Sunday, April 14, 2019

Praying in the Garden: Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?

How alone was Jesus during Holy Week? Crowds lined the street as he rode into the city. Jesus did share a last meal with his disciples. The city was full of people even at the end of the week. And yet there were times he was alone. So alone.

On the night he was betrayed, Jesus prayed, specifically in the garden of Gethsemane according to Matthew (Matthew 26:36-46) and Mark (Mark 14:32-42), on the Mount of Olives according to Luke (Luke 22:40-46). He takes several disciples with him, but they fall asleep...more than once. Could you not keep awake one hour? he asks them. He prayed alone.

But according to Luke's gospel there was a presence who appeared to give Jesus strength in that agonizing hour. In the NRSV, Luke 22:43 says, "Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength." The KJV says, " And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him."

What does it look like when an angel appears to strengthen Jesus? In Raphael's version below, the angel hovers above Jesus carrying the cup from which Jesus prays to be spared. A couple of centuries later, William Blake's angel literally supports Jesus, whose fervent prayers have rendered him unable to stay upright on his own. Another century later, Frans Schwartz's angel stands beside Jesus with an arm around his shoulders.
 (Left) Raphael. The Agony in the Garden. c. 1504. NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Center) William Blake. The Agony in the Garden. c. 1799-1800. London: Tate. (Right) Frans Schwartz. The Agony in the Garden. 1898. Salt Lake City, UT: Brigham Young University Museum of Art.
From his entry into Jerusalem on through Holy Week, Jesus is alone in the midst of a crowd. The cheers of the entry parade will become calls for his death. His disciples will fall asleep while he is praying. One of his closest friends will betray him. He will be crucified, and his followers will deny him, fall away, or watch from a distance.

It's only natural that we would want to make Jesus a little less alone. Artists do it, and even scripture interpreters do. In The Message, Luke 22:43 reads, "At once an angel from heaven was at his side, strengthening him." At his side. I hope so.

Another thought on Jesus' aloneness is on this week's Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page.

For thoughts on the footwashing of Maundy Thursday, click here.

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