Who Do You Say That I Am? Jesus in Gethsemane

An earlier version of this essay appeared as “He Who Hesitates is Human: Literary Portrayals of Gethsemane” in Perspectives on the Passion, ed. Christine Joynes. London: Continuum, 2008, 30–41; reproduced by kind permission of Bloomsbury-T&T Clark.

“Who do men say that I am?” Jesus asks his disciples in the Synoptic Gospels. They provide him with the various possibilities voiced on the street, but he is not interested in popular opinion. He wants to know where they stand. One way in which Christian tradition has responded is with creedal statements that aim to avoid error through clarity and definition. Take, for instance, the fifth-century Quicunque vult, the so-called Athanasian Creed. It wants to affirm at once that “our Lord Jesus Christ” is “Perfect God and Perfect Man”; he is “Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father, as touching his Manhood.” By contrast, biblical approaches to the question of Jesus’s identity bring the messiness of human experience into play: the Gospel stories, like narrative in general, open up possibilities rather than closing them down, require interpretation rather than assent.

A case in point: who do the Synoptic Gospels say that Jesus is, based on his last words? We find one “equal to the Father” in Luke’s gracious savior, who is merciful to those who mock him (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” 23:34) and who promises the “good thief” a reward for his faithfulness (“Today you will be with me in paradise,” 23:43). Likewise, the Gospel of John presents Christ in control of the horrible scene on Golgotha: he has the wherewithal to find his mother another son (19:26–27) and, before his final breath, to announce that enough is enough, “It is finished” (19:30). On the other hand, Matthew and Mark have Christ give up the ghost in a cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The dissonance between these “last words” is lost when the tradition of preaching the Seven Last Words, for instance, merges the six “comfortable” sayings found in Luke and John with the single cry of Matthew and Mark: “Elo-i, Elo-i, lema sabach-thani?” Numbers talk, at least if you can get the cry of dereliction out of your head.

But what about the Garden of Gethsemane? The Gospel of John has us barely enter it: John places Jesus in an olive grove across the Kidron Valley (18:1) for the merest moment, and then only as the backdrop for his arrest. In the Synoptics—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—we find something quite different. Take Matthew’s account in chapter 26:36–46. In this dramatic scene, Matthew’s Jesus remains extraordinarily vulnerable until he sees that the end is nigh and takes charge, saying, “Get up, let us be going.” Underscoring his loneliness, Matthew puts only Peter, James, and John in the Garden with him. When this trio was last assembled by Jesus, they beheld the apotheosis of the Lord in a cloud of glory and heard a voice from heaven say, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Mt 17:5). But now we have a reversal of the Transfiguration. Instead of encountering the Father’s beloved Son in blinding glory, we find a Jesus in passionate turmoil, as described by the narrator (“He was grieved and agitated”) and confirmed by Jesus himself (“I am deeply grieved, even to death”).

Add to these words dramatic gesture. When Jesus advances into Gethsemane’s “oil press”—the etymology of the place name—he also moves more deeply into his grievance-unto-death: “And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground.” Again, one recalls the Transfiguration account, when it was the disciples who fell to the ground “overcome by fear,” only to have Jesus comfort them: “Get up and do not be afraid” (17:7). Here Jesus comes to the disciples, appealing to them three times to watch with him, only to find them fast asleep. “The spirit indeed is willing,” he says, “but the flesh is weak.”

It is not the disciples’ weakness that is at the center of the story, however; rather, it is Jesus’s humanity: his deep emotion, his need for creature comfort, and his dependence on the men who were his “little children.” Whereas Peter, James, and John cannot stay awake even one hour, Jesus cannot rest for a single minute. Instead, he throws himself repeatedly on the ground, praying, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” The Evangelist Mark further heightens the emotion by having Jesus call out not only to his Father but also (in a sudden move from Greek to Aramaic) to his Abba, his Papa—a one-word shift into an intimate mode of address. However, no loving paternal presence shows up in Matthew’s Gethsemane. Jesus is devastated and alone.

This vision of Jesus at such a loss is one the Evangelist Luke cannot abide. His Savior may be “inferior to the Father concerning his manhood”—he may (as in Matthew and Mark) pray that the cup be removed; he may even sweat “like great drops of blood falling down on the ground”—but he is not alone. Suddenly there is an angel on the scene, come to give him strength. Nor does Jesus thrash about on the ground—Luke says instead that he “kneels”—or keeps trying to wake his three closest disciples. There is neither fear nor anguish in this scene, only a hero fighting the good fight, about to earn his crown of glory.

There is very little glory in more contemporary literary renderings of Jesus in the Garden. Nor is there much of any Godhead in his Manhood. For instance, in Rainer-Maria Rilke’s “The Olive Garden” (1908), Jesus says, “’I am alone, I am alone with all of human grief.” Rilke does not allow any divine intervention: no angel enters the scene. Furthermore, he insists that Jesus’s aloneness in the Garden links him to everyone else’s plight: he is no different from anyone “born in the world.”

And then there is Nikos Kazantzakis’s Last Temptation of Christ (1955), which presents Christ’s whole life as a struggle between willing spirit and wavering flesh. Gethsemane is where “the longing to see men, to hear a human voice, to touch the hands he loved” overwhelms Jesus. Thought of heaven all but disappears as he longs “to find on earth the only paradise anyone could want.”

“Father,” Jesus murmurs, “the world you created is beautiful, and we see it; beautiful is the world which we do not see. I don’t know—forgive me—I don’t know, Father, which is the more beautiful.”

For José Luis Saramago, in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991), Gethsemane turns into a temptation scene, in which God and the Devil are revealed to be two sides of the same divine coin. Together, they present Jesus with the “cup” of the future. They predict the deaths of the disciples, give a lengthy alphabetical procession of subsequent martyrs, and foretell the horrors of Crusades and Inquisition. This vision of continual suffering provokes a final confrontation between Son and Father. The scene ends with the Devil’s observation, “One has to be a God to countenance so much blood.” Saramago’s Jesus is a dupe, his Father a vampire. We have come a long way from the Gospels here, let alone from the both/and mystery of the eternal Word made mortal Flesh.

Where I want to conclude, however, is with a contemporary poet, Denise Levertov (1923–97), who attempts not only to affirm the two natures of Christ, following orthodox Christianity, but also describe a dynamic tension between them. She wants to convey the tightrope that Jesus walked, that Jesus was.

Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis[1]

Maybe He looked indeed
much as Rembrandt envisioned Him
in those small heads that seem in fact
portraits of more than a model.
A dark, still young, very intelligent face,
a soul-mirror gaze of deep understanding, unjudging.
That face, in extremis, would have clenched its teeth
in a grimace not shown in even the great crucifixions.
The burden of humanness (I begin to see) exacted from Him
that He taste also the humiliation of dread,
cold sweat of wanting to let the whole thing go,
like any mortal hero out of His depth,
like anyone who has taken a step too far
and wants herself back.
The painters, even the greatest, don’t show how,
in the midnight Garden,
or staggering uphill under the weight of the Cross,
He went through with even the human longing
to simply cease, to not be.
Not torture of body,
not the hideous betrayals humans commit,
nor the faithless weakness of friends (not then, in agony’s grip)
was Incarnation’s heaviest weight,
but this sickened desire to renege,
to step back from what He, Who was God,
had promised Himself, and had entered
time and flesh to enact.
Sublime acceptance, to be absolute, had to have welled
up from those depths where purpose
drifted for mortal moments.

With the double title of her poem, Levertov places her text in the Latin world of the West, as well as (literally and figuratively) in Jerusalem. We are asked to behold the Savior of the World along the Holy City’s tortuous Way of the Cross, long memorialized on the walls of many a Catholic church and perhaps presented most horrifically in Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ. But “Salvator Mundi” also points to another Christological reality—to a traditional iconographic pose, in which Christ (holding an orb or some other accoutrement of authority) looks straight into the eyes of the viewer, as in the Albrecht Dürer painting of this name. This is John’s Christ, radiant with glory.

Levertov depends heavily on visual art, but it is no Christus Rex whom she actually conjures up; rather, she alludes explicitly to two very different portrayals of the human savior of the world, each of which offers us a “Maybe” (the poem’s opening word) of what Jesus was like. To begin, she names Rembrandt and refers to his portraits of unnamed Semitic-looking young men taken to be “a Christ head after life”; his models were, in fact, contemporary Amsterdam Jews. Levertov does not allude to Rembrandt’s Philosemitism or her own Jewish ancestry. Rather, she concentrates on the vivid, welcoming humanity of an un-haloed Christ—a thirty-something rabbi, an itinerant healer, or perhaps the word-playing stranger who engaged the much-married Samaritan woman at her village well.

Maybe He looked indeed
much as Rembrandt envisioned Him
in those small heads that seem in fact
portraits of more than a model.
A dark, still young, very intelligent face,
a soul-mirror gaze of deep understanding, unjudging.

In contrast to this gentle, serene visage—this portrait of the Savior as a young Jew—she then conjures “that face, in extremis” and therefore moves us away from the day-to-day life of Christ’s ministry to the terrible end-game of his passion. But whereas Rembrandt could give a probable likeness of the young Jew, she says, none of the Old Masters (“even the greatest”) could convey in line or paint what the tortured man must have looked like in his agony. “That face, in extremis, would have clenched its teeth / in a grimace not shown in even the great crucifixions.”

The rest of the poem takes us along the Via Crucis—the second part of the poem’s title—from the Garden of Gethsemane to Golgotha, by means of an imaginative exploration of the Savior’s interior life. Levertov signals Christ’s divinity not only by referring to him as “He” and “Himself” in the reverential upper case, but also by the quasi-creedal language she uses in her God’s-eye view of the Incarnation. The descent into human vulnerability was “what He, Who was God, / had promised Himself, and had entered / time and flesh to enact.” Here we have one “Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead.”

Most of the text, however, explores what Levertov refers to as Christ’s “burden of humanness,” that is, the sheer weight of his being human. This Jesus is “like any mortal hero out of his depth.” He tastes “the humiliation of dread”; he experiences “the cold sweat of wanting to let the whole thing go.” In a show of personal empathy and identification with the male Christ, the female poet likens him to “anyone who has taken a step too far / and wants herself back.” She also suggests what the final refusal of the cup would have meant:

Not torture of body,
not the hideous betrayals humans commit
nor the faithless weakness of friends, and surely
not the anticipation of death (not then, in agony’s grip)
was Incarnation’s heaviest weight,
but this sickened desire to renege,
to step back from what He, Who was God,
had promised Himself, and had entered
time and flesh to enact.

“Maybe.” The poem begins in surmise, and uses the resources of art history, lectio divina, and the work of sympathetic imagination to give us a keener sense of the God-Man. It draws to a close, however, in a flourish of the indicative, with the repeated assertion of what is (or, rather, what is not) the case. We approach the mystery of Christ’s anguish by eliminating the likely possibilities of what he felt: we cannot know for sure. In her final lines, however, Levertov moves very subtly away from negative assertion and back into surmise. She won’t presume to fathom the Savior’s heart and mind any more than the “greatest painters” could capture his full likeness. All she has to go on is the fervor of her personal identification, her own conviction:

Sublime acceptance, to be absolute, had to have welled
up from those depths where purpose
drifted for mortal moments.

In these, her poem’s “last words,” Levertov brings together the passion accounts of Matthew and Mark with those of Luke and John without erasing their differences. The “sublime acceptance” of the Passion we find in Luke and John had to have, could only have “welled up” from the depths we witness on the bare ground of Gethsemane. For the God-Man to have been human indeed, and not merely playing at humanity, he would have had to (repeatedly) throw himself on the earth, his soul “deeply grieved, even unto death.” Before the Manhood could be taken into God, it would have had to return to the dirt from which Adam was molded, dust thrown down into dust, ashes to ashes.

In “Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis,” Levertov works valiantly to maintain the precarious balance of dogma but with an obvious tip of the scale in our human direction. She upholds the “purpose” of the Incarnation with orthodox conviction; she gives us a Savior of the World “Who was God.” Yet her poem both lingers and terminates where it must, in the drift of those very “mortal moments” that link us to the God-Man—the “maybe” moments that may be all that mortals ever know for sure.


Peter S. Hawkins is Professor of Religion and Literature at Yale Divinity School and the Institute of Sacred Music. His work has long focused on Dante. He is the author of Dante’s Testaments: Essays in Scriptural Imagination; Dante, a Brief History; and Undiscovered Country: Imagining the World to Come. With Lesleigh Cushing Stahlberg he has published two collections of essays on biblical reception in literature, Scrolls of Love: Ruth and the Song of Songs and From the Margins I: Women in the Hebrew Bible and Their Afterlives. Currently they are collaborating on a Bloomsbury Press book on the Bible and the American short story.


[1] ”Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis” By Denise Levertov, from EVENING TRAIN, copyright ©1992 by Denise Levertov. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.


This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Hawkins, Peter. (2015) “Who Do You Say That I Am? Jesus in Gethsemane,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 2, Article 6. Available at: https://www.ismreview.yale.edu

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Song Whose Beauty Deepens Prayer

This article is abbreviated and emended from Thomas Troeger, “Afterword,” in Song that Blesses Earth: Hymn Texts, Carols and Poems (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).*

When and how does a hymn text deepen a community’s prayer? When not and why? We do not answer these questions in a vacuum but from a consciousness that has been shaped by a multitude of different forces. Theological convictions, literary tastes, cultural biases, the music of language as we have absorbed it throughout our lives, the impact of new knowledge and ways of understanding the world, the vividness of our imaginations, the song that has nurtured our faith, and the ethos of our home worshiping communities — all these and more shape the critical sensibilities with which we respond to hymn texts. In some of these realms we may share substantial common ground, but in others the landscape of our hearts will have very different contours and features.

It is easy to take the contextual forces that shape our values and standards for granted, especially if we have grown up singing hymns from a particular book. There is something finished and solid about a hymnal, as though its contents were a collection of fixed pieces, as immoveable as the skeletal structure of fossils. The resistance that new hymns and new hymnals encounter in many churches gives witness to this misperception of what in fact is a spirited history, often reflecting, as Eric Routley points out, the theological turbulence that has marked the church’s story:

Periods when somebody somewhere is tearing up the turf and asking questions and organizing rebellions and reconstructing disciplines produce hymns: when the steam goes out of such movements, or they become part of an expanded main stream, hymn writing goes on in a more tranquil way, but never for very long. Another colour is added to the picture by another ‘movement,’ and that movement brings new hymns and new kinds of hymn into the repertory.[1]

Routley’s insight about the dynamic character of hymnody illuminates our contemporary situation. We live in a period when many people in many places are “tearing up the turf and asking questions and organizing rebellions and reconstructing disciplines.” David Mahan states the challenge in broad but succinct terms: “How can the Church revitalize its speech in such manner that its own language regains a foothold in the discourses of the public square and, indeed, in the imagination of late-modern audiences, such that the gospel once more becomes intelligible as well as compelling to them?”[2] Mahan raises the question while examining the work of three poets who strive to achieve an idiom that bears fruitful witness to the gospel now, but it applies with equal force to hymn writers. Mahan describes how daunting the task is, quoting Geoffrey Hill’s vivid phrase, “the acoustical din that surrounds us all,”[3] and acknowledging in his own words: “So vast and so demanding are the challenges now facing the witnessing Church in its late-modern contexts that all variety of resources of language and of the imaginative intelligence should be marshaled for this decidedly public enterprise we call theology.”[4]

Summoning the “resources of language and of the imaginative intelligence” to break through “the acoustical din,” hymn writers might choose to use exclusively the idiom of the world as we know it now — its societal fragmentation, its cultural diversity and conflict, its cosmological vastness. Or hymnists might assume the coherence of the faith-world that fed earlier generations of poets, cultivating the vineyard of images and understandings that have sustained the church’s song through the centuries. Or the hymn writer might combine them both, drawing upon our global and scientific vision to expand the perimeters of tradition, and using tradition as a source of wisdom and revelation that deepen the meaning of our contemporary life. It is this latter, integrative approach that I have chosen. My desire to fuse tradition and innovation manifests itself in the three major criteria by which I judge my own work as well as that of others: musicality, structure and meaning, theological depth. I believe these to be the qualities that make for song whose beauty deepens prayer.

Although the music of language and the music of song and instrumental performance are not identical, they are related. What Seamus Heaney hopes for his poetry would resonate with the aspiration of many composers. Heaney writes that his “effort is to repose in the stability conferred by a musically satisfying order of sounds.”[5] A rigidly theological mind may find this too esthetic for the writing of hymns, asking: does not right doctrine and clear theological thought take precedence over “a musically satisfying order of sounds?” The question assumes an over-simplified understanding of how theology is manifest through the confluence of language, singing, and instrumental accompaniment when hymns are used in worship. I can illustrate this with an e-mail exchange that preceded my writing a hymn for a church’s anniversary celebration. The congregation wanted a new text that could be sung to a traditional setting, but they were still trying to settle on what the setting would be. Both of the e-mails were written by the pastor prior to my beginning work on the poem, and although she included helpful history and news about the congregation that would influence my creation of the text, I find it revealing how she discusses the musical sound that she has in her head for the church’s anniversary hymn:

I am drawn to the grand tunes but, after hearing a little more about our story, you may have other suggestions. Grosser Gott, wir loben dich is another strong tune that is only used once in the Presbyterian Hymnal. Depending upon how it is played, it seems to me it can be placed in a number of positions in worship. Andy [the church musician] and I will play through some possibilities on Monday.

The pastor demonstrates an awareness of the complex interrelationship between language and music: she acknowledges that, once I learn about the congregation’s story, it may touch off a different sound in my head. She later wrote me again after she and the musician had chosen the setting to which they wanted me to compose their anniversary hymn text:

The one we decided upon is Grosser Gott, wir loben dich. It does not necessarily fit the hymn placement after the sermon, although no hymn can be ruled out, but it serves well as an opening and closing hymn. I realize that it is a fairly grand setting — but it will fit well into our space and we have the organ to support it. In addition, on our Anniversary Sunday we will have timpani, violin (and one more instrument which I don’t remember) — all Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra players — with which to introduce the hymn.

Consider the number of factors that went into this decision: the tonal character of the music (“a fairly grand setting”), the flow of the liturgy (“the hymn placement” in the service), the church’s nave where it would be sung (“it will fit well into our space”), and the varied instrumental accompaniment (“the organ to support it” and members of the Symphony Orchestra “to introduce the hymn”). All of this preceded the writing of the text, and all of it rumbled around in my heart — “grand” musical sound, architectonic space, organ, timpani and violin — as I worked to create a hymn that opens:

Every planet, star and stone,

every atom charged and spinning,

every cell of blood and bone

trace to you, God, their beginning.

To exist in time and space

is itself a gift of grace.

After several drafts, I chose this opening stanza because the simple words, the ring of the rhymes, and the rhythm of the poetry produce to my ear the kind of “grand” sound that the pastor described in her e-mails. To quote Seamus Heaney again, I found in it “the stability conferred by a musically satisfying order of sounds” as well as theology I could offer with conviction.

I consistently raise two questions about a hymn’s structure and meaning, the second major category of my critical criteria: Does the hymn take us somewhere, gathering momentum from stanza to stanza? Is there immediately accessible meaning that will stand up to repeated singing and deeper reflection over time?

Although I find singing cyclic congregational song, for example, music of the Taizé community, prayerful and moving, I am drawn as a hymnpoet to creating sequential hymns. Sequential hymns put forth an argument or narrative line or poetic conceit that progresses from stanza to stanza.[6] I strive for a sense of development whose meaning is comprehensible upon first singing, yet rich enough to bear repetition and to produce new insights upon closer reading. In the words of Christian Wiman, I hope to attain “a surface clarity without sacrificing depth or complexity.”[7]

Because Christ teaches that the Spirit will guide us “into all the truth” (John 16:13a), theology can never be satisfied by confining itself to the Bible. We have to ask: Where is the Spirit leading us now? What reveals the Spirit? What blocks the Spirit? These are questions of theological depth, my third criterion for judging hymn texts. Edwin Muir helps me understand why such depth is an essential antidote to the distortions of our technologically obsessed culture. Over fifty years ago he traced the malaise of our culture to its “lopsided development”:

Something in the apparent progression [of ever-expanding human knowledge] has not progressed; for myself I would call it the imagination which would have made us able to use for purely human purposes all that applied science offers us. A lopsided development, whether of the body or the mind, is a diseased development, and is bound to lead to strange and unpredictable results…. What we are troubled by is the sense that science has run on far ahead of us, and that we are without the wisdom to use for our good the enormous power which it drops in passing into our hands.[8]

The “lopsided development” includes a neglect of theological depth, of what has been variously called through the centuries: mystery, wonder, spirit, God, the holy, the transcendent, the numinous. Writing new hymns in an era of “lopsided development” seems a modest effort at correcting its distortions. Nevertheless, it is a witness to the resurrection, to the way God disrupts the suffocating assumption that human thought and accomplishment define the boundaries of reality. The risen Christ, then, is the ultimate source of song that deepens prayer:

The risen Christ disturbed

far more than earth and stone.

Christ crumbled certainties inferred

from all that’s fixed and known:

the “facts” that we’ve defined —

that life is pulse and breath,

that wisdom is a heart resigned

to finitude and death.


Christ opens to surprise

the truth we presupposed:

accepted thought that calcifies

and views the world as closed.

Divine vitalities

from God’s deep heart and core

rise up with Christ as energies,

alive forevermore.


Refreshing, buoyant streams,

they lift our mind and heart

to look beyond our plots and schemes

to where God’s visions start:

inside an empty tomb

where dawn dispels the night

and earth becomes the holy womb

of newborn life and light.[9]



Thomas H. Troeger studied to become a flutist, but under the impact of a great preacher, he decided to prepare for the ministry. A pastor for seven years, he then began teaching homiletics, hymnody, and liturgics. His scholarship has focused on the role of the imagination in preaching and worship, and his creative work includes hymns and lyric poems. He is the Lantz Professor of Christian Communication at Yale Divinity School and Yale Institute of Sacred Music.



[1] Erik Routley, Christian Hymns Observed: When in Our Music God Is Glorified (Princeton, NJ: Prestige Publications, 1982), p. 6.

[2] David C. Mahan, An Unexpected Light: Theology and Witness in the Poetry and Thought of Charles Williams, Michael O’Siadhail, and Geoffery Hill (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2009), p. 210.

[3] Mahan, p. 164

[4] Mahan, p. 221.

[5] Seamus Heaney, Crediting Poetry (Loughcrew, Oldcastle, Co. Meath, Ireland: The Gallery Press, 1995), p. 28.

[6] For a very helpful discussion of the difference between cyclic and sequential congregational song see C. Michael Hawn, Gather into One: Praying and Singing Globally (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), pp. 224–240.

[7] Christian Wiman, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2007), p. 203.

[8] Edwin Muir, The Estate of Poetry (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962), p. 85.

[9] Troeger, Song that Blesses Earth.


*Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. Any further reproduction requires permission from Oxford University Press (music.permissions.uk@oup.com).

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