A homily for Good Friday

March 29, 2013

Judas 2 The last time I served on a criminal jury, the defendant was a corrections officer, a sergeant, from the women’s prison in Clinton.

He was accused — and we found him guilty — of taking sexual advantage of two of the inmates — women whose everyday lives in that institution could be directly affected by decisions he made.

The defense attorney tried to establish that the behavior this officer was accused of would have been out of character. To help make that argument, the attorney called as witnesses two elderly Baptist ministers from a church in Trenton. And these men, who were very solemn and very dignified, testified that they had known the officer for many years, and that he was an active member of the congregation. Among other things, he led a Bible study class during the same period in which he was intimidating and degrading these two women.

I have served on criminal juries several times, and I have always had the same reaction: I don’t want this, this crime, this awful thing, to be all there is to this human being.

Not that I don’t want to find the defendant guilty — because a juror takes an oath to do impartial justice — but rather that I want someone — the attorney, the witnesses, someone — to show me that there is more to the person on trial than this.
I wanted that officer to take responsibility for what he had done, but I also wanted to have some hope for him.

The gospel readings this week — the parts about Judas — reminded me of my experiences as a juror. And this is why:

In 2009, National Geographic published a report about a Coptic manuscript, dating perhaps from the second century and probably translated from an even earlier Greek source. This document — which has been identified as a “Gospel of Judas” — was discovered in Egypt in the 1970s. It is one of many apocryphal or false gospels that have surfaced over the past 20 centuries. It changed hands until 2000, when a Swiss dealer turned it over to an art foundation to be restored.

The restored manuscript paints a very different picture of Judas than the one we are accustomed to. It describes him as the best friend of Jesus and says that Jesus asked Judas to turn him over to the authorities in order to begin the process by which Jesus would leave behind his human form and be raised to glory.

The publication of this “gospel” set off a wave of speculation among experts and amateurs about the reliability of the biblical characterization of Judas.

In a way, this speculation was nothing new. The Coptic text just added more impetus to an historic desire among many people, Christian and otherwise, to rehabilitate Judas, to somehow put his bad behavior in the context of a better man, to free him from a level of condemnation and revulsion that society has reserved for very few people, to deny that Judas is hopeless, to show him mercy.

In the absence of very much real knowledge about Judas, all of this discussion leads to no new conclusions. But it does raise the question of why there has been this compulsion to salvage this man.

For sure, some folks are motivated by the fact that the image of Judas in the canonical gospels, the ones included in our Bible, has been used as an excuse to persecute the Jewish people as though they had some historic responsibility for the suffering and death of Jesus. The Church has rejected that idea in no uncertain terms, teaching us that the Jewish people carry no burden because of what Judas or anyone else may have done in the first century.

A more common reason may be a sense of optimism about human nature, a desire to think the best about another human being before accepting the worst. Maybe we don’t want Judas to be hopeless — just as I didn’t want that corrections officer to be hopeless — because Judas and we share the same human nature, and we want to think of human nature as inclined to good, not to evil.

Unfortunately, the evangelists don’t help us with that, because they don’t try to psychoanalyze Judas, or rationalize his behavior, they simply tell us what he did at a certain point in his life — stealing from the apostles common money bag, betraying Jesus — and it isn’t pretty. But that doesn’t mean that we should despair over human nature in Judas or in anyone else.

Pope Francis emphasized this shortly after his election. In his first Angelus, the pope said the following:

“This is Jesus’ message: mercy. On my part, I say it with humility; this is the Lord’s strongest message: mercy.
“The Lord never tires of forgiving us, never! We are the ones who get tired of asking forgiveness.’’

So this pope, who celebrates Holy Thursday liturgy in a prison, seems to be telling us not to engage in wishful thinking about the past — our own past or someone else’s — which we can’t change anyway, but rather to trust that God is merciful no matter what happened in the past.

While we constantly try to be the human being that Jesus was, we are likely to journey toward that goal in fits and starts.
As we do, Pope Francis said, God will be merciful again and again and again so long as we are honest with God and with ourselves, again and again and again.

And, with God’s own mercy as our model, we are challenged to be merciful, to forgive each other, no matter what.

We have a certain reaction, don’t we, when we hear the name “Judas.” But we might profit by remembering that he wasn’t a villain in a fairy tale or a Bruce Willis movie but a real man with hopes and aspirations, a man with talents and skills, with shortcomings and failings – that if he was different from us in some ways, he was like us in at least as many ways.

We don’t know anything about his interior life, but we do know that if there was in him any spark of goodness, he is not beyond the reach of God’s mercy.

We can’t reconstruct Judas Iscariot’s past, we can’t know what was going on in his mind, but we can pray for his redemption, just as we can pray for other people who have done outrageous things, and just as we can pray for ourselves and for each other when we fall short of being images of Christ in this world.

We know God’s mercy is inexhaustible. If we want it for ourselves, we can ask it for Judas, who is, after all, our brother.

Judas 1

Nativity group by Michel Anguier, St. Roch, Paris

Nativity group by Michel Anguier, St. Roch, Paris

This was my homily for Christmas Day:

Flags at half staff.

Moments of silence.

Tolling church bells.

Internet blackouts.

These are things that have contributed to the atmosphere of the past 12 days.

And there was another: Christmas lights gone dark for a night.

Maybe many of us feel a little awkward, a little guilty even, about celebrating the holiday at all

And yet, in a way, nothing could be more appropriate.

Nothing could be more fitting at this moment in our lives together in America than to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and to remember what that birth means.

Some events — and surely an event that took place this month — may contribute to a certain pessimism about our human condition.

It’s the 21st century, we might say to ourselves in one way or another.

It’s the 21st century, and how far have we come if this is the best we can do?

What’s wrong with all of us, if some of us are capable of this, if none of us can prevent such things?

There are some philosophies — both religious and secular — that would answer those questions by saying, “What do you expect?”

“Human beings are fundamentally flawed creatures, and sooner or later they’re going to act on their worst instincts.”

But Christmas says otherwise.

What we celebrate today is that the child born in the manger was, in one person, both a human being and God himself.

We sometimes hear this expressed in negative terms.

We sometimes hear that God lowered himself, to take on the nature of miserable humankind.

But while we recognize that God is greater than any one of us, greater than all of us put together, we don’t have to look on the birth of Jesus — in fact, I suggest that we should not look on the birth of Jesus — as an act of condescension.

On the contrary, the birth of Jesus is an act of love.

 In the birth of Jesus, God shows his love for us — not only because he was willing to obscure his divine nature with the physical appearance of humanity, but because he placed such a value on human nature that he wanted to show that the men and women and children he created were fit to live in his company, fit to coexist in the same person — in the child born in Bethlehem.

God is anything but pessimistic about human beings.

Jesus demonstrated that over and over again — with Matthew, with Zaccheus, with the woman at the well in Samaria, with the woman accused of adultery, with Peter, with the thief dying alongside him on a cross, and with Paul.

He told us about it in those parables that resound through the ages: the father and his two sons, the Good Samaritan, the one lost sheep from the ninety-nine.

Jesus, who looked on human beings with such optimism, encountered in his lifetime Herod and his sons, Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, and people whose jealousy or paranoia inspired them to criticize him, attack him, ostracize him, eventually kill him.

But even at that extremity, the last thing he said about such people was, “Father, forgive them.”

And while we may not be able to look as deeply into those souls as Jesus did, we take him at his word.

Every now and then, someone — for reasons that we really do not understand — commits an act that might make us ask us just how low human nature can descend.

But we don’t have to look far — and we didn’t have to look far this month — to find far more people, including people sitting in this church, whose heroism and generosity help us to see just how high human nature can soar.

The Catholic Church teaches that human beings are essentially good.

 Christmas — and perhaps this Christmas especially — is a good time to recall that and to celebrate it in the words of the hymn.

“Long lay the world in sin and error pining, then he appeared, and the soul felt its worth.”