A reflection written for Wednesday in Holy Week (March 23, 2016) for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts
I find it intriguing that John’s account of the Last Supper, unlike the versions told in other Gospels (Matthew 26:20-29; Luke 22:14-23), does not include the institution of the Eucharist. Instead, the Fourth Gospel tells the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, a story we re-enact on Maundy Thursday. Then, right before Jesus launches into his farewell discourse, the meal concludes with the evocative scene of Jesus placing bread in the hands of his betrayer. The Gospel writer does not explicitly mention the Eucharist, but surely the reader is invited to notice how the gesture resembles what happens in the Eucharist.
Jesus knows exactly what he is doing. He has just declared that one of the disciples will betray him. The disciples have exchanged uncertain glances: Is it I? Is it you? Jesus has told the beloved disciple, who is reclining next to him, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish” (John 13:26). Then Jesus takes a piece of bread, dips it in the dish, and places it in the hand of Judas Iscariot, who swiftly departs into the night to betray his Lord.
The story – like so many moments of our life – is brief but consequential. Jesus has deliberately and consciously placed the piece of bread – placed his very life – in the hands of the one who will betray him. And because we know that every person in a Gospel story, when seen with contemplative eyes, is an aspect of ourselves, we know that Jesus does the same for us. However misguided we may be, however malicious or confused, Jesus turns to us just as he turned to Judas: with compassion, offering us the gift of himself, putting his life in our hands. Whenever we stretch out our hands at the Eucharist to receive the bread of life, we may be as guilty as Judas, yet God in Christ meets us with steadfast love and willingly bears the suffering that results from our wayward ways.
This story challenges me to stay awake and to be honest with myself. Of course I much prefer to identify with the beloved disciple who reclines on Jesus’ breast, but there is a Judas within me, too. For all kinds of reasons and in all kinds of ways I cause harm. Day by day I need to stay awake and pay attention, so that I notice when my Judas-self is showing up.
The story also invites me put my trust in Christ. When I understand my resemblance to Judas and am overcome by guilt or shame, when I am tempted to berate myself, to reject and condemn myself, can I put my trust in the mercy of Christ? Can I begin to extend a Christ-like compassion to myself? Surely the more I know that I myself am a betrayer of love, and yet am forgiven, the more I will come to treat myself and other people differently – more gently and with greater compassion.
I imagine the courage and compassion that it took for Jesus to hand the bread to Judas – to extend to his betrayer, at the cost of his life, the same unconditional love that he extended to everyone. Perhaps that selfless love is why Jesus speaks in his next breath of the “glorification” of the Son of Man (John 13:31-32). We, too, glimpse God’s glory when we experience a boundless compassion for ourselves and for each other.
Yet Judas was not able to let that love in. Luci Shaw wrote a powerful poem (from her collection, A Widening Light: Poems of the Incarnation) that looks ahead to what comes next.
because we are all
silver and eating
body and blood and asking
(guilty) is it I and hearing
him say yes
it would be simple for us all
to rush out
and hang ourselves
but if we find grace
to cry and wait
after the voice of the morning
has crowed in our ears
to break our hearts
he will be there
to ask each again
do you love me
The Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas
Missioner for Creation Care
Episcopal Diocese of Western MA
Mass. Conference, United Church of Christ