Toward a Deeper Self-Knowledge

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In two days Christian churches will observe Maundy Thursday, focusing on Jesus’s last meal with this disciples, “the Last Supper”.

A QUESTION

Reading the Gospel texts afresh each year often raises new questions and, occasionally, yields fresh insight. This year it was a line in Matthew’s text.

Jesus and the twelve apostles are at table. They have all washed their hands before the meal, a ritual practice before the meal. They will all use their hands to eat and share the food in common. All hands must be clean. Or, perhaps, Matthew is referring to the bowl of herbs and spices into which they had all dipped their hands.

Jesus has been speaking of betrayal. “‘Truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ And they were greatly distressed and they began to say him one after another, ‘Surely not I, Lord?’ He answered,

“‘the one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.'” – Matthew 26:21-23 NRSV.

ONE? Only ONE?

All of them – all 12 – had dipped their hands into the bowl.

Matthew does not say “One of you.” It says “the one.”

The reply “Surely not I, Lord,” assumes innocence. “Not I!”

THE WIDER MEANING OF ‘BETRAY’

The Greek word we translate into English as ‘betray’ has multiple meanings: hand over/arrest/betray. “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will hand me over” or “. . .  arrest me” are alternative translations to the “. . . betray me” preferred by Christian translators.

But, whereas Judas alone asks the question that begs a positive reply – “Is it I, Lord?” – the story that follows shows all the apostles handing him over. The possible exception is Peter who cuts off the ear of the High Priest’s servant at Jesus’s arrest, but following the arrest, Peter, like Judas, betrays him. “I do not know the man!” he says three times in the the High Priest’s courtyard.

Only Judas at the last supper responds in a way that indicates guilt. “Is it I, Lord?”

Jesus responds, “You have said so.”

A DEEPENING SELF-KNOWLEDGE

The dominant interpretations of Judas’s act of handing Jesus over to the authorities single him out as the one betrayer, the one who has dipped his hand into the bowl. But is it not worth considering that Matthew’s narrative offers every one of us a somber reflection on universal culpability and a window into one’s own denial and lack of self-knowledge?

Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him.” – John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, Chapter 1.

“The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.”

“Is it I, Lord? Is it I?”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Tuesday of Holy Week, April 11, 2017.

 

 

Confession is good for the soul

Tears welled up last Sunday listening to the Gospel reading for Passion Sunday: Palm Sunday. The reading was LONG, but it didn’t matter. It pierces the heart, step by step –  the human psyche revealed under an electron microscope, humanity on parade. All in one long reading. The tears that welled up Sunday didn’t fall, but they will later this week during Tenebrae, the service of Light and Shadow by the end of which the church is left in darkness, every worshiper’s candle extinguished by recognition of our participation in betrayal, sleeplessness, flight, and denial. One by one, the individual candles get blown out. All of them.

Holy Week for liturgical Christians is a solemn time of confession. There is no escaping our participation in the passion: our readiness to betray, doze off when asked to “watch with me one hour”, flee in fear for security, throw the switch, consciously or unconsciously, into psychological and public denial. Yet there is, at the same time over it all, the faithfulness, the wakefulness, the courage, the embrace of reality in its horror for the sake of love’s transforming power, the light of Christ himself.

Christians live in the dynamic paradox of faithlessness and faithfulness, sin and grace. We include a Prayer of Confession in the Sunday liturgy. Last Sunday at Trinity Episcopal Church in Excelsior, Minnesota, the Prayer of Confession, which came following a dramatic reading of the Passion Narrative, expressed the conscious and unconscious nature of sin and grace.

God of all mercy, we confess that we have sinned against you, in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. Some sins are plain to us, some sins escape us, some we cannot face. We repent of the sin that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil don on our behalf. Forgive, restore, and strengthen us through our Savior Jesus Christ, that we may not turn from your love, but serve only your will. Amen.

We barely know ourselves. Some sins are plain to us. Some escape us. Others are too painful to face. Holy Week is time to wade into the waters of self-reflection, confident that these waters are the healing waters of the deeper Self, the crucified-risen One who cannot finally be betrayed, fled, denied, or killed.

Sunday’s liturgy ended with the singing of the hymn “My Song Is Love Unknown,” lyrics by Samuel Crossman, 1664, music composed by John Ireland. 

 

Maundy Thursday Tenebrae

At Tenebrae, the ancient Maundy Thursday Service of Light and Shadow, there are no off-the-cuff remarks. Only Scripture. Only the story we do not want to hear. Our betrayal. Our cowardice. Our weariness. Our betrayal with a kiss. Our violence. Our denial. Our flight.

The church is dark except for the worshipers’ candles.

One by one, the worshipers blow out their candles as the nine readings are read from the midst of the congregation, as we recognize ourselves in the plot that leads to the crucifixion.

We know. We know this is our story. Our reality. Our dilemma.

Then, as if it were tonight, bread is broken. The wine is poured. In silence we share our common lot and wait for the good news we already know.

I, Judas

They will say I did it. And I did. We all did. But it doesn’t matter. The kiss, the “shalom”, I gave him in the olive grove was as real as real can be. I kissed him, and everything that was in me was in that kiss. My love, my affection, my admiration, my fear…and my belief that it would wake him up to what was really happening and what he had to do.

The world is a cruel place. It plays by hard rules. He wouldn’t play by the rules, which is why we loved him but also why we pushed him at the end. We pushed him over the cliff.

He’d escaped the cliff once before when his neighbors tried to throw him over it. He walked right through that crowd and went on with his life, and that’s why we gathered around him like newborn kittens with their mother. He became the source of nourishment, the mother whose eyes always saw the good in us, and he taught us to forget about the cliffs. Live to the full. Forget the cliffs! But there comes a time in everyone’s life when you can’t avoid the cliff.

We were standing at the edge of it right there in the Mount of Olives – a fatal cliff of soldiers, clubs, and daggers, a Roman battalion who’d come there, where we always met at night among the olive trees so they couldn’t hear us or see us. I led them there to the private place.

They will say I ratted on him. But I did what I knew I had to do, or thought I had to do, and then scurried away before it was over. I couldn’t watch. I hated those bastards as much as I loved him, hanging there where the skulls were left. As I ran, I looked back over my shoulder at the horror of it, hearing the sounds of the hammers and the grinding of the pulleys hoisting him up on those pieces of imperial lumber, and him screaming with pain suspended mid-air… half way between horizontal and vertical…and I fleeing for my life into fatal despair.

I understand why they’ll say what they they’ll say. They have to say it. Denial is one of God’s great gifts. They had to deny their own responsibility for what happened. We were all in this together, except for the Beloved Disciple, Lazarus, the only one of us who knew already that death is not the final Word, no matter how it comes, the disciple who will disappear into silence in the later texts about what happened. But Lazarus was there watching, listening, seeing what the rest of us could not see until after it was over.

Unlike the others, I didn’t give myself time to get it. I fled the scene, running for my life, never wanting to look back on it, howling in silence, rushing out into the field to hang myself from a tree. Symbolic, some will say: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and all that … but to me it was just a tree with limbs to throw the rope over, a place to end my pain.

I think now of the olive trees and of hiding among them and wonder why we hid. I think of him as the olive branch that the dove brought to Noah as the violence of the flood receded. And I wonder if that was maybe what he was all about, if the olive branch instead of clubs and daggers and scapegoating was why he let me kiss him there and turn him over before he rebuked Peter for drawing his dagger.

They won’t tell you that we all had daggers. Not just Peter. We were revolutionaries. Ready for the fight. Itching for the fight. Yeshua was the new Joshua who would throw the bums out, restore the fortunes of our people, give us back our land, our destiny, our power to rule ourselves as we had in David’s time and Solomon’s. There was that day in the Temple, Solomon’s Temple, when he went crazy with the whip against the money-changers, snapping the whip wildly, out of control, angry at the abuse of his religion and our’s, tossing the money everywhere, yelling about the money-handlers’ abuse of the poor who could barely afford to buy a pigeon for their sacrifices. For him, it wasn’t just about self-determination. It was about the Romans, about the end of foreign occupation and the collaboration of the religious establishment. But it was deeper than throwing out the foreign occupiers. It was about something so deep that the mind and heart can barely comprehend it: the fearful conspiracy of self-interests that betrays and kills all that is good and pure and decent and loving.

Only Lazarus understood what he was about in standing up to the rule of death enshrined in the Temple and imperial threats. He saw in Yeshua the scapegoat who could unmask the conspiracy, the new Joshua who would shift us from eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, dividing the world into the good and the evil, to eating of the fruit of the tree of life.

I broke my neck on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, certain that I, one of the “good” ones, had become as evil as the soldiers who crucified him, and that there was no redemption, no way to the tree of life, no way to atone, no way to erase the kiss that killed him and was killing me. Death was my just desert and worse. If only I had known that the kiss would be the kiss of death.

It gives me little comfort that they tell me he begged the Father from the cross for forgiveness, like a defense attorney pleading with a judge that those who were crucifying him didn’t know what they were doing. It is what it is. Or so I thought at first. But the weight of his words led me to the sound of them, coming as they did from the high heat of that awful scene, soft and genuine or loudly shrieking, invoking a mercy on us all that made no sense, no sense at all.

Peter will say, as will the church three centuries after my death on the tree and burial in potters field, that “he descended into hell” at his death and preached to those imprisoned there. If anyone was ever there in that place of self-hate, remorse, guilt, despair and hopeless self-loathing, it was I.

He met me there with a holy kiss. “Shalom,” said he. I kissed him back. And left my sorrow in the emptied cell.

– Gordon C. Stewart, January 10, 2014.

The Strangest of Gifts

Socrates is reported to have said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Judas' conscience - G.E Nikolaj (1891)

Any honest self-examination knows that to be human is to experience betrayal. We betray and we are betrayed.

Would it help to think of God as being closer to our betrayals than we ever dare to be?

Would it help, perhaps, to see your betrayal of others and your self-betrayals, as scenes in a drama with many different scenes and acts, a drama bigger than betrayal?  A drama of One who knows our nature. Our fears. Our dashed hopes. Our un-trustworthiness. The side of us so ugly that we dare not look it in the eye – the side that, for thes moment, cannot imagine the larger dramatic piece and the hopeful theme we have forsaken: the persistence of love, of forgiveness, of life out of death, the resurrection of love itself…here and now…not just then and there.

There are two traditions about Judas, disciple of Jesus whose betrayal has been handed down across the ages, the scapegoat Betrayer we don’t want to be.

According to the first story In Matthew, “when Judas, [Jesus’]  betrayer, saw that [Jesus] was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver…and throwing down the pieces of silver…he departed; and he went and hanged himself.”  The first story puts Judas at the end of his own noose. But there’s an altogether different tradition according to which Judas exploded from within while walking across a field. In this story, the Betrayer is a walking dead man, walking with such self-hatred – a self-loathing so profound – that he could not live with himself, and as he was walking, “all his bowels gushed out” (Acts of the Apostles 1:18).

A few of us have attempted suicide. Most of us have not  All of us, if we’re honest, know something of what it’s like to walk through life with unsettled stomachs and intestines. The prescriptions we take for upset stomachs or roiling bowels cannot touch the issue of betrayal when we have betrayed or have been betrayed.

But – stay with me a moment longer -here’s the thing I’ve come to see. The word for “gift” in New Testament Greek is didomi. The word most often translated “betrayal” is paradidomi – to give over –  para (over or across) and didomi (gift). Tradition is handing over the gift from one generation to the next.

Interesting…strange, even…that these words are so closely related. In Christian tradition, Jesus is the great Gift. Judas, the Betrayer, unwittingly passes on the gift, gives the gift over, hands the gift over… to the authorities…and to us…with a kiss.

With Judas’ kiss the story of Jesus the betrayed becomes OUR story: the story of the Betrayer and the Betrayed, the tradition handed over to us across the millenia.

Betrayal Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, 2012

J. seemed a friend–he chose to join the group.

We trusted him.  We let him keep the purse

we held in common.  We would meet for supper

often–yes, our hands would touch, we’d curse

the same opponents, be amazed and shake

our heads at miracles.  We later learned

he stole, and made a secret deal to take

the silver from the Priests–from grace he turned

to greed.

Soon after,  he was overcome

with shame:  he threw the money at their feet.

J. left us then, he had himself to blame

and took his life:  Disciple of Defeat.

The greatest miracle of all he’d miss

because he betrayed Jesus with a kiss.

Betrayal is not the most importance scene in life. Stick around for the next scenes and acts that transform the laments of examined lives into anthems to the One who is closer to our betrayals than we ever dare to be. The examine life is worth living.

DENIAL

Peter's denial

Peter's Denial by Carl Heinrich Bloch

Any faith worth its salt recognizes our capacity for denial, betrayal, and flight, as well as our capacity for truth, love, and courage. Steve Shoemaker’s poem about the Apostle Peter, “the Rock” who crumbled, takes us into the heart of the matter. It;s a reflection on Peter denying that he knew Jesus (represented by Carl Bloch’s painting where he looks away from the woman who claims he knows him) and the post-resurrection appearance where the resurrected Christ offers forgiveness.

“DENIAL” – Steve Shoemaker, 2012

 

The future Bishop began badly.  He

was “rude, crude and lewd,” as they say.

His fist would shake, would hit,

his mouth could often be a sneer, or leer…

but Jesus chose him first.

 

The fisherman was big and brash, yes,

bold as well at times.  But after the arrest

a servant girl confronted him and

told those listening that Peter was with Christ.

He swore and then denied it, then again

and still again–she would not stop.

 

The cry then came of rooster telling of the dawn,

and he wept because he had told a lie.

But Peter felt forgiveness full and deep

when Jesus three times told him,

“Feed my sheep.”

Peter “the Rock” was no rock. Nor are we. He was sinking sand. So are we.

Like “the future Bishop,” we slip badly and yet we are raised up. Betrayal, denial, flight are part of every human story. But grace… even more….so much more, abounds! And to the likes of Peter and of us, there comes to our three-fold denial the Voice of forgiveness with a gentle but bold command: “Re-gain your courage. Live in love!”