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Christ Strengthened by the Angels
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Our present Meditation is on: Christ Strengthened by the Angels.
We have already said that God became man in order to teach us how we are to follow His example. It is crucially important to remember that God not only became a man. He became a man with all the limitations of humanity, except our fallen sinful human nature.
If there is one aspect of Christ’s life on earth stressed by the evangelists, it is to show how truly human Jesus was. He was conceived and born of a human mother. He was nursed and nourished by her. For thirty years, He lived and slept and ate at Nazareth. So human was His behavior at Nazareth that when He spoke at the synagogue at Nazareth, His fellow Nazareans rose up in protest. Jesus had told them that the prophecy of Isaiah was being fulfilled. This man claimed to be the Messiah! All of this is important to keep in mind as we approach the most dramatic occasion in the gospels, when Jesus Christ was strengthened by an angel during His Agony at the Garden at Gethsemane.
As we have been doing, so here, we shall first look briefly at the short statement in St. Luke’s gospel describing Christ in the Garden of Olives. Then, we will try to understand more deeply and clearly what the Holy Spirit meant when He tells us that an angel from heaven strengthened the Savior. Finally, we will ask ourselves how we, like Christ, are to be strengthened by the angels whom God provides us in our lives especially in times of humanly impossible trials sent to us by God. To words we should never separate, grace and angels. As the evangelist tells us, God provides the grace we need through the angels, who are channels of His grace.
The Agony in the Garden
The Last Supper had just finished. If you can imagine, no sooner had Christ just ordained His apostles and had given them the Holy Eucharist, then a quarrel broke out among the consecrated followers of Christ. They were arguing among themselves who would hold what position in the Church that Christ was founding.
Peter had promised Christ that he would be with Him through all the Masters trials. But Jesus new better. He told the bragging apostle, “Simon, behold, Satan has desired to have you that he might sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail.” Peter protested, “Lord, with you I am ready to go both to prison and to death.” Jesus then predicted, “I tell you, Peter, a cock will not crow this day, until you have denied me three times that you even know me.” What a big mouth Peter had, and as we know, what a weak will.
Just before leaving for Gethsemane, Christ told His disciples what they could scarcely grasp, the He was going to His passion. To illustrate how little they realized what He was saying, they told Him, “Lord, here are two swords!” Christ’s reply was understandable. He simply said, “Enough!” Oh, you stupid disciples, the last thing we need is a sword of steel.
What we need to understand is that, in facing His passion, Christ needed strength. The strength He needed, needless to say, was not military ammunition to face an earthly foe. The last thing Christ needed was a metal sword.
Jesus then took His three chosen disciples with Him into the Garden of Olives, Peter, James, and John. They followed Him. No sooner had they entered the Garden then He told them, “Pray, that you may not enter into temptation.” No sooner did He give them this exhortation than He threw Himself on His knees and began to pray. Don’t call this dramatics. This is divine revelation. Christ revealed to us what we need to know to follow Him completely, not only through the Sermon on the Mount, but also through the Sermon in the Garden of Olives. “Father,” He said, “If you are willing, remove this chalice from me; yet not my will but thine be done.” In all the years of teaching Christology, I never neglected, indeed I emphasized, that Christ’s human nature was most revealed by His falling down on His knees and pleading with His heavenly Father. Let us be clear, Christ, not for a moment, was unwilling to carry the Cross. But He was human. As human, He anticipated the pain and dreaded it.
No sooner did the Savior begin to pray then, the evangelist tells us, “There appeared to Him an angel from heaven to strengthen Him. And falling into an agony, He prayed the more earnestly.”
Satan in the Passion of Christ
Among the twelve apostles of the Savior, two were deeply affected by the evil spirit. Judas became possessed by the devil. The evangelist St. John tells us as much when he says, “The devil entered the heart of Judas who then went out to betray his divine Master.” Less obvious and sadly ignored was the role of Satan in trying to seduce Peter, and he almost succeeded. In fact, he did succeed. The devil succeeded remarkably because Peter did not openly betray Jesus; but he did, very openly, out loud, three times, openly, denied Jesus. The devil knew what plans Christ had for Peter. Peter was to be Christ’s first visible vicar on earth and the foundation of the papacy. Let us be sure that we note this. There is no one on earth the devil wants more to break down than the vicar of Jesus Christ. That is also why Christ told him that Satan was plotting to control the wide-mouthed and weak-willed son. That is also why Christ especially prayed that Satan might not fully succeed, as he did with Judas. Let us be sure that we know this - that Satan hates the Catholic Church. The devil does everything in his power to destroy the mystical body of Christ which is the Roman Catholic Church.
But Satan was especially intent on tempting Jesus as the Savior was facing His dreadful passion.
When Jesus began His public ministry, the devil tried to tempt Jesus in the desert. He tried but failed. But we know that the devil did not let go. He continued trying to seduce Jesus and on Holy Thursday night, he saw this was his last chance. The Agony of the Savior in the Garden of Olives was not only, or mainly, the terrible prospect of His unjust condemnation, or the scourging, or the crowning with thorns, or the way of the Cross, or even the bloody Crucifixion on Calvary. No. The main reason for the Agony in the Garden was the foreknowledge that Christ had of how many would not only not respond to His grace, but openly reject Him in the centuries of future history.
Jesus therefore, did what, as man, He most needed to do, He prayed. The earnestness of His prayer was manifest not only by His posture on fallen knees, but the sweat of blood which He had. Only St. Luke, the physician become evangelist, could be so detailed in describing the sufferings of Jesus. They were interior sufferings. It was spiritual pain that Jesus mainly experienced. It was agony of the heart. The sweat of blood was only the external manifestation of Christ’s deep internal anguish.
Once we realized, but we have to realize this, that the essence of Christ’s sufferings was spiritual, deep down in His human soul, only then can we begin to understand why His heavenly Father sent an angel from heaven to strengthen Him. Only a spirit can strengthen the spirit. The angelic spirit strengthening the spirit of Christ’s soul. Only an angelic being can bring courage to the human soul. Not to know this is not to begin to begin to understand what the Agony in the Garden really means, and how much we have still to learn from the experience of our Redeemer in cooperating with Him in the redemption of our own soul and the soul of others.
We Need to be Strengthened by the Angels
Christ’s Agony in the Garden is meant to teach us the hardest lesson in life we need to learn. It is the lesson that there is no pleasing God without suffering. There is no heaven without the Cross. And the deepest suffering is not in the body but in the soul. When Jesus cried out to His Father to remove the chalice that He foresaw for all the Good Fridays until the end of time, He was telling us what we had better know if we are to understand what the following of Christ really means. Let me underline and repeat. We had better know what Christ was praying for and why He was strengthened by and angel if we are to understand what the following of Christ really is. What a difference between believing and understanding what we believe.
The humanity of Jesus Christ is no where more clearly revealed or more graphically described then in Christ’s prayer to His heavenly Father. Being human, He dreaded not only the physical pain of His bodily passion and death, and they were extreme. He especially dreaded the prospect of rejection by so many in the centuries after Calvary until the last day. Humanly speaking, He did not like what He foresaw. But, having come to save a sinful human race, He knew that He was to choose what His Father wanted of Him.
That is why Christ prayed so intensely that He joined His prayer to the sweating of blood. That is also why the Father sent an angel of heaven to strengthen Him, for His agony was mainly foreseeing our sins and the consequences of our rejecting the love of God.
All that we are saying has profound implications in our own lives. The more closely Christ wants us to follow in His footsteps; the more intimately He wants us to join with Him, so as, in St. Paul’s mysterious words to make up for what is wanting in the suffering of Christ; the more effective the Lord wants our zeal for souls to be effective in the apostolate; the higher the sanctity to which He is calling us - the more we must expect, dare I say, look forward to, uniting ourselves with Jesus in His Agony in the Garden.
How is all of this possible? It is not possible. It is impossible by any natural powers that we possess. That is why we must pray, pray earnestly, for the superhuman power to not only endure, but to embrace our share in the Agony of the Savior.
However, we are not alone in this stupendous enterprise. God has created the angels precisely for this purpose. We commonly speak of the angels as messengers of God. So they are. They do bring us the mind of God to enlighten our dull minds to know what God wants and how He wants us to do it.
That is not all. The angels are not only messengers of God’s wisdom, they are also powers sent by God to strengthen our human wills. If Christ, the living God in human form, needed to have an angel strengthen Him in His agony, how much more do we need the angels to strengthen us in our trials and sufferings and weakness and pathetic disability.
All of this, however, is conditional. Christ was teaching us the most important instruction we need in life. What is it? We must know that God is always ready to provide us with the moral strength we need to do His will. But mystery of mysteries. He conditions providing us with the strength we need by telling us we must pray. That is why He warned His chosen disciples at Gethsemane to pray. Instead of praying, what do they do? They went to sleep.
How blind we can be to the absolute necessity of prayer, begging God to help us when we are in trouble or oppressed or tried, as it seems, beyond our native powers to endure.
If we pray, we shall obtain the help that only God can provide. How does God provide? This is our faith. By sending His angels as communicators of the courage that enabled the Savior to not only survive the Agony in the Garden, but, dare we say, thrive by giving us a promise of joining Him in a heavenly eternity, provided we pray. And as we pray, are strengthened by the heavenly spirits.
Mary, Mother of Sorrows, you joined with your Son during His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. You joined with Him in praying for the grace that you knew you would need and generously cooperate with and for our salvation. No doubt, you too were strengthened by an angel to join Jesus in your compassion for your Divine Son. Teach us to follow your example of prayer and reliance on the angels to help us reach our destiny. Amen.
Dallas Carmelites, Conference #14, Wednesday 2/28/96, 4:30 PM
Copyright © 1996 Inter Mirifica
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