In the gospel reading for today’s Mass—that of Tuesday in Holy Week—Our Lord begins by saying, in anguish, “One of you is going to betray me.” And the passage ends with Jesus responding to Saint Peter’s impetuous declaration: “I will lay down my life for you” by telling him, “this very night, you will deny me three times.” Let us remember that Our Lord hand-picked twelve men to be his disciples, his apostles, his intimate friends, the first bishops of his Church. This little group of twelve men is, in a real sense, the most elite group in history. Never again will such a group exist, since never again will the Church of Our Lord be started and its foundations laid anew. And yet, despite Our Lord’s careful choice of these men, and their months and years of intimate companionship with him, one of them denies him and one of them betrays him. What further proof do we need of the fickleness of our human condition—our weakness, our unreliability.
But let us see how those two stories turn out. Saint Peter, who denied Jesus three times that night out of fear, was contrite, repentant. He wept bitterly, the scripture tells us, and no doubt when he could, he fell at the feet of Jesus and begged forgiveness, which Jesus was only too willing to impart. And that same cowardly, denying Peter became the Rock upon which Christ built his Church: the first Pope, to whom Jesus gave “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” How did the great change occur? Very simply: by means of God’s grace. Without grace, we can do nothing. With it, we can do whatever God wants us to do.
Now let us look at Judas. He negotiated with the enemies of Jesus, who offered him thirty pieces of silver—since it was money he wanted—for helping them to identify and arrest Jesus and bring him before the high priest. He did what he had agreed to do; he got his money. But then something went terribly wrong. What was it? I suppose it was that Judas had not really understood that Jesus’s enemies intended to kill him. He wanted to make some money by betraying Our Lord, but he really didn’t want to be guilty of Our Lord’s DEATH. But the process that he started could not be stopped; the kiss that he bestowed upon the innocent Christ in the garden was leading to crucifixion. Suddenly the horror of what he had done dawned upon him. What to do now? Did he understand that Jesus would rise from the dead, and then Judas could approach him as did Peter, beg forgiveness, and be reinstated in the band of apostles? Evidently not. Or maybe he was simply too proud, too hard-hearted to think of asking forgiveness. Whatever was going through his tortured mind, he went rushing back to the people of the high priest and wanted to give them back their money, crying out, “I have betrayed innocent blood!” But they wouldn’t take the money, tainted as it was with blood. So Judas flung it into the temple and went out and hanged himself. How tragic! How close he had been to becoming not only holy because of his association with Jesus, but a canonized saint as are the other apostles and one of the foundation stones of the Church! But no: he would not go back; he would not ask pardon. He may have even doubted that Jesus would rise and continue his sublime work of redemption. And so Judas has become the proverbial traitor rather than a great saint.
Let us learn from both these men the importance of returning to Christ again and again and saying, in the words of the Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Thank you for seeking God’s truth. God bless you. Father Victor Brown., O.P.
Note: Father Brown composed this message some years ago.