CELEBRATION OF THE PASSION OF THE LORD
HOMILY OF FATHER RANIERO CANTALAMESSA O.F.M. Cap.
St. Peter's Basilica
In the divine-human history of the Passion of Jesus, there are many minor stories about men and women who entered into the ray of its light or its shadow. The most tragic one is that of Judas Iscariot. It is one of the few events attested with equal emphasis by each of the four Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. The early Christian community reflected a great deal on this incident and we would be remiss to do otherwise. It has much to tell us.
Judas was chosen from the very beginning to be one of the Twelve. In inserting his name in the list of Apostles, the Gospel-writer Luke says, “Judas Iscariot, who became (egeneto) a traitor” (Lk 6:16). Judas was thus not born a traitor and was not a traitor at the time Jesus chose him; he became a traitor! We are before one of the darkest dramas of human freedom.
Why did he become a traitor? Not so long ago, when the thesis of a “revolutionary Jesus” was in fashion, people tried to ascribe idealistic motivations to Judas’ action. Someone saw in his name “Iscariot” a corruption of sicariot, meaning that he belonged to a group of extremist zealots who used a kind of dagger (sica) against the Romans; others thought that Judas was disappointed in the way that Jesus was putting forward his idea of “the kingdom of God” and wanted to force his hand to act against the pagans on the political level as well. This is the Judas of the famous musical Jesus Christ Superstar and of other recent films and novels — a Judas who resembles another famous traitor to his benefactor, Brutus, who killed Julius Caesar to save the Roman Republic!
These are reconstructions that may be respected if they have some literary or artistic value, but they have no historical basis whatsoever. The Gospels — the only reliable sources that we have about Judas’ character — speak of a more down-to-earth motive: money. Judas was entrusted with the group’s common purse; on the occasion of Jesus’ anointing in Bethany, Judas had protested against the waste of the precious perfumed ointment that Mary poured on Jesus’ feet, not because he was interested in the poor but, as John notes, “because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it” (Jn 12:6). His proposal to the chief priests is explicit: “‘What will you give me if I deliver him to you?’ And they paid him 30 pieces of silver” (Mt 26:15).
But why are people so surprised at this explanation, finding it too banal? Has it not always been this way throughout history and is it not still this way today? Mammon, money, is not just one idol among many: it is the idol par excellence, literally “a molten god” (cf. Ex 34:17). And we know why that is the case. Who is objectively, if not subjectively (that is, in reality and not just in intention), the true enemy, the rival to God in this world? Satan? But no one chooses to serve Satan without a motive. Those who do, do so because they believe they will obtain some kind of power or temporal good from him. Jesus tells us clearly who the other master, the anti-God, is: “No one can serve two masters.... You cannot serve God and mammon” (Mt 6:24). Money is the “visible god” (cf. Shakespeare, Timon of Athens, Act IV, sc. 3) in contrast to the true God who is invisible.
Mammon is the anti-God because it creates an alternative spiritual universe; it shifts the purpose of the theological virtues. Faith, hope, and charity are no longer placed in God but in money. A sinister inversion of all values occurs. Scripture says, “All things are possible to him who believes” (Mk 9:23); but the world says: “All things are possible for the one who has money”. And on a certain level, all the facts seem to support the latter.
“The love of money”, Scripture says, “is the root of all evil” (1 Tim 6:10). It is the Molech we recall from the Bible to whom young boys and girls were sacrificed (cf. Jer 32:35) or the Aztec god for whom the daily sacrifice of a certain number of human hearts was required. What lies behind the drug enterprise that destroys so many human lives, behind the phenomenon of the mafia, behind political corruption, behind the manufacturing and sale of weapons, and even behind — what a horrible thing to mention — the sale of human organs taken from children? And the financial crisis that the world has gone through and that this country is still going through, is it not in large part due to the “cursed hunger for gold”, the auri sacra fames (Virgil, Aeneid, 3. 56-57), on the part of some people? Judas began by taking money out of the common purse. Doesn’t this say something to some administrators of public funds?
Like all idols, money is “false and deceitful”: it promises security and, instead, takes it away; it promises freedom and, instead, destroys it. St Francis of Assisi, with unusual severity, describes the end of life of a person who has lived only to increase his “capital”. Death draws near, and the priest is summoned. He asks the dying man, “Do you want forgiveness for all your sins?” and he answers, “Yes”. The priest then asks: “Are you ready to make right the wrongs you did by restoring things you defrauded others of?”. The dying man responds, “I can’t”. “Why can’t you?”.... “Because I have already left everything in the hands of my relatives and friends”. And so he dies without repentance, and his body is barely cold when his relatives and friends say, “Damn his soul! He could have earned more money to leave us but he didn’t” (cf. St Francis, Letter to the faithful 12, Fonti Francescane, 205).
How many times these days have we had to think back to that cry from Jesus to the rich man in the parable who had stored up endless riches and thought he was secure for the rest of his life: “Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be”? (Lk 12:20).
The betrayal of Judas continues throughout history, and the one betrayed is always Jesus. Judas sold the head, while his imitators sell his body, because the poor are members of the body of Christ, whether they know it or not. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). However, Judas’ betrayal does not continue only in the high-profile kinds of cases that I have mentioned. It would be comfortable for us to think so, but that is not the case. The homily that Fr Primo Mazzolari gave on Holy Thursday 1958 about “our Brother Judas” is still famous. “Let me”, he said to the few parishioners before him, “think about the Judas who is within me for a moment, about the Judas who perhaps is also within you”.
One can betray Jesus for other kinds of compensation than 30 pieces of silver. The minister of God who is unfaithful to his state in life, or instead of feeding the sheep entrusted to him feeds himself, betrays Jesus. Whoever betrays their conscience betrays Jesus. Even I can betray him at this very moment — and it makes me tremble — if while preaching about Judas I am more concerned about the audience’s approval than about participating in the immense sorrow of the Savior. There was a mitigating circumstance in Judas’ case that I do not have. He did not know who Jesus was and considered him to be only “a righteous man”; he did not know, as we do, that he was the Son of God.
As Easter approaches every year, I have wished to listen to Bach’s Passion According to St Matthew again. It includes a detail that makes me flinch every time. At the announcement of Judas’ betrayal, all the Apostles ask Jesus, “Is it I, Lord”? Before having us hear Christ’s answer, the composer — erasing the distance between the event and its commemoration — inserts a chorale that begins this way: “It is I; I am the traitor! I need to make amends for my sins”. “Ich bin’s, ich sollte büßen”. Like all the chorales in this musical piece, it expresses the sentiments of the people who are listening. It is also an invitation for us to make a confession of our sin.
The Gospel describes Judas’ horrendous end: “When Judas, his betrayer, saw that he was condemned, he repented and brought back the 30 pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, ‘I have sinned in betraying innocent blood’. They said, ‘What is that to us? See to it yourself’. And throwing down the pieces of silver, he departed; and he went and hanged himself” (Mt 27:3-5). But let us not pass a hasty judgment here. Jesus never abandoned Judas, and no one knows, after he hung himself from a tree with a rope around his neck, where he ended up: in Satan’s hands or in God’s hands. Who can say what transpired in his soul during those final moments? “Friend” was the last word that Jesus addressed to him, and he could not have forgotten it, just as he could not have forgotten Jesus’ gaze.
It is true that in speaking to the Father about his disciples Jesus had said about Judas, “None of them is lost but the son of perdition” (Jn 17:12). But here, as in so many other instances, he is speaking from the perspective of time and not of eternity. The enormity of this betrayal is enough by itself alone, without needing to consider a failure that is eternal, to explain the other terrifying statement said about Judas: “It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Mk 14:21). The eternal destiny of a human being is an inviolable secret kept by God. The Church assures us that a man or a woman who is proclaimed a saint is experiencing eternal blessedness, but she does not herself know for certain that any particular person is in hell.
Here is what the story of our brother Judas should move us to do: to surrender ourselves to the One who freely forgives, to throw ourselves likewise into the outstretched arms of the Crucified One. The most important thing in the story of Judas is not his betrayal but Jesus’ reaction to it. He knew well what was growing in his disciple’s heart, but he does not expose it; he wants to give Judas the opportunity right up until the last minute to turn back, and is almost shielding him. He knows why Judas came to the garden of olives, but he does not refuse his cold kiss and even calls him “friend” (cf. Mt 26:50). He sought out Peter after his denial to give him forgiveness, so who knows how he might have sought out Judas at some point on his way to Calvary!
So what will we do? Who will we follow, Judas or Peter? Peter had remorse for what he did, but Judas was also remorseful to the point of crying out, “I have betrayed innocent blood!” and he gave back the 30 pieces of silver. Where is the difference then? Only in one thing: Peter had confidence in the mercy of Christ, and Judas did not! Judas’ greatest sin was not in having betrayed Christ but in having doubted his mercy.
If we have imitated Judas in his betrayal, some of us more and some less, let us not imitate him in his lack of confidence in forgiveness.
Confession allows us to experience about ourselves what the Church says of Adam’s sin on Easter night in the Exultet: “O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!” Jesus knows how to take all our sins, once we have repented, and make them “happy faults”, faults that would no longer be remembered if it were not for the experience of mercy and divine tenderness that they occasioned.
I have a wish for myself and for all of you, Venerable Fathers, brothers and sisters: on Easter morning, may we awaken and let the words of a great convert in modern times, Paul Claudel, resonate in our hearts: “My God, I have been revived, and I am with You again!
I was sleeping, stretched out like a dead man in the night. You said, “Let there be light”! and I awoke the way a cry is shouted out...!
My Father, You who have given me life before the Dawn, I place myself in Your Presence.
My heart is free and my mouth is cleansed; my body and spirit are fasting. I have been absolved of all my sins, which I confessed one by one.
The wedding ring is on my finger and my face is washed. I am like an innocent being in the grace that You have bestowed on me” (Prière pour le dimanche matin, in Œuvres poétiques, Gallimard, Paris, 1967, p. 377).
This is what Christ’s Passover can do for us.