insight into the humanity of Jesus and his understanding of his vocation from the Father, at a time when our Lord was at his most vulnerable. The crisis that would bring about his death is approaching: the fulfilment of his earthly ministry is imminent.
Jesus is fully aware of the situation that he is facing, so much so that – following St. John’s account – he puts off (or appears to) a meeting with some Greeks who are enquiring after him. This is not the result of a lack of interest or concern on Jesus’ part, but a recognition that the kingdom cannot be proclaimed beyond Jerusalem at this point. Jesus must focus exclusively on his immediate followers and prepare both them and himself for what we now call Holy Week and Easter. The time for a proclamation to the Gentiles will be soon, but not yet.
Now is my soul troubled. The Evangelist leaves the scene in the busy city and offers a monologue in which Jesus pours out his heart. The NIV actually translates the word used for ‘soul’ (psyche) as ‘heart’ perhaps for that reason although it seems the only major translation to do so. Heart and soul could be synonymous in the Jewish understanding of the time – as indeed could ‘spirit’. Perhaps of greater interest is a focus on Jesus being ‘troubled’. The New English Bible translates as ‘in turmoil’ which is more dramatic and whether we like it as a translation or not it serves to open up the true nature of this event. ‘Troubled’ is a perfectly good translation provided we don’t make the mistake of interpreting it as a reference to a passing discomfort of spirit. We may recognise Jesus as the Word made flesh and see his divinity, but we are here being allowed to see also his true humanity. This is the sort of trouble or turmoil which leaves the subject sweating, weak and exhausted. And so we see Jesus at Gethsemane. St. John and the other evangelists are describing a scene in which the soul is in agony. The first sorrowful mystery of the Rosary is not called ‘the agony in the garden’ for nothing. At this point Jesus is far beyond a feeling of anxiety or worry: he is troubled to the very depth of his being.
This is not surprising. The author of the epistle to the Hebrews writes:
Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4: 14-16)
Herein is our hope, the fruit of the incarnation. The Word of God is to share our burden and take upon himself the sins of the world. As Passiontide commences we remind ourselves of the familiar story of the last days of our Lord’s earthly ministry. We read the accounts; we tell the story to each other in the liturgy; we sing of it; we pray it. As well as we can we try to live in the story in some way so that we can begin to perceive its true significance for ourselves and for mankind. Perhaps we barely succeed and should not be surprised that we don’t, but even so the challenges of following Jesus on the road to Calvary bring us the fruits of faith – a faith which is borne out in a hope which both sustains us and draws us on to Easter.
Just a little more about us though. Jesus declares that his soul is troubled. This is not a feeling unique to our Lord. We all bear our own sorrows and from time to time are afflicted by crises of one sort or another. It is then that we realise our need of the succour which only the incarnate Son can offer us. Jesus’ words in the Fourth Gospel are rooted in those of the psalmist:
Why art thou so vexed, O my soul, and why art thou so disquieted within me? (Psalm 42: 14, Coverdale)
Why art thou so heavy, O my soul…? (Psalm 43: 5, Coverdale)
We too have our moments when we speak of the struggles we are engaged in both within and without. The psalms help us at this point just as they did Jesus and so do the classic hymns which keep us aware of the breadth of human emotion and give us permission to cry for help:
Rock of ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee…
Jesu, Lover of my soul,
Let me to thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high.
Lead kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom…
I heard the voice of Jesus say,
‘Come unto me and rest…’
These are a wonderful heritage from former generations and Christians of different traditions. Above all they are a gift from God who knows our weaknesses, in fact all our necessities ‘and our ignorance in asking’. How often do we fail to acknowledge our faults, our problems and our trials and plead to the Lord for his support, preferring instead to suffer in silence?
Whatever befalls us in life and however we cope with it the example of Jesus is paramount. His intention is that the Father’s will is done and that his name is glorified. This may happen when life is sweet, but it is more obvious and more significant when the trials begin and we find ourselves having to rely on God’s strength rather than our own. In the ‘Gethsemane moment’ Jesus suffers with mankind. In our Gethsemane moments we are united to our Lord and God is glorified. These moments when our souls are troubled and we struggle deep down inside become moments of salvation.
Father Andrew Burton SSC
21st March 2021