During Holy Week it is as if the clouds are gathering for the events of the Triduum. On Holy Thursday we will celebrate the institution of the Eucharist and the beginnings of the priesthood as Jesus gave both example of service and His own Body and Blood for us to have access to Him until the end of time. On Good Friday we will become immersed in the absence of Christ, having removed the Eucharist from the church at the end of the Thursday night Mass. We will hear the Passion read in its entirety that day, trying to fathom the betrayal and pain He felt. Then on Saturday the loneliness for Him will intensify as we wait for the Vigil in a sort of silent emptiness. It will be a long week, and it is tempting to want to think about Easter before we have completed this week.
Even though Jesus knew He would resurrect, there was no focusing on Easter prematurely. He had to go through what we now call Holy Week before He could get there. He had to be totally immersed in each step of the way, or it would lessen the meaning and value of it, not just for Him, but for us, the recipients of the gift of love and hope which He gave. None of us can skip the lessons given by suffering in a situation to get to the freedom and new life. It simply does not work that way. Suffering teaches us much if we let it do so. But if we try to bypass it we are not only deluding ourselves, but we are missing the gift which comes at the end of the trial.
The first readings on Monday through Wednesday, the last days of Lent, are from the Suffering Servant Songs in Isaiah. Each day they move us closer and closer to the reality of what the Messiah, Jesus, would go through centuries after they were written. And each day the Gospel readings move from the plot to kill Jesus by the authorities, to the Last Supper in which Peter is warned of his impending betrayal of Jesus by denying Him, to Judas' betrayal of Jesus for money. The key element in all of this is hope, or the lack of it. Both Peter and Judas struggled with hope in their response to their sin.
In reflecting upon their betrayal of Jesus I thought of times when I was betrayed. In each of the situations that I recalled, what was worst was not remembrance of the lies told or deeds done, but the feeling of emptiness that first accompanied the realization that someone whom I trusted had betrayed me. I remembered the intense pain I felt at being misunderstood, falsely accused, or falsely represented by someone who I loved or trusted. Jesus had to feel that, too, only much more intensely since He was taking on all our sins. But then I remembered how in those situations I came to realize that no matter what it seemed like, I knew the truth of what really happened or of whom I really was. Yes, the Truth will set you free! The Lord's opinion of me is the one I value the most, and if in truth - (and I mean in real soul searching, not in denial of the possibility that I could be wrong) - I knew that I was not deserving of what was said or done, I then had the strength of hope in the promise of Christ. I could draw on His power so as to forgive the betrayer and I could move on with my life, stronger for the experience.
It is also terrible to realize there are times when we have been the betrayer. To realize that we have inflicted that kind of hurt on someone else is agonizing. Imagine for a moment what it had to be like for Peter when he heard the cock crow and (in Luke's Gospel) then have Jesus look him directly in the eyes! The anguish he felt had to be so intense that it was like his own agony in the garden. In his case, he must have felt so loved, yet simultaneously so undeserving, that it hurt to try to accept that love at all. His emotions must have been very chaotic and his mind must have been tortured. But to Peter's credit, he accepted the forgiveness he hoped in and he began to understand to the core of his being just who Jesus was. He knew Jesus was Truth and Light; he knew Jesus was the true Messiah and only Son of God who alone could take away the sins of the world....and his sins, too. And he knew that not only was he forgiven, but that if he continued to cling to the Lord in everything, he could in fact be who Jesus knew he was: a leader. Peter had hope in the promises of Christ.
In contrast to Peter, Judas did not believe in the promise of hope and forgiveness given by Jesus. That is why his life ended in death while Peter went on to live a life of service filled with the joy of knowing the Lord. Both men sinned terribly: both betrayed a dear friend who was Messiah and Lord. Both had a measure of selfish interest that led them to their sin. Peter was fearful of losing his life if he was found to be associated with Jesus. His cowardice and selfishness led him to deny with vehement curses even knowing the man. Judas' selfishness was in wanting to accomplish his own will. That is, he either wanted to get rich from turning Jesus in as asserted in one gospel, or he was trying to force Jesus to reveal Himself as Messiah in a complete misunderstanding of who Jesus was and why He came. Either way, Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss, took the money, and ran.
The worst tragedy for Judas, however, was that when he began to regret what he had done, instead of trusting in the message of forgiveness taught by Jesus, he lost all hope. He did not believe that his sin could ever be forgiven and so he despaired and hung himself. Without hope he was crushed beyond repair. He let go of hope and chose death over life. Peter's sin was just as ghastly, but in his sorrow, he remembered the words of Jesus and he trusted them. That is, he had hope in the forgiving love of Jesus and accepted it. That choice led him to life. I would go so far as to say it led him to new life. He accepted his responsibility, grieved for his sin, let hope change his sin to strength and went on to become the first leader of the young Christian church.
I have come to believe that our worst sin or greatest failing, once forgiven, can be the source of our greatest strength if we let it be our teacher. No matter how bad the sin was, or how badly we may think of ourselves as a result, we have the love of our Lord who can forgive anything, even the betrayal of His closest friend. Every time we sin we are Peter to a certain extent. We betray Jesus over and over, maybe in small ways, but it is still a betrayal of the love we have. Like Peter we do not mean it, but it happens anyway. It is part of our human condition. But what we learn from it can change us, just as it changed Peter. It can teach us to love more deeply, it can teach us greater compassion, it can teach us humility, and it can teach us not to judge others since we have walked in their shoes, so to speak.
Let us spend some time this week reflecting on the virtue of hope. Let us remember that hope has great power. We receive hope along with faith and love at baptism. These are incredibly important, powerful gifts. We often use our faith and our love, but we sometimes neglect hope. Let us reclaim the great virtue, the gift of hope, realizing that it has the power to help us overcome anything. We can, like Peter, hope in the promise of the Lord that no matter what we have done, or what happens to us, we can rise to new life with Him.
May we be healed of the wounds due to any betrayal we have experienced! May we be forgiven of any betrayal we have committed! May we trust in the hope given us by the Lord that not only are we loved greatly despite our failings, but we are invited to rise to new life with Him! Let us remain on vigil with the Lord during this Holy Week. Let us continue to meet in the Heart of the Lord, filled with the light of Hope. Peace!
The top photo is mine, taken in New Mexico last year. The pencil drawing was done by Rev. William Hart McNichols for the book The Fifteen Mysteries by Basil Pennington. It is Jesus being comforted by an angel during the agony in the garden.
Heart Speaks to Heart