The text I have chosen is found in the Passion account at Luke 22:39-46 – Jesus’ Prayer in Gethsemane. Our contemplation of that scene is by Andrea Mantegna (born 1431 on Isola di Cartura of the Republic of Venice; died 1506 in Mantua, Italy) who was a painter and engraver, and “the first fully Renaissance artist of northern Italy.”
48 That one is like a person building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when the flood came, the river burst against that house but could not shake it because it had been well built.
When one imagines a garden, one sees a place blessed with rich topsoil, a place where people plant and tend lovely plants and grasses, bushes and trees, arranging them just right. One does not imagine a place of stone such as Mantegna has painted, a place where almost nothing can grow … but where, apparently, bunny rabbits (see them there) exercise a holy habit of showing up for important biblical moments.
Stony places are strong places. They are places where we can see exposed the “bones” of the Earth – nothing soft or changeable there. In such places, most seasonably changeable things cannot exist. We have come to the foundation place, upon which one can build a structure that will remain – a “foundation on rock.” In this painting we see Jesus praying on just such a foundation, facing to the East (note the direction of the light, and its color), while His disciples, set on the same foundation by Christ, lie fast asleep.
Mantegna paints not what the actual Gethsemane looks like, set in the valley between Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives, but what the place meant. He contemplates the place where the strength of the Christ is made as clear to us as the rock makes clear to us the strength of the Earth’s inner structure. Gethsemane activates “the hour” when all will be stripped away from Him, even His very clothes, symbolic of all that is changeable.
Jesus is stripped of his garments. Clothing gives a man his social position; it gives him his place in society, it makes him someone. His public stripping means that Jesus is no longer anything at all.
All that remained to Jesus to cling to is what mattered most to Him – His love for, and trust in, His Father. This is the one thing that could not be taken from Him – the foundation and principle of His unconquerable life.
4 I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body but after that can do no more.
See the bedrock – look at all of that stone! – upon which Jesus kneels and prays: Jesus and the Father in unbreakable relationship – “the house” which could not be shaken “because it had been well built.” That is the throne of grace that Mantegna paints.
The three disciples we see there, set by Christ on the same bedrock, will be shaken, their “testing” is now very near – 31 “Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, 32 but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail….” And when they awaken, they indeed will be profoundly shaken, but, in time, they may approach the throne of grace with confidence:
14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. 16 So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help. 
Throne of Grace
A wise friend once expressed to me the following conviction. “You know, Rick, I am convinced now, and after so many years of working with people in spiritual direction, that the real spiritual journey can only begin when a person has found the utter limit of the resources he or she has used to “win” graces. It is only when a person surrenders his or her effort to “get it right,” that he or she finally steps onto the path towards a mature spiritual life.” If we hear anything in Jesus at Gethsemane, we hear Him at His limit – “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me….
Mantegna arranged this Gethsemane scene as one does a church. Jesus, our high priest, kneels in front of that shaped and higher stone – the altar – and with both Christ and the altar oriented to the east (as was the traditional patterning in all Christian churches). And there at a lower level, outside of the “sanctuary,” lies the “congregation” of sleeping parishioners (!).
The prayer that Jesus makes in this “church” is a pure prayer without any embellishment, stripped of pretense and lovely words, its deepest point reached when we hear Jesus say that single word, “Father!” Perhaps it is better to sleep in church as do those disciples than to be apparently awake, praying without attention words one does not mean. Jesus knows exactly what He prays, and why He prays, and for whom. It is the perfect prayer of a person coming fully awake and fiercely clear.
And with a similar lack of pretense, His Father tells the truth, showing there in the arms of the attending angels – 43 And to strengthen him an angel from heaven appeared to him. – the concrete instruments of His Son’s passion and death. They hold and allow Jesus to see the pillar at which He will be scourged; the Cross to which He will be affixed; the spear that will pierce His side; the sponge of vinegar that will be raised to His lips; and the oil by which His dead body will be prepared for the grave. I think here of the biblical scholar Jerome Neyrey, who in a profound study of the Gethsemane texts, wrote:
The substance of courage lies in the correct perception of what is to be endured and faced with fortitude …. It is precisely this aspect of obedience (“what must be endured”) that stands out in the literature on this virtue…. Like the wise man, Jesus actively seeks the correct voluntatem (cf. “a correct rational longing,” Cicero), the will of God concerning what he must endure and to which he will be obedient.”
Only here, and only now, is the Lord Christ to be brought by His Father to His fullest maturity. And Jesus is ready.
The desert monks of early Christianity (late 3rd through 6th centuries) prayed to be brought to a moment of crisis. (The rest of us do all we can to avoid such moments.) Why would they pray this way?
The English word “crisis” has its source in the Greek verb krinein meaning “to decide.” What a monk wanted was to be brought by God to a moment of testing, but only when the monk had earned the right to such a test perfectly aimed.
In such a crisis, he would be forced to decide whether to let God take from him his false self (and selves) and to be definitively awakened to the “new life” offered him in Christ. The perceptive monks of the desert knew all too well how possible it was for them to lose their lives, never discovering their true selves, and to allow the awakening of the children of God. Think of those lines in Søren Kierkegaard’s, The Sickness unto Death:
“The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.”
Mantegna’s portrayal of Jesus in Gethsemane shows Jesus now arrived at the moment of crisis – to His “hour” about which He had spoken to His disciples many times. Jesus had not avoided this crisis; rather He had aimed Himself right at it through the whole course of His life:
51 When the days for his being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem….
And so we must grant, as does Mantegna, that Jesus was ready to face it. He had trained His whole life to be ready, and He fully intended successfully to meet this test. And, what is more, the text shows us the actual moment when the crisis demanded a decision, and what Jesus decided: “still, not my will, but yours be done.”
Perhaps more than we should, we, because we fear such ultimate tests of our truth, because we are afraid of finally being made fully awake to the “new life” for which God made us, we notice more the suffering of Gethsemane than the sheer joy of it. Jesus came to His greatest crisis … and was found worthy of it – He decided, letting all else go, to be God’s beloved Son, no matter the cost. We recall the prayer of St. Ignatius:
Eternal Word, only begotten Son of God,
Teach me true generosity.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve.
To give without counting the cost,
To fight heedless of wounds,
To labor without seeking rest,
To sacrifice myself without thought of any reward
Save the knowledge that I have done your will.
Whether through manufactured crises such as athletic contests offer, or at profound moments of encounter in human relationships, we each face crises. And in such moments we are forced to decide who we are. And when we decide to be truest, letting go of all falseness, we feel ourselves re-made, clarified, and know joy.
Perhaps then we ought to understand this scene from early in the Passion account of St. Luke, and which Mantegna paints, as revealing the throne of grace as just such a testing place, because at that altar Jesus was tested, and He decided and was found worthy. What a fierce and beautiful, and honestly scary, place that had to have been that night. It was Jesus, the beloved Son, come to full stature – “a terrible beauty is born”.
 “Andrea Mantegna”. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016.
 New American Bible (Revised Edition.; Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Lk 6:48.
 http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/resources/prayers/stations-of-the-cross/tenth-station-jesus-isstripped-of-his-garments/ – The Tenth Station of the Cross – Jesus is Stripped of His Garments.
 New American Bible (Revised Edition.; Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Lk 12:4.
 New American Bible (Revised Edition.; Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Lk 22:31–32.
 New American Bible (Revised Edition.; Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Heb 4:14–16.
 New American Bible (Revised Edition.; Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Lk 22:42.
 New American Bible (Revised Edition.; Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Lk 22:43.
 Neyrey, Jerome. The Passion According to Luke: A Redaction Study of Luke’s Soteriology. Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1985: 56. Just the chapter on Gethsemane: “Jesus in the Garden (Luke 22:39-46)”: 49-68.
 Wikipedia: “The Sickness unto Death (Danish: Sygdommen til Døden) is a book written by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard in 1849 under the pseudonym Anti-Climacus. A work of Christian existentialism, the book is about Kierkegaard’s concept of despair, which he equates with the Christian concept of sin, particularly original sin.”
 New American Bible (Revised Edition.; Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Lk 9:51.
 A prayer written by St. Ignatius of Loyola (1492-1556).
 A line taken from W. B. Yeats’ poem, “Easter, 1916.”