The Night in Which He Was Betrayed


“The night in which He was betrayed,” are the deeply familiar words with which St. Paul begins his relating of the tradition (“that which I have received”) of the Last Supper (1Cor. 11:23). It is a phrase so familiar that its import is quickly overlooked as we leap forward to the words, “This is my body…” but I want to linger over them in this article. When St. Paul recites the tradition which had been handed down to him, he is offering what, for us, is the oldest written account of the event. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, who also record the event (in extremely similar words), are, it is thought, written later than St. Paul’s letter. That letter dates to the early 50s A.D., no more than 20 years after the event itself. St. Paul’s account of the Supper itself (usually called the “Institution Narrative”) tracks along in nearly identical words to the gospel writers’ versions. It is a demonstration that the gospels themselves were long part of the recited, oral tradition of the Church (and called “tradition” by St. Paul). St. Paul is not a “developer” of Christian thought – but a transmitter of Christian teaching.

It is of interest to me that the tradition insists that the night itself be described as the one “in which He was betrayed.” That simple phrase gathers the whole of the story of Judas into itself and insists that it be remembered. St. John’s gospel account does not include an institution narrative, giving us, instead, the account of Christ washing the disciples’ feet. However, he is quite detailed in his description of Judas’ betrayal, including making it clear that the issue involved was money.

As decisively as the Eucharist is the sacrament of everlasting life, the revelation of our salvation and a participation in the Body and Blood of God, so, too, it comes with the reminder that it happened in the context of our sin. That Judas not only betrayed Christ, but sold Him out, seems particularly noteworthy in our times of material affluence.

However, the transmission of the tradition takes on a different hue in the liturgical life of the Orthodox Church. In St. John Chrysostom’s Liturgy we hear:

…who when He had come and had fulfilled all the dispensation for us, in the night in which He was given up [betrayed]— or rather, gave Himself up for the life of the world — took bread in His holy, pure, and blameless hands…

The evil which Judas sought to do (even as we seek to do) is swallowed up by the providence of the good will of God. This is expressed yet more clearly in St. Basil’s Liturgy:

For when He was about to go forth to His voluntary, ever memorable, and life-giving death, on the night on which He was delivered up for the life of the world, He took bread in His holy and pure hands, and presenting it to You, God and Father, and offering thanks, blessing, sanctifying, and breaking it:

There is no tragedy of mistaken intentions, no triumph of greed over love. It is as Christ had said earlier in the Garden:

“Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour.” (Jn. 12:27)

The Cross reveals God in His eternity. In Luke’s gospel, we hear the same theme:

“But I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am till it is accomplished!” (Lk. 12:50)

We do well to remember that the Eucharist is more than sacred food – it is the revelation and participation of our life in Christ. His life is our life – and, as this is so, our lives track along in His footsteps. The arc of the Christian life tends towards the Cross – always and everywhere. “Whoever would be my disciple, let him take up his cross…” And just as our life tends towards the Cross, so our lives are the subjects of betrayal.

“For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”(Ro 8:36)

Our trajectory towards the Cross is not against our will, just as Christ’s own sacrifice was “voluntary.” I have long appreciated the phrase in Thomas Cranmer’s eucharistic prayer (Anglican) in which, drawing from Romans 12:1, he says:

“And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee…”

It is a phrase which has passed into Orthodox usage in the so-called Liturgy of St. Tikhon, authorized for use in the Western Rite Orthodox vicariate.

“The night in which He was betrayed” is also the night in which we are betrayed, or rather, the night in which we, together with Him, voluntarily offer ourselves up for the life of the world. And that night is every moment of every day as the broken and sinful world presents itself to us hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and in prison. It even invites us to recognize those broken and injured wounds within ourselves that are aching for some balm of healing and mercy.

In that night – remember us, O Lord, in your kingdom!


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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13 responses to “The Night in Which He Was Betrayed”

  1. Catalina Avatar

    Father, Bless! Father could you please explain what is means to : bring a praise of sacrifice?
    thank you!

  2. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Father Stephen,

    So often a post of yours will seem particularly timely in that it contains an answer to some question I have been thinking about and even wanting to ask you (without going off the current topic).

    In the last few days, Judas’s betrayal has been one such subject: “The Son of man goeth as it is written of him: but woe unto that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! it had been good for that man if he had not been born.”

    I have always understood that it was integral to the fulfillment of the Messianic story that Jesus would be betrayed–that someone had to be Judas–but why? Did those who seize Him really need Judas to find and identify Jesus? If not, why was Judas fated to a life that was preferable not to be lived?

    It seems to me that we all are as responsible for Christ’s betrayal as Judas was (and perhaps that is why it was necessary: to bring home to us the depth of what rejecting God entails), yet we in prayer while admitting ourselves to be first among sinners still distance ourselves from Judas: “Neither like Judas will I give Thee a kiss?”

    Can you expand on the Orthodox stance on this? Why was it *necessary* that Christ be betrayed (and that one of Christ’s disciples, who experienced in person the three years of His ministry and were hand-picked by Him as He says) be consigned to this damning role?

  3. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    First, I think it’s difficult to think about this in terms of “what was necessary.” It had been “predicted” in the prophecies – but that is “descriptive” rather than creating a necessity. I think the expression “good for that man if he had not been born” is an extreme phrase, no doubt, but I’m not sure it invites us to speculate about his ultimate disposition. It means, “It was a terrible thing he did.”

    For me, and more to the point, is the prayer, “neither like Judas will I give Thee a kiss,” for the simple reason that a Judas resides in all of us. It is said, “Every man has his price…” And, in some subtle way, our serious sins represent moments when we preferred going after and accepting the offered price rather than rejecting it for Christ’s sake.

    It is a frightfully honest revelation of the human heart. I have had a day or so this week in which (without intending it), I found myself revisiting my many betrayals of Christ – or “close calls,” etc. It’s sobering…and a revisiting of shame. I think it is noteworthy that the gospel includes the story of Peter’s denial (and that the others “forsook Jesus and fled”).

    All in all, looking closely at Holy Week, and everything in it, is a deep dive into the truth of ourselves as well as the meekness, kindness, and forgiveness of God.

    So…I don’t think I’ve answered your questions…at least the unanswerable ones…

  4. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    It’s a “sacrifice of praise…” meaning the “offering of praise…”

  5. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Father Stephen,

    I hope this doesn’t sound too strange, but in a way you helped answer it for me simply by writing about it:

    It is of interest to me that the tradition insists that the night itself be described as the one “in which He was betrayed.” That simple phrase gathers the whole of the story of Judas into itself and insists that it be remembered. St. John’s gospel account does not include an institution narrative, giving us, instead, the account of Christ washing the disciples’ feet. However, he is quite detailed in his description of Judas’ betrayal, including making it clear that the issue involved was money.

    As decisively as the Eucharist is the sacrament of everlasting life, the revelation of our salvation and a participation in the Body and Blood of God, so, too, it comes with the reminder that it happened in the context of our sin.
    [end quote]

    Rationally, I would like a more explicit and less suggestive explanation, but when I’m pondering on a theological question and come across something related to it spontaneously, it seems to me that God is saying, “You are puzzled by that. Good. Don’t get distracted overmuch by it, though, because you are not capable of or expected to understand all the wondrous details of creation. Be still and know that I am God.”

    Thank you.

  6. Janine Avatar

    Father, your writing about Judas and money put me in mind of something I seem to have observed in other relationships. There are people who seem to think of me or look upon me as a kind of commodity for use, when really I would like to be seen as a person, a human being. So our “face-to-face” relationship to God, and to Christ as the Person who became one of us, even icons, are so central to that. It seems to me that the whole of the teachings of Christ (maybe even of Jewish spiritual thought before His birth) are about what it means to live as person-to-persons (starting with the Person who teaches us that).

  7. Matthew Avatar

    Fr. Stephen said:

    “St. Paul is not a “developer” of Christian thought – but a transmitter of Christian teaching.”

    This is so important. Thank you.

    I find it interesting that many skeptics seem to doubt the reality of Christ´s resurrection (as one example) because of some of the literary inconsistencies in the Gospel resurrection accounts — or — because many scholars “late date” the Gospels themselves leading the skeptic to think legend seeped into the stories thus making them unreliable.

    Paul, however, talks often of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and his letters were written much earlier than the Gospels. So there´s that! Also, it seems Fr. Stephen, that those earliest Christian communities were speaking-out these accounts (like those of the resurrection for instance) before anything was written. Paul must have known of these oral accounts and eventually compiled them (either by himself or via an emanuensis) into his letters. He wasn´t inventing or developing the idea of the resurrection (for example), he was passing on that which he had received. The same of course holds true for the Eucharistic liturgy and celebration as your article points out.

    For so many years I dismissed any talk of tradition, thinking the Bible alone was enough — however — a biblical fundamentalist misses the mark on so many things when they dismiss tradition. They simply find themselves handling a fragile house of cards that will eventually collapse under the weight of proof-texting. Also, when the atheist attempts to play the same game with the Bible (A bible divorced from the Church and tradition) it yields nearly the same results.

  8. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    In 1Cor. 15, St. Paul specifically describes the resurrection account that he offers as “tradition” – that which had been “delivered” to him (and it’s the Greek word for “traditioned”). And then he recites something that is often described as a “Creed,” adding to it his own experience. Some scholars place this bit of tradition as going back to the very first months following the resurrection itself. The historical case for the resurrection is pretty much overwhelming.

    “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures,and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve.After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep.After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles.Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.” (1 Corinthians 15:3–8 NKJV)

    If anyone has time to watch this presentation by NT scholar, Gary Habermas, you’ll see one of the best descriptions of the historical case for the resurrection.

  9. Matthew Avatar

    This is so good Fr. Stephen. Thanks!

  10. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    I like this video (but I watch it with no sound because I’m not keen on the music used – ymmv). It was made by the Roman Catholic society that supports the Franciscans who are the custodians of the Catholic properties in the Holy Land. It shows the history of the area of Calvary and Christ’s tomb and what was built there via animated drawings, but in reverse order, peeling away the architecture so we end up seeing exactly how close the tomb was to the hill. If you’ve been there, or seen good photos of the area, it makes a lot of sense.

    I came up on the video randomly years ago, possibly even a little before I came into the Church. It convinced me that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is indeed Christ’s burial place, rather than other options put forward, and that the Tradition of the Church is reliable in this. I watch it during Holy Week every year (and after Pascha I watch Fr Stephen’s favorite, “Christos Voskrese” by the Serbian group).


  11. Ook Avatar

    @Dana Ames, thank you so much for that link. (I also turned the music off.)
    While watching, I was overwhelmed by memories, particularly of the scents of incense, of candles, of the building itself, and of the oils at the stone of unction.

  12. Bryce V Avatar
    Bryce V

    This was a great message and reminder of the depth of the betrayal of Christ and what this means for us!

    Thank you Fr. Stephen

  13. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Going off Mark’s musings about Judas, I suspect there are always more layers and nuances than can be transmitted through text. The overall impact has been to help me pull back from making as many snap judgements. We just don’t know the depths of the situation. This is true even when it happens right in front of us.

    Tangentially related, I’ve always loved the depiction of Pontius Pilate in Mel Gibson’s Passion of Christ. According to that version of his story, he was in a difficult situation. If he crucified Jesus, his wife and others would look badly on him – and he didn’t really believe Jesus was guilty. If he didn’t go through with it, the Jews would revolt again and Caesar would have his head on a platter.

    This portrayal may or may not have been accurate, but for me it brought home the point that you never really know the whole story. Best to simply follow Fr. Stephen’s advice instead of waiting to know how it turned out for everyone else:

    “On a practical level: try to be kind to all around you. Be gentle. Be generous. Forgive. Do what love asks of us. Allow your heart to be softened.”

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