I recall the first time the phrase, “On the night in which He was betrayed,” struck my heart. I was attending the evening service of Maundy Thursday at my Episcopal parish when I was a student in college. There was communion, followed by the “stripping of the altar” that symbolized the arrest and scourging of Christ. But the phrase, “On the night in which He was betrayed,” haunted me through the rest of the night. (We joined friends that evening for a meal, but I found myself so captivated by the reality of that phrase that I was, doubtless, bad company).
It strikes me as singularly instructive that St. Paul, when handing down the oral tradition of the Eucharist, recited the words that had been given to him:
“For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”” (1 Corinthians 11:23–25)
Scholars believe that this tradition was given to St. Paul within the first few years following the events it describes. It predates the same words in the written gospels by some decades. It tells us that the earliest Christians specifically recalled that the Lord’s Supper was instituted in the context of betrayal.
That reality carries over into present-day Eucharistic devotions. We pray:
Of Thy mystical supper accept me today as a communicant. I will not speak of Thy mysteries to Thine enemies, nor will I betray Thee with a kiss as did Judas, but like the thief will I confess Thee: ‘Remember me, O Lord, in Thy Kingdom.”
There is an abiding remembrance that the frightful path of Judas remains an option in our lives.
What is the nature of the temptation to betrayal? I often think that we imagine ourselves within the ranks of the disciples and fail to find anything attractive about Judas’ actions. We feel “safe.” Perhaps, like Peter, we deny Christ. But, of course, that still worked out ok for Peter.
I think it is when we expand our understanding, by way of Matthew 25, that we begin to see the temptation of Judas at work. There, Christ tells us of His radical identification (even union), with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, and the prisoner. I daresay, we betray Him under this guise quite frequently.
In particular (as an example), I think of the naked. Nothing is more naked or vulnerable, than another human being who has been seen in their shame (they abound, both among those who are near at hand, as well as many in the public sphere). Rather than covering them (as did the Sons of Noah, or Christ in His treatment of the woman taken in adultery), we often hand them over for far less than 30 pieces of silver (sometimes just to save ourselves from a bit of bother or embarrassment). The point is that we do not stand so far off from Judas.
The Church’s prayer juxtaposes Judas with the thief on the Cross. The “wise” thief, as he is called, represents a sort of minimal salvation – a prayer at the last minute of desperation (where there is only “today,” this moment). There is in that story the reminder of the radical generosity and hospitality of Christ. Naked, exposed, guilty-as-charged, we find ourselves hanging before Christ. A simple word, a single moment, and the Kingdom is ours.
We are Judas and we are the Thief. If Holy Week and Pascha teach us anything, it is to measure and view the world and ourselves in the framework of the story of Christ’s Pascha. As His death and resurrection were rushing to their fulfillment, so everything in all the world, at all time throughout the ages was rushing to that single moment as well. In Christ, on the Cross, the entirety of creation was present. The Creator has united the creation to Himself, carrying it into His death, and re-creating it in His resurrection. We can see elements of this in creation’s reactions: the sun was hidden, the earth shook, etc.
This is to say that the truth of our own existence lies hidden in that single holy moment. If our life is “hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3), then it is hidden precisely in the context of His death and resurrection. Indeed, the prelude of our hidden life is, “For you are dead…and your life is hid with Christ in God.”
The highlight of the Church’s life is embedded in the events of Holy Week and Pascha. Every week is a “little Holy Week.” Every Sunday is a “little Pascha.” Indeed, in many languages, the name for Sunday is simply “Resurrection” (cf. Russian, etc.). We fast on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year, bringing the betrayal of Judas (Wednesday) and the Crucifixion of Christ (Friday) into every week. In those actions we allow ourselves to be gathered into that moment. What we fail to understand, I think, is that Holy Week and Pascha are being lived (or denied) within us at all times. We imagine that there is some other form of life when there was never any form other than a Paschal form.
It is through the lens of Pascha that we see the world rightly. Only in that manner do we know good from evil and everything in its purpose. St. Maximos said, “He who understands the mystery of the Cross understands all things.”
Dearest Jesus, having betrayed You and denied You repeatedly, we stand before your Cross with naked souls, hungry and thirsty for love and the grace that heals all things. Leave us not as strangers to your mercy, but in your goodness, visit us in the prisons where we languish, and remember us in Your Kingdom. Amen.