Contemplating Jesus

THE CHALICE OF DESIRE

Posted on by Lucinda M. Vardey

Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane has often been viewed as a struggle of the human spirit, between his will (for what was to come to be taken away) and the will of God, (to go through with it).  This standard interpretation presumes Jesus as fully human, certainly imbued with extraordinary abilities, miraculous interventions, amazing prophecies, and wise teachings.  Thus his sweating of blood has always been considered a reaction to acute emotional anxiety towards the suffering awaiting him.  Could this be wholly true however?

Human interpretations of Jesus’ words and acts will always be limited to what has been experienced, or imagined could be experienced.  Yet, the mysteries of God are never left exposed: it is natural and necessary to search deeper for understanding.

In the great mystical traditions, revelations and visions have been the source of wider perspectives and ways of capturing truth.   In one such case, St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) received a unique interpretation of Jesus’ Passion, recorded for posterity by her spiritual director, Raymond of Capua.   Referring to Matthew 26:39 (where Jesus had said, “if it be possible let this chalice pass from me”) St. Catherine suggested that Jesus was not asking that his forthcoming Passion “be cancelled or postponed.”  Instead, she claimed that from the moment of his earthly conception, Jesus  “had undertaken to drink the chalice of the desire for the salvation of mankind, so now, as that time drew near …..he had asked for it to be fulfilled which He had longed for so long and with such great anxiety: that is to say, that the chalice from which He had been drinking throughout his life should at last be completely emptied.   He was not, therefore, asking for a respite but for a quick fulfillment.” **

St. Catherine clarified that  “although this chalice of desire was a most grievous thing for Him to drink”  yet, because Jesus was the Son obedient to the Father in all things, he had said, “not my will be done but yours.”  (Matthew 26:29). By these words, Jesus illustrated that he was prepared for a delay in the fulfillment of his desire, if that is what God wanted.  Thus  “Let this chalice pass from me” was not referring to the chalice of his future passion, but to the sufferings Jesus had endured in the past and was still enduring in the present.

St. Catherine’s interpretative twist has foundation in scripture.   In Mark 8: 31-32 Jesus had openly forecast that he was to undergo “great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”  When on trial Jesus had said that his kingdom was not from this world (John 18:36) therefore the opportunity to return to his kingdom (ending his exile on Earth) would have hardly been undesired.  In fact in John 12:27-28 Jesus said, “Now my soul is troubled.  And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour?  No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’”

Through the uncharacteristic displays of upsetting the tables in the temple and frustratingly declaring “How much longer must I be among you, how much longer must I put up with you?” (Mark 9: 19) —  Jesus’ final words on the cross  “It is finished” could emphasize not only the completion of his work on Earth, but confirm that he had endured all his life to this end.  He had reached supreme emptiness and come home.

** The Life of St. Catherine of Siena by Blessed Raymond of Capua  p. 165.

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