The most beautiful painting I’ve seen hangs in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The piece is easy to miss if you’ve seen the highlights and are in a hurry to move on; it’s in one of the last rooms and faces the exit.
The first time I saw it, a dozen years ago or so now, it stopped me in my tracks and I spent a good 20 minutes soaking it in.
Envision a canvas about 2.5 meters tall and 2 meters wide. It’s nighttime. In the foreground, a man with dreadlocked hair has taken a knee on a slab of rock. You can imagine the gravel digging into his cartilage. A dark, tattered cloak guards against the night’s chill. Moonlight reveals half of the man’s face and illuminates the olive trees behind him. The weight of his life’s journey and the trial to come are heavy indeed.
You can sense the fear. His mouth is dry, his hands heavy and sweating, his heart beating rapidly, his stomach wracked in knots.
“O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me…”
At that time in my life, the notion that a painting of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane would spur a moment’s reflection would seem absurd. In adolescence, our church’s priest suggested that I leave the church. “You ask too many questions,” he said. It was counsel I was happy to heed. But here, for the first time, was an image that resonated.
This morning I’ve been thinking about that painting and the humanity it captures. The fear. The plea to avoid the coming agony. The courage (or faith, if that’s your thing) required to take the next step.
In the weeks and years ahead, we’re all going to face that desire to pass the cup and try to excuse ourselves from some frightening tests. On the other side awaits the promise of unity, with a society that values each individual’s human dignity. But it’s on to the crucible we go.
The Reckoning | January 2014