Trevor Herriot writes: “Only after we have let the desert do its full work in us will angels finally come and minister to us.”
That’s one of the lessons of Gethsemane. It’s only after the deserts of loneliness, duty, and helplessness have done their work in Jesus that “an angel from heaven came and ministered to him.” A unique thing can happen to us when we are overwhelmed. When the burden of self-sacrifice prostrates us in weakness and leaves us sweating blood, it’s then that God’s strength can flow into us most deeply. Many people have experienced this.
Martin Luther King, for example, recounts his own Agony in the Garden and the angel that came to strengthen him:
One night toward the end of January, I settled into bed late, after a strenuous day. Coretta had already fallen asleep and just as I was about to doze off the telephone rang. An angry voice said, ‘Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you, before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.’ I hang up, but I couldn’t sleep. It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached a saturation point. I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. Finally I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward.
In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory:
“I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced him before.
The parallel to Jesus in Gethsemane is so obvious that it’s superfluous to elaborate on it. God sends angels to strengthen us precisely when God finds us lying prostrate, sweating the blood of duty. Moreover that particular kind of sweat does something else for us as well.
In the Gethsemane accounts we’re told that, right after being strengthened by an angel, Jesus gets up off the ground and walks with courage to face the ordeal that awaits him. His agony and the strengthening he receives within it, readied him for the pain that lay ahead. Indeed, at the time of Jesus, the word “agony” had a double sense: Beyond its more obvious meaning, it also referred to a particular “readying” that an athlete would do just before entering the arena or stadium. The athlete would ready himself (in those days the athlete normally was a he) for the contest by working up a certain sweat (agony) with the idea that this exercise and the lather it produced would concentrate and make ready both his energies and muscles for the rigours that lay ahead. No athlete wants to enter the contest unprepared, unready.
The gospel writers want us to have this same image of Jesus as he leaves the Garden of Gethsemane: his agony has brought about a certain emotional, physical, and spiritual lather so that he is now readied, a focused athlete, properly prepared to enter the battle. Moreover, because of his strengthening he brings a certain divine energy, he is indeed more ready than any athlete.
Christina Crawford, writing about a low time in her life, once commented: “Lost is a place too!” Indeed, biblically, it’s a very important place. It’s the place where angels can come and minister to us and it’s the place that readies us for spiritual battle. When our own strength gives out, when the pain of duty seems too much, when we lie prostrate in weakness and cringe before what truth, justice, and God seem to be asking of us, when we’ve come to the point where, like Martin Luther King, we can no longer face it alone, we’re finally at that place where angels can minister to us and we’ve finally worked up the spiritual lather that has readied our souls and bodies for the Good Fridays that await us all.
Certain things, Trevor Herriot suggests, can only happen in gardens and deserts:
How long, covered in the sackcloth of grass, thorn and sky, before our desires and illusions fall to intimations of communion; before edges dissolve and we comprehend the mystic’s dream of union beyond all boundaries and distinctions?