From: All God’s Angel
He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” Then an angel from Heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground. When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” (Luke 22:39-46)
This scene, from the Gospel of Luke, begins the most remarkable days of the life of Jesus, including those most sacred three days (what the church calls the Paschal Triduum) of our Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection – the accomplishment of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice, the fulcrum of God’s saving work in human history. From this point on, everything is changed.
It comes as no surprise that the angels should play an important role, assisting Jesus as he enters the path of his suffering, and later announcing his great victory when he defeats the “last enemy” (see 1 Corinthians 15:26). Only a brief few years before at the inauguration of his public ministry, angels came to care for Jesus in the wilderness after he had battled with the temptations of the devil. The angels helped ready Jesus for three years of unceasing sacrifice: teaching, healing, guiding, loving. As the Son of God lived among the human race, which would eventually betray and reject him, the race of angels was at his service. Now, as the Son of Man prepares for the brutal end of his life, he prays in the Garden of Olives – an arboreal echo of the Garden of Eden – and once again receives Heavenly help in his struggle.
In much of the artwork that depicts Jesus’s agony at Gethsemane, an angel is shown as if descending from Heaven and holding out a cup to Jesus. “Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” Jesus once asked his ambitious followers, referring to the suffering he was destined to endure, (Matthew 20:22). The angel who brings strength to Jesus also brings the bitter final draft of his sorrows. In some renditions, the cup of suffering is seen only in the anguished face of Jesus. The angel (sometimes it is more than one angel) is pictured with Jesus, embracing him, even enveloping him within the shadow of his wings. The angel is seen as the Heaven-sent agent of God’s love, the only way in which the Son can now know the presence of his Father.
In both interpretations of the event, the angel’s support is not meant to lighten the burden Jesus is being asked to bear. Contained within the mystery of our Lord’s passion is the profound truth that Jesus alone must bear the whole weight of human sin and its consequences. Not a grain of the burden can be shared with another. Not one single grain. What the angel can do is help Jesus accept his Father’s will. The angel gives Jesus strength to take the cup and drink to the last drop. By Jesus’s total self-giving for the purposes of grace, he wins us our salvation and angels are there to help make it happen. What a debt we owe to these, our Heavenly benefactors. Can we trust they will be there when our hour comes?