This year I am giving the Triduum reflections in the Monastery guesthouse. Below is the first of three reflections. I’ll post another on Good Friday, and the third on Holy Saturday.
In his Treatise on the Psalms, St. Augustine warns against the dangers of self-righteous certainty. “Do not think,” he says, “that the evil are in the world for no purpose, and that God makes no good use of them. Every wicked person lives either that he may be corrected, or that through him the righteous may be tried and tested. Would that those who now test us were converted and tried with us; yet though they continue to try us, let us not hate them, for we do not know whether any of them will persist to the end in their evil ways. And most of the time, when you think you are hating your enemy, you are hating your brother without knowing it.”
When faced with evil, it’s easy to condemn the actor rather than the act. And yet, there is no one, not even Satan, if Origen and the Cappadocian Fathers are to be believed, who is beyond redemption. Our anxiety to distance ourselves from evil only highlights our unease about the ambiguity of that evil and the possibility of our complicity in it.
So it is with Judas, the Betrayer, whose handing over of Jesus to death is the hinge on which the Last Supper and Passion narratives turn. Judas is at the very heart of Jesus’ Passion. He is there at every key moment of Jesus’ ministry, standing just left of center. Jesus washes Judas’ feet along with the other disciples’, and feeds him, too, the bread that is his body and the wine that is his blood.
As Sarah Coakley points out in an unpublished Maundy Thursday sermon, the gospel accounts are as uneasy as we are about Judas. The evangelists and Christian tradition assign him a plethora of motivations: greed, jealousy, hunger for power, demonic possession. Nowhere do they suggest that, like Jesus’ crucifixion, Judas’ betrayal may have been an example of self-emptying love, a gift of his own life to set in motion the salvation of the cosmos. After all, Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss, the most intimate of gestures. And he does so, in John’s rendering, after Jesus has urged him to “do what you have to do quickly.” Certainly Judas’ betrayal is necessary to the salvation events we begin to observe tonight in a way that no other person’s—except Jesus’—are. Judas’ betrayal makes Jesus’ death and resurrection possible.
What if we have gotten it wrong? What if Judas made the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of the kingdom? What if he willingly laid down his life to hand Jesus over to death, not only in excluding himself from the fellowship of the nascent church, but also by condemning himself in the Christian imagination to the lowest circle of hell? What if, more so even than the other disciples, Judas imitated Jesus in emptying himself from love, taking the form of the most despised and outcast: the betrayer?
Whether or not this more sympathetic view of Judas has any merit, it does, at the least, call into question our smug certainties about the nature of evil and the way that God works to redeem the world. Whether Judas acted from self-emptying love or from greed and jealousy, his betrayal plays the necessary counterpoint to the melody of Jesus’ salvific acts. In a way both terrible and awesome and beyond all reason, love and betrayal, life and death, good and evil breathe together like lovers.
I suspect we prefer the simplicity of our certainties to the mysterious comingling of love and betrayal. The clarity of knowing who to blame and why exempts us from pondering the mystery of Judas, who is, more so than perhaps any other character in the gospels, complexly, richly human. Which is to say our certainty exempts us from pondering our own mysteries.
What of our betrayals? What of our own rich, complex human lives? We have all been betrayed, just as we have all betrayed. The mystery of Judas’ betrayal points to the meaning and the mystery of our own.
If it is true that in the midst of life we are in death, it is equally true that in the midst of death we are in life. For all the devastation of betrayal, for the passion it hands you over to, there is also in betrayal the genesis of genuine spirituality and of union with Christ. It is a strange and terrible mystery that an encounter with evil can also be an initiation into God. Often, for instance, survivors of child sexual abuse describe, at the very moment of their abuse, the clear intuition of the presence of God. In that moment of ultimate betrayal, faced with utter evil, the only thing that can keep the darkness at bay is the light of Christ which cannot be extinguished.
As with Judas, our own handing over to death can also be the means by which we are handed over to life in Christ. It can be the crack in our armor that lets in the light of Christ to illumine all that is hurt, all that seemed to us wounded and malformed, but that, seen in the healing light of Christ, is revealed as the womb of our salvation.
The interdependence of love and betrayal, of good and evil, is perhaps the most mysterious and troubling aspect of the events of these three days. Accustomed as many of us have become to meditating on the Passion and Resurrection, it is the mutuality of Judas’ betrayal and Jesus’ love that presses in against the boundaries of our certainties and undermines our easy judgments.
Our own lives—both the joys and the sorrows—are as much a mystery as Judas’ and as worthy of meditation and even reverence. Above all, we must never despair of God’s mercy, for Judas, for Satan, for our world, and, yes, even for you, even for me. We do not know whether those we would condemn, whether those parts of ourselves we would deny and shun, will persist to the end in darkness. We don’t even know if those parts we call evil and dark really deserve that name. And when we think we are hating our enemy, we may be hating our brother—or ourselves—without knowing it.
And even if, in the end, Judas, Satan, or we ourselves do persist in our evil, if our betrayals remain just that—betrayals—what is that to stop God from bringing about the redemption of the universe?
With gratitude to Sarah Coakley for her Triduum sermons, preached at Christ Church, New Haven, 2006.
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