Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered. But Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end. Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, ‘This fellow said, “I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.”’ The high priest stood up and said, ‘Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?’ But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, ‘I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have said so. But I tell you,
From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.’
Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, ‘He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?’ They answered, ‘He deserves death.’ Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, saying, ‘Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?’
He has cast out demons, yet some have asserted that he himself has a demon. He has set people free from the chains of sickness and sin, yet some have labelled him as one who breaks the sacred bond of Sabbath-rest. Controversy and criticism have been Jesus’ companions on the way – and perhaps inevitably so, for shadows are at their most noticeable when there’s a strong light shining.
But now, in the narrative of Passiontide, Jesus faces his darkest hour. It’s as if the disparate shadows have coalesced around him; controversy and criticism are intensifying towards condemnation.
And as shadows on the wall might twist into strange or scary shapes, so these shadowy forces contort the motivations and actions of those in their thrall. The priestly council, guardians of God’s truth, seek testimony that will tell them merely what they want to hear. The witnesses, upon whose honesty justice depends, are so partisan that they struggle to make their stories match. Even Peter, ‘the Rock’, is overcome by a fear that will make him crumble.
And Caiaphas, the High Priest, lends his voice to the shadows. ‘You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?’
Today’s painting is in a 17th Century style known as Tenebrism – the use of intense shadows for dramatic impact. And perhaps the artist has captured not only the different levels of darkness, but also something of the inner distortion that the shadows can bring. The two figures behind Jesus – one wearing a sycophantic smirk, the other unwilling to show his face. And Caiaphas, his left index finger raised – perhaps pointing to heaven, or perhaps held thus as he scolds his prisoner. Meanwhile look at his other hand: is this the traditional gesture of priestly blessing, here gravely distorted?
Yet Jesus directs his gaze not upon them, but upon the lone candle that illuminates the scene. Passiontide: the shadows are powerful, yet never has the Light burned so strongly.
Lord Jesus, when our words and deeds become twisted amid the shadows, forgive us, renew us, and rekindle us as light in the world. Give us courage to be faithful to you, just as you are eternally faithful to all whom the Father has placed in your care. Amen.
The Rev’d Dominic Grant is minister at Trinity URC Wimbledon.