by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
In my first column this year, I mentioned that I had just returned from a retreat for bishops from Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa. The retreat master was Father Raniero Cantalamessa, a Capuchin friar, who serves as the chaplain for the papal household.
During the course of the retreat, Father Cantalamessa reminded us that the most important sections of the four Gospels are the Passion narratives. He noted that, in the liturgical calendar, we only read the Passion narratives on Palm Sunday and Good Friday.
On both of these days, the rubrics in the Sacramentary state: “After the reading of the Passion, there may be a brief homily.” As a consequence, priests rarely, if at all, preach on the Passion narratives. When they do, the liturgy only permits them a minimal amount of time to instruct their people on the most important portions of the New Testament.
Father Cantalamessa felt this was a serious defect in the calendar of readings for the liturgical year. He exhorted bishops to find opportunities to utilize the Passion narratives for our teaching and preaching.
Therefore, I have decided to devote my columns during the Lenten season to reflections on the Passion narratives. I encourage every member of the Archdiocese to prayerfully read one or more of the Passion narratives at least once during Lent. On Palm Sunday this year, we will read St. Matthew’s account of the Passion (Mt 26:14 – 27:66). On Good Friday every year during the liturgy, we read the Passion according to St. John (Jn 18:1—19:42).
St. Matthew’s Passion begins with the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. St. Matthew emphasizes the point that Judas was one of the Twelve — one of those with whom Jesus had spent a great deal of time mentoring. According to Matthew, Judas initiated the plot by going to the chief priests asking them what they would be willing to pay him if he gave them an opportune moment to apprehend Jesus.
In St. John’s Gospel, when Jesus is anointed in Bethany by Mary, the sister of Lazarus, with costly perfumed oil, Judas criticizes this extravagance, suggesting the expensive oil could have been sold and the money given to the poor. John portrays the criticism of Mary by Judas as motivated not by a genuine concern for the poor, but rather by personal greed: “He [Judas] said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief and held the money bag and used to steal the contributions” (Jn 12:6).
Some biblical scholars suggest other motives for the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. Some believe that he was disappointed with Jesus and disillusioned because Jesus was not becoming the political Messiah that Judas and so many others had anticipated.
Others suggest Judas felt that Jesus was endangering himself and his disciples by stirring up discontent with the chief priests and the Sanhedrin by his preaching.
Still others believe that Judas actually felt, by assisting the chief priests’ arrest of Jesus, that he would force Jesus to accelerate the moment when he would assert himself as the type of Messiah so many were expecting. Those holding this point of view believe that the almost immediate regret of Judas reveals how the effects of his betrayal of Jesus were very different from what Judas had anticipated.
Whatever the motivation or perhaps mixture of motivations for his actions, Judas’ betrayal of Jesus is a classic example of sin. He valued something more than his relationship with Jesus — e.g., money, advancing his idea of what the Messiah should do, or believing it was better for one man (Jesus) to die than many more deaths resulting from civil unrest.
Most of us, even though we know some particular choice is sinful, are able to suppress the voice of our conscience with some form of rationalization that makes evil look as if it is actually good or at least morally neutral. A man does not choose to be unfaithful in his marriage because he wants to hurt his spouse and children. We choose to surrender to our addictions to drugs, alcohol or gambling not because we want to hurt ourselves and create chaos in the lives of those who love us. A mother, when procuring an abortion, convinces herself that she is just ending a pregnancy, while denying mentally that she is choosing to kill her own child.
At some point, as happened with Judas, our defenses break down and we are confronted by the evil of our actions as we begin to recognize the hurtful and harmful consequences of our choices. The greatest tragedy with Judas was his complete despair when he realized the horror of his actions and his inability to stop the events that his betrayal had set in motion.
Somehow, Judas missed the overarching theme of mercy that was so central to the preaching and teaching of Jesus. The same self-centeredness that led to his betrayal of Jesus does not allow Judas to lift his gaze from the horror of his own evil to find refuge in God’s goodness and mercy.
Lent is a time to ask for the grace to be able to unmask our own rationalizations in order to be able to recognize our own betrayals of Jesus, our own sins. Facing our sin does not lead us to despair for the disciple of Jesus, but to God’s mercy and the power of His grace to change the most hardened heart.
The most important single thing we can do to make a good Lent is to make a good prayerful examination of conscience and to seek the grace of God’s mercy through the sacrament of penance. We are never without hope if we believe in God’s goodness and trust in his mercy.