Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Wednesday of Holy Week: Handing Over


So far, since Monday, I have been saying that there is a common thread holding each of the three gospel passages together in the Greek word paradosis, which means in the Bible both "handing over" and "betrayal," and so links Judas' handing over of Jesus to the authorities with Jesus' handing over of himself in bread and wine. We saw how three characters respond to Jesus handing his body and blood over to them: Mary by giving without counting the cost, Peter by betraying Jesus but returning to him for forgiveness, and Judas by betraying Jesus, handing him over to the authorities, and losing all hope and trust in God.

So far we have been looking at all this through the lens of St John's gospel. Like yesterday, today we are guests at the Last Supper, but now we put on St Matthew's specs and see see things slightly differently. So let’s set the scene.

First thing, forget the painting by Leonardo da Vinci. The disciples were not sitting on chairs around a dining table. They were dining in the ancient Greco-Roman style, which meant leaning on reclining sofas and taking food off a low table; this is how St John could be leaning on Jesus' chest, which would be rather difficult on a set of matching Gainsboroughs. They are dining ancient pagan style.

Second, even though they are dining pagan style, they are all very much Jews. Unlike St John’s, St Matthew’s gospel is written for a mostly Jewish audience. He makes this clear by using words like "Master," which in the original is actually "teacher," the word Greek-speakers used for “Rabbi.” And so third, bear in mind that the Last Supper is a ritual meal, the beginning of the Passover. Put out of mind those awful sermons that you will most certainly never have heard in this parish, where the preacher tries to tell you that the Last Supper was just Jesus having a nice dinner with his mates. No. It was not a pie and a pint at the Lord Stanley. It was a Jewish ritual meal which acted as the preliminary to the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, and it was being done in the style of an Ancient Greek symposium meal where a philosopher instructs his pupils.

Perhaps you can see where this is leading. The Last Supper was the ritual preparation for the sacrifice of the new Passover lamb who is Jesus Christ himself. It is only when he is handed over to death on the Cross that his handing over of himself in bread and wine makes any sense.

This leaves us with a rather awkward question. If Jesus had to be handed over to death, where does this leave Judas? Does this get him off the hook on which he has been speared for two millennia? The traditional answer is no, and the trendy answer is yes. As so often, I tend to sit between the two camps.

On the one hand, Judas and Judas alone made the choice he made, and it was he who gave up all hope in God's forgiveness when he ended his own life.

On the other, we all know that people do not take their lives lightly, and it is very hard to say that anyone who does so is enough in their right mind to be held to blame for it. Nor is it easy to make any sense of God as wholly good if he predestines certain people to do evil things. What is more, the bottom line of Christianity is forgiveness and God's mercy, even to the extent that some ancient church fathers thought that in the end, even the Devil himself would be saved - so I think we are secure at least in hoping for Judas' salvation at the last.

A tentative hope, however, is not much for us to go on. Better that we trust in the guarantee of salvation. That is what Our Lord offers us in baptism, just as he offers the guarantee of forgiveness in Confession, and the guarantee that through receiving his body and blood handed over to us through the Apostolic tradition of the Church, he will hand us over to eternal life with our Father.

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