While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, ‘The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.’ At once he came up to Jesus and said, ‘Greetings, Rabbi!’ and kissed him. Jesus said to him, ‘Friend, do what you are here to do.’ Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?’ At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.’ Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.
As the Passion narrative begins to unfold, Jesus’ disciples are not portrayed in a good light. One disciple betrays him, another tries to retaliate with violence, and finally they all forsake him. Throughout Matthew, Jesus had predicted his fate; had the prophets not foretold that the Messiah would suffer and die? But the disciples had not understood. And Jesus has to endure not only arrest, but also betrayal, violence, cowardice, on the part of his closest followers. It is a black moment.
Caravaggio, the legendary bad boy from the violent and bawdy back streets of Rome, was a brilliant painter of darkness. The drama of his painting, The Taking of Christ, is enhanced by the blackness; it is emotionally charged; it compels us to look at what is happening. The off-stage light is focussed on the faces of Judas and Jesus; Judas has just given his master a kiss, he is still gripping him in his arms, on his face a mix of fear, love and dismay. Jesus turns his face away, in the pallor of death, his downcast eyes and clasped hands accepting his fate, refusing retaliation and violence. Immediately behind, a disciple is fleeing, his arms raised, his mouth agape, his back turned to Jesus whom he has abandoned; while the artist himself is watching, holding up a Chinese lantern, to shed a secondary light on the scene. The nearer soldier’s thrusting, metal-clad arm lays hold of Jesus by force, shining like a mirror, inviting us to see ourselves reflected in it.
It is as if Caravaggio is asking us to consider: are we also participating in the betrayal of Jesus?
God of power, God of mercy, you turn darkness into light and despair to hope. Lift from our hearts the failures that weigh us down that we may find new life in Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen
The Rev’d Fleur Houston is a retired minister and a member of Macclesfield and Bollington URC.