Friday, March 21, 2008

The night in which he was betrayed

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Jesus said, “ ‘Behold, the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table’ And [the disciples] began to question one another about which of them it was who would do this”; from the Gospel of St Luke in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

Tonight we commemorate the institution of the priesthood and of the Holy Eucharist. And to help us appreciate what is in the spotlight tonight, I’d like us to turn our attention for a moment to what lies in the shadows—a man who rejected his ministry and who broke communion.

We do not know for sure at exactly what point Judas Iscariot left the Upper Room. Luke’s gospel mentions Judas’ betrayal after the words of institution along with various items of dinner conversation that seem to be listed in no particular order. Matthew and Mark give an almost identical description of Judas at the table before those crucial words of Jesus “this is my Body” and “this is my Blood.” John’s gospel does not give us the familiar institution narrative, but he does, however, mention the early departure of Judas after the washing of feet and before Jesus’ high-priestly prayer.

We are told that the others thought that Judas left to go purchase more supplies for the Passover feast, since he was the one who carried the common purse. This would indicate that Judas left before the Holy Communion, which took place, as the other gospels tell us, “after supper.” Another clue to the timing might be in Jesus’ clue about the betrayer. “It is the one to whom I hand the morsel after I have dipped it,” Jesus said. Then he adds, “What you are about to do, do quickly.”

Exactly when he left, we do no know for sure. But we do know why he left. Why is this night different from all other nights? That departure forever colored the ritual that would continue in the Mass throughout history—the sacrament of unity, the feast of love. For in most every Prayer Book and every liturgical rite throughout Christendom, those sacred words of consecration are introduced the same way: “On the night in which he was betrayed . . .” [Note: Prayer A has different wording, "the night he was handed over" and Prayer D, which is based upon the Liturgy of St Basil, uses John's language, "when the hour had come for him to be glorified."]

I remember turning the pages through a large picture book on Jesus I picked up from a used book store a few years ago. It’s a wonderful book with gospel excerpts, and it is filled with historic Christian artwork depicting the people and events described. When I got to the page describing the Last Supper, I stopped when I saw the picture. I had never seen anything like it before.

It was a picture of the Last Supper in the traditional style of the Eastern icon. Jesus and the apostles were each depicted with a halo or nimbus around the head. Normally, if Judas is in the scene, you can clearly identify him because he is the only one who does not have a halo around his head. This picture caught my attention because it is the only one I’ve seen in which Judas does have a halo. The difference is that unlike the other nimbuses, which are golden, the halo of Judas is solid black.

Judas Iscariot will be eternally known as the man who betrayed Jesus Christ. In at least twenty languages, his name is a synonym for “traitor.” To think of Judas, or to mention his name, is to evoke the image of the whole-cloth traitor. He is the traitor prototype.

Yet there is no good reason for supposing that when he was originally called by Jesus to be one of his own special disciples that Judas was already up to treachery; or that he was any less enthusiastically devoted to Jesus, any less worthy of that call, or any less determined to follow Jesus to the end than the eleven others chosen by Jesus at the same time. Nor can we suppose that Jesus withheld from Judas any of the special divine graces that he conferred on the other disciples who were to hold the office of apostle.

Judas seems to have shared completely in the charism of what would later be called an Apostle, a chief pastor, thus prefiguring—as did all of the Twelve—what we call today the bishops (overseers) of the Church. Living with Jesus day and night, traveling with him, hearing his words and seeing his actions, collaborating with him in his work, sent out by Jesus with a mandate to preach the kingdom of God, to cure the sick, to exorcise demons, to exercise his authority, to rely on spiritual weapons and supernatural means, Judas was in every sense one with the disciples.

Yet it was Judas who finally betrayed Jesus. The personal outline of Judas in the pages of the New Testament is dim on all points—except for his awful treachery. Understandably, the writers would not, could not, remark anything good or even interesting about Judas, except his treachery. In the light of Jesus’ resurrection and the subsequent descent of the Holy Spirit on the remaining Apostles, all that mattered in the eyes of the New Testament writers was that gross treachery, and all they could express for the traitor was utter contempt and abhorrence.

There is perhaps no parallel in the New Testament record to those sad words of Jesus, “It would have been better for him if he had never been born.” And yet that’s not what Jesus wanted for him, at the beginning or the end. The New Testament dismissal of Judas as a traitor has inclined Christians to see him in a bad light from the beginning of his association with Jesus, as a kind of infiltrator admitted by Jesus to the intimacy of his special people, because, it was reckoned, somebody had to betray the Lord.

Yet, we must understand that it didn’t have to happen that way. Jesus could have simply said, “The time is appointed. Let us go down to see the Sandhedrin that I may stand trial for the charges against me.” Judas’ betrayal was utterly unnecessary.

From a divine and a human point of view, Judas must have initially appeared as one of the more promising candidates for leadership in Christ’s future Church. Judas seems to be the only experienced official among the group. In the eyes of the other Apostles, Judas held a high kingdom office.

We cannot reasonably doubt that Judas started off with great enthusiasm and devotion to Jesus, and with full trust and confidence in Jesus’ ultimate success. We know that, for the other companions (until well after the Resurrection) success meant a political restoration of the Kingdom of Israel, with the Apostles occupying twelve thrones of judgment.

Here is where disillusion set in for Judas Iscariot. More in touch with practical affairs than the others, more alive to the politics of his land, he would only grow in disillusionment each time Jesus repudiated attempt after attempt to crown him leader and king. Jesus spoke instead of his suffering and death.

At any given moment Judas could have left Jesus and “walked with him no more,” as many are recorded to have done. But no, Judas wanted to stay. He believed, after his own fashion, in Jesus and his group and their ideals. Yet, he wanted Jesus and the others to be realistic—i.e., to conform to political and social realities, to follow his plan, not whatever plans Jesus may have had.

He certainly formed his own ideas about the sensible way Jesus should go about seizing supreme power and realizing the kingdom of God. Now, in the heady atmosphere of collaboration with the authorities, he saw his way opening out to vistas of greatness, a chief position in the future Kingdom of Israel, once the Romans were driven out and the local Jewish leaders, with the help of Jesus, utterly defeated the hated Romans.

Even when Jesus told him plainly and frankly during that last Passover meal that, yes, he knew it was Judas who would betray him, that made no dent in Judas’ resolution. “Is it I, Master?” said Judas. “You have said so,” Jesus answered.

Remember that Jesus identified his betrayer in this way: “It is the one to whom I hand the morsel after I have dipped it.” From the ritual of the Passover, this seems to follow the blessing over the Matza before the actual supper began. The blessing and breaking of a single piece of matza to be shared with everyone at the table signified their unity. For the head of the supper to dip it in the haroset and give it to one of the guests was a token of affection. Yet both this loving gesture and the fact that Jesus knew about the betrayal were not enough to dissuade Judas from the path he had chosen.

Perhaps Judas did not fully grasp Jesus’ use of the word “betray” at that moment. Many times in the past, he had “betrayed” Jesus in the sense that he had done the opposite of Jesus’ express will, and things had always turned out just fine. That compromise plan still seemed the best to Judas. The ultimate blindness closed in on his soul like a steel trapdoor. “Satan,” the Gospel of John states, “entered his heart.” And we can be sure he was in some sense welcomed in.

Judas was now under the control of the one personality who stood to lose the most by any success Jesus might have. Judas could, without any scruple and always fully persuaded that his plan was fine, go and find the Temple authorities, his “high-level contacts,” and pinpoint the place where Jesus would be at a certain hour, and identify Jesus to the armed force sent out to bring him in.

Only this, thought Judas, would spark the long-sought fight for liberation. Every single event that followed began with Judas’ decision. It all began, “On the night in which he was betrayed” . . .

The terrible agony in Gethsemane; the violence done to Jesus at his arrest and at his mock trials during the night; the hours of imprisonment and abuse by Roman soldiers; the crowning with thorns and the scornful mocking of his person, his arraignment before Pilate and Herod; his scourging; the painful, agonizing path to Golgotha; the searing pain of crucifixion, followed by three hours of waiting for the peace of death,hours divided into weakening efforts not to suffocate.

While the ultimate consequence of Judas’ choice was Jesus’ crucifixion, his specific sin was compromise And we must understand that it really seemed to him a wise and prudent compromise given the impossible situation into which Jesus had boxed himself and his disciples by his violent attacks on the status quo and by his refusal to meet Jewish authorities halfway.

This, then, is the essence of the "Judas complex": one’s compromise of basic principles in order to fit in with the ideas and interests of the world.

The principle of the disciples was Jesus—his person, his authority, his teaching. Their obligation was to Jesus, to remain faithful through conflict and confusion. Judas had been persuaded by his corrupters that all that Jesus stood for had to be modified by a decent and sensible compromise.

Judas was not the only disciple who deserted Jesus in that trying moment—they all did. Judas was not the only one who sinned. He was not the only one who ran away. Peter’s denial was also foretold. So how was Judas different from the rest? He was the only one who did not come back.

Ironically, though he chose compromise with the world over faithfulness to Christ, his own sense of shame and guilt was uncompromising. Judas never gave a thought or opportunity to his own forgiveness. He never thought that the one who had forgiven so many sins and healed so many hearts would welcome back one of his own. His soul was lost to despair and the Satan who had entered his heart was surely pleased when he executed himself, hanging on a tree outside Jerusalem—one last mockery.

Do not be like Judas. Beware, is easier have a Judas complex than you think. If you do, you’d probably be the last person to see yourself as a betrayer. It is so easy to fall into the trap of what may seem like a sensible compromise with the world.

Tonight, no matter how far you have wandered into the world, no matter how often you may have faced the challenges of the faith with what may have seemed at the time like a sensible compromise, you have the opportunity to some back to the Table.

Which such a precious gift as the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would compromise their loyalty to him. And yet we do. We wander and stray from his ways like lost sheep, following the devices and desires of our own hearts.

“Is it I, Lord?” Note: the question is not “Is it him, Lord?” or “Is it her, Lord?” but “Is it I, Lord?” That may be the most healthy question we can ponder to prepare our hearts to return to his Table of Fellowship and Altar of Sacrifice. The turning point for Judas was very subtle—the idea that I know better than the Lord. He was willing to compromise his Lord because he thought he knew better. And yet, Jesus’ love for Judas (from day one) was never compromised. When Jesus offered himself as an atonement for the sins of the world, Jesus was offering himself for Judas too.

Oh, that he had only repented and accepted God’s mercy like the others. “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe unto that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed. It would have been better for him if he had never even been born.”


Anonymous said...

Dear Father, thank you for your articles and sermons - they are just wonderful! Your site is one of my favorites. I'm an Orthodox Christian from Russia, we are also having Lent now. It being the Holy Week for you I wish you the holy ending of Lent and THANK YOU for your work!

Fr Timothy Matkin said...

I am humbled by your expression of appreciation, and I'm so glad that we get to share things like this around the globe. When the time comes, Christos Anesti!