Show Hide image

From Gethsemane to your back garden, life is full of betrayal

Betrayal is not always a not always an act of malicious intent, or a sign of power. It can be a demonstration of weakness.

When you wake on a spring morning to thickly falling snow and violent wind there is that brief moment of, oh whiteness! and then the slow grip of betrayal. By now, surely, we should be watching the leaves unfurl and feeling the first warmth of the sun. There should be cut grass beneath bare feet. Tulips. Daffodils? An ability to go outside without gloves and an iron will. I look at the naked trees from my window and can almost hear them saying, well, sod this. It’s as though the apocalypse has happened, not the one we were expecting – nuclear, life-eradicating, big bangs and flashes – but a quiet one, just out of sight or round the corner, and we’re gradually realising that we’ll never have seasons again, that heat is dead, that the flowers have taken a collective decision and resigned.

Talking about the weather is tired and stereotypical, and yet at the same time oddly energising. There’s always something to say. We have interesting weather! That’s why we talk about it! You may laugh at our obsession in your hot countries, in your Mediterranean towns where you know the sun will shine for day after faultless day, where you can drink wine in the square and sit out under the moon, but here we are constantly bamboozled, endlessly surprised, always caught out by the brutal caprice of our bonkers, manmuddled climate. We go on buying barbecues and planning summer weddings like blind fools, raging against reality. We pretend we’re having a nice time as the rain lashes through June. We lumber through winter and look forward to the hot days of August even though the last time we had hot days in August was in our warped and gilded childhood memories, when the summers were long and we weren’t who we actually were at all, but pretty filmic versions of ourselves on a perpetual seaside holiday that we never had with a family that didn’t argue, and picnics.

Our weather betrays our expectations at every turn. But it especially betrays us in the spring, when life should be budding, the sky opening out. It’s Easter after all: a rising again. But then Easter, or the days before Easter at least, are as much about betrayal as they are about hope, and so maybe this weather fits.

As a kid, I always preferred Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to Easter Sunday, not only because I was gleefully morbid, but because the story was so much better. The resurrection seemed deeply suspicious – the empty tomb, Jesus blithely wandering around again as if everything was fine. But the run-up had everything – the superbly named Pontius Pilate, Romans, violence, injustice, bad guys, weeping women, a trial, the crucifixion, and Jesus’s closest disciple Peter, as predicted, betraying his friend again, and again, and again.

Of all the betrayals, it was the one that took place in the garden of Gethsemane that got me the most. Not Judas, arriving to kiss Jesus and prompt his arrest but the quieter betrayal of the three disciples who accompanied Jesus to the garden.

Jesus was praying in the depth of night for some kind of reprieve, and having his very understandable moment of doubt at having to die for the whole of humanity. He’d asked his friends to stay awake while he wrangled with his fate but every time he came back he found them dozing like sheep.

I felt for Jesus, obviously, but you were always being asked to feel for Jesus one way or another, and actually I felt more for his friends. I could imagine being that friend – struggling to keep your eyes open, even though you knew the stakes were high and someone had specifically asked you not to fall asleep. I could feel the burn of shame as they frantically, hopelessly tried to stay awake. But as Matthew writes in his Gospel, “their eyes were heavy”, and we all know that feeling – when the urge to nap is so intense that it feels closer to suffocation, or drowning, a force beyond you not within.

It’s the smallness of the act that makes it all the more painful and poignant – all they did was sleep, but the petty selfishiness in submitting to that basic, natural urge is what colours it into betrayal. We associate the idea of betrayal now more readily with infidelity and adultery – Pinter’s play of that title is about a husband and wife and her lover, the husband’s best friend – but it is really the breaking of any social contract, any bond. The disciples had promised their friend that they’d stay awake, but they couldn’t do it – something so simple, so insignificant.

Peter’s betrayal of Jesus at the crucifixion is far more pointed, not only because Jesus has already warned him of what he will do but also because of the consciousness of the act. Asked to choose between protecting himself and being honest about whether he knows Jesus or not, he chooses himself. When we read stories like this, we like to think we’d act differently, that we’d stick to our principles and sacrifice ourselves, but I’m not so sure. I think, more often than not, our instincts are to save ourselves. We too would sleep.

In the Bible, betrayal is the twin of temptation. The phrase “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” originates from the Garden of Gethsemane – spoken by Jesus to his friends when he finds them mid-slumber. It’s a fine expression, now repeated into cliché, that skewers the heart of what it means to betray – not always an act of malicious intent, or a sign of power, but a demonstration of weakness.

I don’t believe in any of it, of course, being entirely faithless and alienated from such burdensome concepts of sin. And yet, like any good story, there’s some truth at work. More often than not our spirits are willing and our flesh is weak – we mean well but we mess up – and we usually end up betraying ourselves as much as anyone else. Still, that’s what makes us human, and more interesting (even as we rail for the thousandth time against the damp and cold) than an earnest prophet who mysteriously comes back from the dead.

Sophie Elmhirst is a freelance writer and former New Statesman features editor.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue