Holy Wednesday is connected to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. Many different theories have been advanced about exactly why Judas did this; no single theory ever seems to be convincing to me (the Gospel, significantly, does not try to nail this down; rather, it accepts that it did happen and that it indeed had to happen—a much healthier way of dealing with such imponderables in life). Instead, the story of Jesus’ betrayal invites us to contemplate what it means to betrayed and to betray others.
In many authoritarian societies, betrayal is the essence of governmental social control. Individuals are encouraged to betray others to the state in order to gain benefits or secure safety. This sets off a chain-reaction of secrecy, fear, and doubt. Reports out of Syria today speak of how most people do not share their thoughts with any but family or life-long friends: the government has planted innumerable informants throughout society. Letting one’s guard down for even a moment could cost one freedom or life itself.
Jesus lived in such a time and place; spies for various religious and governmental groups where all around. The disciples were used to this. With Judas, though, the situation was different. He was one of them. His betrayal of Jesus was much more profoundly painful. It meant the inner life of the apostolic community had been breached. What was safe after this? As the words of Psalm 55 recall, this is pain at its most personal:
For had it been an adversary who taunted me, then I could have borne it; or had it been an enemy who vaunted himself against me, then I could have hidden from him.
But it was you, a man after my own heart, my companion, my own familiar friend.
We took sweet counsel together, and walked with the throng in the house of God.
I have been blessed to have experienced little personal betrayal in life. I have, however, been seen as a “Judas” by others. One friend understood my clumsy and naïve attempts to help in a time of crisis as a form of betrayal, and has never spoken to me since—going so far as to quote the above psalm verses to me in an e-mail. While I knew I had no intention of betrayal in mind when these events took place, I could not help but understand a bit of Judas’ sorrow after realizing what he had done. Betrayal eats at the soul of all involved. My former friendship is a sealed book now, and may remain so until the grave. Such is the power of betrayal.
But this is precisely where Jesus—here as elsewhere—refuses to participate in sin. We see no evidence in Jesus of rage against Judas. It was all part of the necessary journey Christ took into the heart of human brokenness. Even at the edge of the abyss, when in the Gospel according to John, Jesus and Judas both knew what was to happen, Jesus reaches out to Judas and offers him the “sop,” the choice piece of bread dipped in the dinner’s juices. There is no hate on Jesus’ part: there is only acceptance, openness.
Betrayal stings with a pain like little else in life. That pain was something Christ had to taste in order for him to embrace the totality of our alienation from God and each other. This embrace shows us that we, too, are able to walk through our own experiences of betrayal, loss, shame, and sorrow—if we follow in Christ’s footsteps, allowing him to lead the way and handing over to him the burden we cannot bear alone. Then we able to join him and run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God, as it says in the Letter to the Hebrews.
So, let us bring our experiences of being betrayed or betraying before God this day. We need not hide these wounds with Christ, who seeks to heal of us all our brokenness. He gives the medicine we need: his own life and witness. As Hebrews tells us: Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. Christ has this power. We need not follow Judas’ course, or remain forever locked in the pain of our betrayal.
Collect for Wednesday in Holy Week
Lord God, whose blessed Son our Savior gave his body to be whipped and his face to be spit upon: Give us grace to accept joyfully the sufferings of the present time, confident of the glory that shall be revealed; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.