The Fourth century saint and doctor of the church, St. Hilary of Poitiers, has a lovely insight – or perhaps I should say – a somewhat different take on Our Lord’s prayer in the garden.
And going a little further, he fell upon his face, praying, and saying: My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me. Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.
Saint Hilary “the Hammer of the Arians” does not interpret the passage in the usual way. Granted that Sacred Scripture is manifold in its meaning as St. Augustine points out in his De Doctrina Christiana.
The usual way to interpret the passage (which is recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke but not in John!) is that this prayer demonstrates that Christ was not only true God but he was also true man.
True, there are many passages in Scripture where we encounter incontrovertible evidence that Christ was true man. I am thinking particularly of all the passages that show us that our Lord ate food.
Nothing reminds me that I am a genuine corporeal being so much as the times I find myself eating.
Our Lord’s prayer at Gethsemane might also serve the same purpose. The body has a natural repugnance, even a fear, for death, and so Our Lord was demonstrating his humanity when he prayed in the garden. His body had such a repugnance for death and suffering that he even sweat blood!
“Father let this chalice pass…”
Pure spirits do not flinch at the prospect of a painful crucifixion.
But in order to prepare you for St. Hilary’s interpretation just consider with me for a moment. Here is a man who was born with a mission. Christ is the very Word of the Father incarnate among men. And when he came down among us 2000 years ago he did so for a very special reason – a reason that He spent His life teaching us.
Didn’t Our Lord know about His mission? Didn’t he realize what His Father’s plan was? Isn’t His will one with the Father’s?
Christ is a man who beyond anyone else in history knew what he was doing. Christ was a man who more than anybody was prepared and trained for the battle that he was to fight.
Why then would Jesus say “Father Let this Chalice pass” at the official “kick off” of the Passion in the Garden at Gethsemane?
Was he scared? Was he reluctant about undertaking His mission? I think that we could say
“On the contrary, if there was ever a solider eager for battle, if there was ever a knight eager to fight a dragon, if there was ever a hero eager to undertake a mission against seemingly impossible odds, it was Our Lord.”
Of course in His case those seemingly impossible odds were seemingly impossible to everyone except Him. In other words Christ did not begin His passion by praying to His Father to make it all go away.
So what was Our Lord saying when he prayed,
My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me. Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.
Well, I would never have discovered St. Hilary’s interpretation if it were not for St. Thomas Aquinas and his marvelous work -that most exquisite source of instruction-that immeasurably edifying tome of wisdom… the Catena Aurea!
And here it is that among the wise and holy scripture exegetes that St Thomas “chains” together-is none other than the the cheerful Hillary of Poitiers!
…He says not, Let this cup pass away from Me, for that would be the speech of one who feared it; but He prays that it may pass not so as that He should be passed over, but that when it has passed from Him, it may go to another.
Christ does not say “Let this chalice pass me by.”
To pass from is not the same thing as to pass by. Interesting how a little knowledge of prepositions can help! No wonder Grammar is a Liberal Art!
In other words, one cannot pray that a chalice pass from oneself without first intending to receive that chalice.
His whole fear then is for those who were to suffer, and therefore He prays for those who were to suffer after Him, saying, Let this cup pass from me, i.e. as it is drunk by Me, so let it be drunk by these, without mistrust, without sense of pain, without fear of death.
Let this chalice pass from me to those who love me. Let this chalice pass from me to all Christians and let them drink it as I drink it. That is, let them drink this chalice without fear. Let them drink it with faith and without any mistrust.
That He says, Not as I will, but as you will, He would fain indeed that they should not suffer, lest their faith should fail in their sufferings, if indeed we might attain to the glory of our joint inheritance with Him without the hardship of sharing in His Passion. He says, Not as I will, but as you will, because it is the Father’s will that strength to drink of the cup should pass from Him to them, that the Devil might be vanquished not so much by Christ as by His disciples also.
Rather than voicing a prayer expressing fear, Our Lord prays that we, his disciples-indeed all Christians, will embrace the cross as he did. Out of love for us he prays with an infallibly effective prayer to the Father that we his friends will not fail to follow his path.
He prays that we will drink the chalice from which he drinks. That it will pass from Him to us. He prays that we will not fail to take up the cross and join with him in the salvation of our souls.