“Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and . . . an angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.” —Luke 22:39, 43
Luke is the only one of the Gospel writers to mention that in response to Jesus’s pained pleas in Gethsemane, an angel came down to strengthen him. American artist Anthony Falbo renders this moment of heavenly condescension in his painting Gethsemane (The Hour is Near). Unlike other artistic depictions of the same event, this one seems profoundly personal. The angels are not smiling on from a distance, enclosed in a giant orb of light, with arms outstretched but making no contact. To the contrary: the weight of these angels’ bodies falls firmly but gently on Christ as they enwrap him round about. They close their eyes, as if they’re trying to absorb his pain, to feel it along with him. They’re conduits of the Father’s comfort, for it is he who sent them down, to strengthen his Son in his moment of weakness.
Falbo chose to depict three angels instead of just the one that Luke mentions. This multiplicity creates a stronger sense of protective presence: the more angels around him, the tighter the seal.
I’ve never seen an angel portrayed as having such sensitivity toward, such commitment to, his charge. And yet Luke writes that Jesus’s reaction to the angel’s presence was not to make immediate peace with the situation but to “pray more earnestly” for a way out (v. 44). Was he not sufficiently comforted by the angel? He was, but this comfort came gradually. The angel helped him ride through his emotions and reach catharsis. Maybe the strength the angel gave him was the strength to continue praying, to not give up faith, to trust that his words were not landing in a vast void but were being received by a heartbroken Father.
In Falbo’s painting, the relief Jesus feels at the angels’ touch is visible, but it’s subtle. There’s no giant, shoulder-heaving sigh, no beatific glance upward—just a quiet softening of his sorrow, a gentle uplift of his soul, as he prepares to submit himself to his fate.
In response to Jesus’s prayers in Gethsemane, the Father does not remove the cup of suffering from him, as he asks, but he does give him the strength to drink it. To swallow it down and stomach its bitterness. God oftentimes does the same in response to our prayers: he may not change our circumstances the way we want him to, but he will always give us the strength to push through them and ultimately triumph over them.
I wonder how long the angel stayed with Jesus that night. That week. Perhaps the angel strengthened him at other points during his Passion. We’ll never know, but we can know, through inference, that Jesus’s deepest source of strength was the Father and his desire to see him glorified.
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