Question: We hear about angels ministering to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. After that, there is no reference to angels throughout Christ’s passion and crucifixion. The next reference to angels is at the empty tomb, mysterious witnesses to his glorious resurrection. Can we assume that angels were absent during Christ’s passion? Or were they somehow present but not cited by the Gospel writers?
— Dan Bishop, Mason, Michigan
Answer: The Scriptures are silent as to the activity of the angels during the Crucifixion. Hence, we are left to speculate. The likely reason that nothing is said of their role is that salvation is wholly the work of God working through the humanity of Christ. That said, some things can be rightly surmised. During the agony in the garden, “to strengthen him an angel from heaven appeared to him” (Lk 22:43). So, some consolation took place in the initial phases of the passion. Did this ministry of the angels continue? Likely, and why not? This work of the angels is an ordinary and ongoing help to us all, especially in our darkest hours. And so, with Our Lord, we can reasonably assume the angels’ consoling continues to this degree. We can also reasonably assume that it was not some help beyond the ordinary work of the angels, lest we diminish the glory of the passion as wholly the work of the Lord without special “assistance” from the angels.
Some might argue that the angels wholly withdrew from the Lord, quoting Psalm 22 wherein the Lord laments: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish? My God, I call by day, but you do not answer; by night, but I have no relief” (Psalm 22:2-3). These verses, if taken alone, seem to indicate the Lord felt wholly abandoned by his Father and implies he feels alone, the angels also being absent. However, Psalm 22 is not a psalm of despair and abandonment if considered as a whole. It answers the despairing cries with reminders of God’s victorious providence. For example, the Psalm later declares: “For he has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch, Did not turn away from me, but heard me when I cried out” (Psalm 22:24) So, if the Lord is not simply quoting one verse from a Psalm, but, as is most likely, means the whole psalm, he is not finally saying he is alone and in despair.
Hence, the most likely answer is to strike a balance by concluding that the angels were present but providing ordinary care and consolation. This also matches with the human beings present: Mother Mary, St. John and the other women who were supportive and consoling but could not simply cancel the Lord’s passion and suffering. It is a common theological premise that wherever there is a human presence or “agency” at work, there is also a matching angelic agency that supplies God’s grace and supports the human action.