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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Judas

A shorter version of this reflection appears in the April, 2014 issue of Give Us This Day, published by The Liturgical Press (www.giveusthisday.org).

Judas Iscariot went to the chief priests and said, “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver, and from that time on he looked for an opportunity to hand him over. (Matthew 26:14-16)

Judas is a question mark: why did he do it? Matthew tells us what Judas did, but he doesn’t tell us why. Down through the centuries, readers and commentators, librettists and screen writers have filled in the blanks: he did it for the money, he did it because Jesus had failed to live up to his expectations of a political messiah, he did it because the devil made him do it, he did it...well, no one knows why he did it.

As we read, Judas becomes a mirror the Gospel holds up to us. In it we see the face of our own betrayals looking back at us. Piety may forbid us to see anything but horror in Judas for what he did. After all, he sold Jesus to his torturers and murderers. But honesty requires us to admit that he is not alone in having sold down river the one thing that mattered. How many of us have sold our prayer for entertainment, our integrity for power or prestige, our life’s work for an easy ride? Is selling God’s gifts “for a handful of trifles” any less heinous really than selling the Savior?

Come now, you’re probably saying, there’s no comparison. I’ve made my little compromises, sure, but nobody died for it. Is that really true? Jesus, Son of God, died in a few hours on one particular afternoon whose echoes have reverberated among believers and doubters alike ever since, but we, now made children of God, die no less decisively when we trade away our own God-given truth over a lifetime of little compromises. St. Basil the Great defines sin as the use of God's gifts for purposes other than those for which they were given. Most grievous, he says, is the misuse of love—God’s gifts of love, our own love for our the tasks God has given us, our love for those among whom we were planted in this world. A gifted storyteller puts the gift to use writing trash for cash. A gifted singer holds back songs that change the world for fear of criticism. A gifted parent sacrifices time for the family in favor of clean and lovely surroundings or a weekend in front of the TV or a fishing trip. Not major crimes, surely? Ah, but the serpent’s tooth poisons by small bites. And the serpent’s whisper is well disguised as “everybody does it” or “you owe it to yourself ” or “come on—don’t be a prig.”

After a while, maybe, we forget we have options. The good news that seems to have fallen on deaf ears in the tragic Judas is laid out before us during Holy Week in all its urgency. We may well have our little stash of silver coins hidden somewhere, rewards for our betrayals of true selves, but it’s never too late to trade them in again for forgiveness, freedom, life. The loss may be painful, the prospect of change frightening, the way back long and hard. But the offer is always there.

It was there for Judas. Jesus forgave Peter, who denied him, and the other disciples who abandoned him, and even the men with hammer and nails who crucified him. Surely he was just as ready to forgive Judas. Why didn’t Judas accept? Why didn’t he allow the Savior to save him from his own despair? Why did he hang himself after three years in the company of God’s mercy made flesh? I wonder if it was because he had so eroded his soul with a lifetime of betrayals that he could no longer see the outstretched hand. Having walled himself into the very small cell of his own self-interest and shame, perhaps he could no longer recognize the open door. And who knows? Maybe, in the privacy of one of those moments of anguish and mercy that go unreported by the evangelists--who had reason to think ill of Judas anyway--God's finally managed to pry open Judas' fist and fill it with something far better than thirty pieces of silver. I hope so. But what went on for Judas in his darkness remains as much a question as his motives.

If Judas is question, puzzle, thorn in the flesh of the Christian mind, he is also, like all of us, mystery. How many of us can really fathom in ourselves the depths where betrayal and grace meet? I would rather not reduce Judas to a simple explanation. I would rather allow him to remain a mirror. If I can’t see into his soul, perhaps he can let me see into mine. My prayer is for the courage to look.

Note: The phrase "for a handful of silver" comes from Robert Browning's moving poem about betrayal and forgiveness, The Lost Leader. See http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poem/282.html

Copyright 2014, Abbey of St. Walburga


Monday, April 14, 2014

By Pickax or Angel

At the outset of Lent, we considered the season as an important stretch in our spiritual journey. We might have read the encouraging words of St. Benedict: “Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love” (Prologue 48-49)

But as we look back, at least some of us will have to admit that we don’t seem to have done much running. Sometimes an aging snail could have beat us to the next turn in the road. At other times, we’ve spent most of our time picking ourselves up after falling over one rock after another. On the First Sunday of Lent, the cautionary tale of that conversation with the serpent in the Garden of Eden may have alerted us to the likelihood of rocks ahead. A more sober theological description would speak of the effects of original sin or the cumulative results of our personal histories of sinful choices, which do indeed hobble our feet or trip us up as we do our best to follow Christ, our Way. Some of these rocks are mere pebbles, easy to pick up and throw aside with a bit of repentance and some healthy asceticism to retrain our travel habits, but others loom large and immovable. At some point in Lent, we may even just sit down in the blocked path, put our heads in our hands, and lament, “How, O Lord, can this rock be uprooted? My pickax is broken, and I’m all out of dynamite!”

The Easter story will come to our rescue with a hint and lesson. When Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” arrived at the tomb hewn into the hillside and firmly sealed with a large slab of rock on Good Friday, “there was a great earthquake; for an angel of he Lord descended from heaven, approached, rolled back the stone and sat upon it” (Matthew 28:2).

Let’s start by considering the purpose of the stone to begin with. It wasn’t intended to keep Jesus in. It was meant to keep others out. No doubt Joseph of Arimathea, who put it there in Matthew’s account, wanted to preserve the dead Master from any indignity on the part of intruders. The chief priests and Pharisees were more worried about the disciples stealing the body and then claiming that Jesus had risen from the dead, so they demanded guards as well as the stone itself. And anyway, as we learn from Jesus’ appearances to the disciples in the upper room three days later, he could walk through walls, so a mere gravestone, however heavy, would have been no problem.  

Sometimes, as we’re sitting down before a large lump of stone in the path, it helps to remember the purpose of that stone too. It’s meant to do just what it has done: to stop us in our tracks while Jesus disappears from sight down the road beyond it, or we imagine he does.  The rock is meant to keep us away from joining him. It’s interesting to wonder further who put it there? It may look at first blush as if we did. If it’s a weighty composite of our own history of selfish wrongdoing, yep, we made it. But this is the Lenten road we’re on, no matter what the calendar may say as I write this or you read it. We set out with the intention of breaking through whatever was keeping us from following the Lord. We didn’t run ahead and drop a boulder on the way to make that harder. The psalmist warns of pits and traps laid across our path by an enemy. This rock has trapped us. It’s not unknown for the true Enemy to use our own weaknesses, failings and sins against us, to keep us from reaching what St. Benedict calls the mountain of God (cf. Prologue 23, quoting Psalm 15). So who is more likely to have dropped this rock right in front of us to bring our “run” to a skidding halt and make us sit down in discouragement, thereby guaranteeing that we will go nowhere soon?

This is where the angel comes in. First, the angel presents us with the sobering truth that some rocks are indeed too formidable for our little pickaxes. Secondly, the angel tells us the even more sobering truth that if we have imagined all along that rock-removal, even pebble-removal, was primarily our responsibility, it’s about time we met reality face-to-face. One of Lent’s hidden temptations is the illusion that we are our own saviors. We decide what our Lenten program will be: what sins and failings we will address, what our conversion will look like, and what steps we will take to engineer it. Sorry about that, says the angel. It’s true that you are an indispensable collaborator in the work, you and your little pickax, even when you’re tired of the effort, discouraged by apparently poor results, and ready to punch out on the Lenten time clock. It is not true that you are the primary force in blasting pebbles and mountains out of your way as you seek to run toward that great encounter we call Easter. That would be God, says the angel---who is, of course, God’s messenger.


Lent may be over when you read this, or it will be over soon. But you already know that neither God nor our lives are confined by the liturgical calendar. The season of Lent ends, but the work of Lent never does (cf RB 49!) So the rock on the road and the stone at the tomb, with the angel sitting atop it, are always there to remind us of the reality and power of God’s grace, even when the Rocky Mountains themselves seem to have sprung up between us and the Lord we seek. As the women at the tomb learn from the angel, though not in so many words, it’s really the Lord who is seeking us. And to God, even mountains are pebbles.

Copyright 2014, Abbey of St. Walburga