My brother has a small business with just a few employees. One of them, a smoker with compromised lungs, phoned him in the early hours of the morning. This man had developed a cough which he was worried might be the Corona Virus and he was self-isolating at home.
What struck my brother most was the palpable fear in the man’s voice and his words: at 2.00 a.m. What thoughts went through his head? There are times when Faith is challenged in the face of death. Here is Sir John Betjeman among the mourners at Aldershot Crematorium.
But no-one seems to know quite what to say
(Friends are so altered by the passing years):
“Well, anyhow, it’s not so cold today”—
And thus we try to dissipate our fears.
‘I am the Resurrection and the Life’:
Strong, deep and painful, doubt inserts the knife.
Betjeman knew doubt and fear: so did Jesus in the Garden:
And they came to a farm called Gethsemane. And he saith to his disciples: Sit you here, while I pray. And he taketh Peter and James and John with him; and he began to fear and to be heavy. And he saith to them: My soul is sorrowful even unto death; stay you here, and watch. Mark 14:32-34.
Let us pray that all facing an unlooked-for death may face their end with due courage and may the Angels welcome them into Paradise.
William Blake, The Agony in the Garden, c.1799-1800. Tempera on iron. Tate Britain. Image released under a Creative Commons license.
Blake’s The Agony in the Garden is a highly original take on this scene from Luke’s Gospel. According to Luke 22:41-45, Christ kneels, praying to the Father to ‘remove this cup from me’; an angel appears to strengthen him, and as he continues to pray, ‘his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground’. Artists depicting this subject are usually faithful to the details of Christ’s kneeling and the presence of an angel (sometimes more than one is included), often holding a cup.
In Blake’s version, Christ is kneeling and his eyes are open, but he is falling backwards and being caught by an angel swooping down from above. There is a strong sense of intimacy in the interaction between Christ and the angel – the direct alignment of their faces creates a mirroring, and the embracing reach of the angel and Christ’s open arms are offers of union.
Our eyes may not immediately tune in to notice the sleeping disciples in the shadows among the trees in the background. They have been relegated to this place of semi-darkness in stark contrast to the angel who appears in answer to Jesus’ prayers.
The strangeness of Blake’s interpretation of this scene might emphasise the question of how we are to read the angel in this story? I wonder if Blake has presented us with a (rather unorthodox) depiction of the Trinity, with the angel representing the Father, responding to Jesus’ prayer, and the strange blast of red light above it as the Holy Spirit.
What we certainly have is a powerful image of an angel as a positive, sustaining presence in answer to a prayer.