Holy Thursday: Mount of Olives

And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”

—Luke 22:39–46 (emphasis added)

LOOK: Abraham Rattner (American, 1895–1978), Martyr, 1944. Oil on canvas, 32 × 24 in. (81.3 × 61 cm). Private collection.

Rattner, Abraham_Martyr

Jewish artist Abraham Rattner did not specify the identity of the figure in his 1944 painting Martyr, but he painted many images of the passion of Christ during the forties, so it’s likely meant to be a part of that body of work. Because the man’s hands are clasped together, I’m assuming it represents the Agony in the Garden (as opposed to the dead Christ supported by angels).

Luke is the only Gospel writer to mention that in response to Jesus’s anguished pleas in Gethsemane, an angel came down to “strengthen” (enischýō) him. Renaissance artists almost always included an angel in the scene, but at a remove—usually hovering over the mount or peeping out of a cloud, presenting to Jesus the cup of suffering. Often Jesus is shown with a beatific glance upward.

What Rattner gives us, though, is a much more intimate interaction, made all the more so by its being tightly cropped. The angel firmly yet tenderly embraces Jesus’s slumped body, weak with exhaustion and dripping with blood and sweat; the pressure of his grip around arm and torso is palpable. Empathetic, the angel closes his eyes as if trying to absorb Jesus’s pain, to feel it along with him. The two faces appear to merge.

Physical contact between the divinely sent minister and his charge at Gethsemane is not unheard of in the Old Masters; see, for example, Veronese, Giacinto Brandi, Francesco Trevisani, Adriaen van de Velde. But I think Rattner paints it best, capturing a compassionate moment while avoiding mawkishness.

The angel’s simply being there, present to Jesus’s sorrow, doesn’t immediately soften the tension Jesus holds in his body or eliminate his fears. But it does reinvigorate his trust in the Father’s will and prepares him to accept the cup, to drink its bitterness to the dregs.

I wonder how long the angel stayed with Jesus that night. That week. Perhaps the angel strengthened him at other points during his passion too?

LISTEN: “’Tis Midnight, and on Olive’s Brow” | Words by William B. Tappan, 1822

’Tis midnight, and on Olive’s brow
The star is dimmed that lately shone;
’Tis midnight in the garden now,
The suff’ring Savior prays alone.

’Tis midnight, and from all removed,
The Savior wrestles lone with fears—
E’en that disciple whom he loved
Heeds not his Master’s grief and tears.

’Tis midnight, and for others’ guilt
The Man of Sorrows weeps in blood;
Yet he that hath in anguish knelt
Is not forsaken by his God.

’Tis midnight, and from ether plains
Is borne the song that angels know;
Unheard by mortals are the strains
That sweetly soothe the Savior’s woe.

In this hymn the Rev. William B. Tappan of Massachusetts does not indicate the physical presence of an angel with Jesus in Gethsemane but instead imagines a faint waft of angelic song, heard only by Jesus, servicing Jesus’s spirit in his moment of intense need. A fanciful touch, but sure! The repetition of “’tis midnight” at the beginning of each stanza emphasizes the deep darkness—physical, psychological, and spiritual—of that Thursday night when Jesus was forcibly seized from prayer to be put to death on a cross.

I’m not a fan of the traditional tune by William B. Bradbury that’s used in hymnals for this text, though the Green Carpet Players have a fine recording of it. The hymn first came alive to me through a modern retune by The Wilders, sung with a simple banjo accompaniment. Shortly after, I discovered another compelling retune by Hymn Factory, a moody jazz waltz.

>> Music by Eve Sheldon of The Wilders, on On the Wings of a Dove (2002, re-released 2007)

>> Music by Patty Chung of Hymn Factory, on Guide Me: Treasured Hymn Verses in Melodious Pop Songs (2006)

Both these songs appear on the Art & Theology Holy Week Playlist.

“Dry Bones” by Rebekah Osborn

Valley of Dried Bones by Abraham Rattner
Abraham Rattner (American, 1895–1978), Valley of Dried Bones. Lithograph, 23.5 × 35.2 in.

The macabre vision that God gives Ezekiel in 37:1–14 is to me one of the most compelling in all of scripture. In it God brings Ezekiel to a valley filled with dried-up human bones (the aftermath of a battle) and commands him to prophesy life to the bones. As he does, they start to reassemble into human shapes, then they grow tissue, then flesh. But they have no breath. So Ezekiel invokes the Spirit of God to come fill the corpses, and when the Spirit does, the corpses transform into live beings.

The dry bones in the vision represent the hopelessness of divided, dispersed Israel. She was “dead” as a nation, deprived of her land, her king, and her temple. But God promises to restore Israel physically and spiritually. The reanimation of the dry bones is a sign of that promise.

Christian theologians interpret this vision as being fulfilled by the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2, to permanently indwell believers and so give them new life. Jesus Christ came as both king and temple for Israel, and founder of the New Jerusalem, and when he ascended to heaven he left his Spirit (pneuma, breath) on earth to continue his resurrection work.

Rebekah Osborn, singer, songwriter, and worship assistant at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, wrote a song in 2012 inspired by Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. I’ve embedded it here with her permission. (For more information see https://rebekahkayosborn.wordpress.com/2012/07/13/dry-bones/; access the chords here.)

I am standing in a valley filled with dead, dry bones
I don’t know if they could ever live again
He says, “I am calling you from your grave.
You will know I am Lord when I bring you from the dead.”

Rise up, dry bones
Breathe the air, live again
Rise up, dry bones
Death shall be master over you no more

I am standing in the valley when the Lord God says,
“Prophesy, son of man, over the dead,
For their bones dried up, and their hope is lost,
But they will know I am God when I bring them from their graves.”

(Chorus)

Oh Breath, breathe on these slain
That they may live
Oh Breath, breathe on these slain
That they may live

(Chorus)

All God’s people have their own personal resurrection narratives, and Osborn’s “Dry Bones” speaks to those. Before Christ, we were dead in sin, unwhole. But Christ breathed life into us, just like God did at Creation (Genesis 2:7), bringing us up out of the valley of death. In this mighty act of re-creation, Christ’s power is made known.

Still, even after receiving the gift of Christ’s Spirit, we sometimes experience periods of deadness. Things happen that obscure for us the reality of love and life that is at the center of the universe. This song can be used to sing through those valleys. We can ask God to bring us back to life, to revive us just as he did all those skeleton heaps before Ezekiel’s wonder-filled eyes.

The art of contemplative seeing (as modeled by Moses)

“Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things . . .”—Psalm 119:18

“My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others.”—C. S. Lewis

Images have revelatory power. God spoke through them in ancient times: a ladder (Jacob); sheaves of wheat (Joseph); a ripe grapevine (pharaoh’s cupbearer); birds eating cake (pharaoh’s baker); cattle eating cattle (pharaoh); a wheel inside a wheel (Ezekiel); dry bones reconstituting into living human beings (Ezekiel); a broken statue (Nebuchadnezzar); four beasts (Daniel); a sheet filled with animals (Peter); and fantastical creatures doing battle (John). Some of these images were received during sleep, while others were waking dreams—visions—and while verbal statements by God sometimes accompanied them, the images left definite impressions that plunged the seer into a deeper awareness of God’s nature and/or will.

Moses and the Burning Bush by Edward Knippers
Edward Knippers (American, 1946–), Moses and the Burning Bush, 2008. Oil on panel, 6 × 4 ft.

Another famous image through which God spoke was the burning bush on Mount Horeb, which interrupted Moses during his workday. Notice his double take:

Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” (Exodus 3:1–4)

In Abiding: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2013, Ben Quash notes that when Moses first sees the bush, he simply receives the visual data: bush on fire. But then as he starts to compute what he sees he realizes that hey, the flames are engulfing it, but it’s not being consumed; this is a “great sight” that deserves a closer look. So he turns aside from his intended path to dwell more consciously and deliberately with the strange bush. It is only then—when Moses has stood still long enough—that the voice of God addresses him. And he is utterly transformed by the encounter that follows, whereby he is called to liberate his people from slavery in Egypt and lead them in settling a new land.   Continue reading “The art of contemplative seeing (as modeled by Moses)”