Judas and the Year of Mercy


Here were are at the crossroads of another Lenten Friday. Today, I’m drawn to the contemplation of mercy that is the whole summation of Good Friday, which we will celebrate in just a few weeks.

I think about God’s great mercy in sending His Son (John 3:16) and the unfathomable love and mercy involved in Christ’s passion and resurrection.

I think of Mary, John and the Church: that even in his hour of death, Jesus provides for his loved ones (John 19:26-27, 31-34).

I think of Simon Peter, who betrayed our Lord three times over and was mercifully permitted to confess Christ in reparation (John 21: 15-19).

There are so many characters who receive Christ’s mercy even as He is pouring out His blood for us (the women of Jerusalem, the repentant thief, the soldiers…), yet there is one figure in this whole narrative who does not seem to fit with the theme of “mercy.”

“Then Judas, his betrayer, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, deeply regretted what he had done. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chiefs and elders, saying, ‘I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.’ They said, ‘What is that to us? Look to it yourself.’ Flinging the money into the temple, he departed and went off and hanged himself.” — Mt 27:3-5 (NAB)

800px-Vitrail_Cathédrale_de_Moulins_160609_59In Matthew’s Gospel we read that Judas is truly, sincerely repentant. That cannot be doubted. Yet, in Christian history, Judas has not been regarded in the same way as the repentant thief. Judas has been placed in Hell for his sins– where is the great mercy in his story?

Dante placed Judas in the innermost circle of Hell as the worst traitor in history:

“That upper spirit, Who hath worst punishment,” so spake my guide, “Is Judas, he that hath his head within And plies the feet without.” Canto XXXIV, Inferno

Judas is being shred to bits in the mouth of Lucifer for all eternity because he betrayed Christ’s trust– for Dante, betrayal is the worst of sins.

Yet we know that Jesus did not “trust” Judas in the way Caesar trusted Brutus. Jesus knew his betrayer was in his midst and even permitted him to leave (Lk 22:21-22)  Jesus did not stop Judas from greeting him with a kiss in the Garden (Mk 14:44-45) If the condemning sin of Judas is in his betrayal, we seem to have a huge theological contradiction: for how can Judas sincerely repent of his betrayal and *still* be cast into Hell for that same sin?

No, Judas’ final sin was not his betrayal, great as it was. Judas’ sin comes precisely at that moment of repentance. In a strange twist, Judas turns to the chief priests and elders to seek some sort of forgiveness. Of course they cannot give it. Of course, they turn him away, for they, too, share his guilt in Christ’s death. Faced with this rejection, Judas now has a choice.

I like to imagine a different history, one where Judas is so sorry for his betrayal that he runs to Jesus. He breaks through the crowds lining the streets as Christ passes by on the way to Golgotha. Rather than conscripting Simon the Cyrene, Judas volunteers to carry the cross of His Lord. He joins Mary, John and Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross and receives a shower of mercy as Christ’s blood and water gush forth in a font of forgiveness.

This is not what happens. This could have happened. Yet rather than seek out Christ and face his sin, Judas despairs of being forgiven. He is ashamed. He is embarrassed. He is scared of the reparation Jesus might demand from him. Worst of all, he fears that Jesus will reject him. 

Judas’ sin is in his lack of trust. Judas’ sin is that he does not believe Christ is powerful enough, kind enough, loving enough and merciful enough to take away his sin as he did those of the young paralytic (Mk 2:1-12) Judas believes that he cannot be forgiven, even by God. This is the sin of despair.

“By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of sins. Despair is contrary to God’s goodness, to his justice– for the Lord is faithful to his promises– and to his mercy.” CCC #2091

In the pain of the harsh knowledge of his sins, Judas completely despairs of hope in God and commits suicide. Taking his own life is the final act of despair: he refuses to live a life that he believes cannot be forgiven.

Where is mercy in this story? We have to believe that it was on offer the entire time. At any point, Judas could have asked Christ to forgive him and it would have been granted. Yet for lack of hope, he did not. For lack of understanding, for lack of fortitude, for whatever reason: Judas did not ask Christ for forgiveness. Instead, he abandoned hope.

I’ve been thinking about this because on an academic level, Judas is one of the biggest wrenches in questions of providence and theodicy. But I think on a personal level,  Judas makes us squirm because we all identify with him, even if a little bit.

How many times do I shy away from the confessional because I am embarrassed? To whom do I turn instead of God when I am faced with my sins? Have I ever thought that God didn’t love me because of my sins? Or that He would be fierce and unmerciful in punishing me? Do I continue to punish myself and struggle to embrace God’s mercy after I’ve received it? 

In this Year of Mercy, it is very important for us to strive to imitate Christ in his compassion and forgiveness towards others, yet we cannot do so if we fail to accept his mercy for ourselves. It is a precept of the Church that we must confess our sins at least once a year, not because the Church wants to keep tabs on us, but because she knows the the dire consequences of giving into that temptation to avoid asking for forgiveness. No matter what our sins, big or small, we must all learn from the tragedy of Judas: do not despair. God’s mercy abounds for us all.

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” — Romans 15:13

Lenten Wednesdays, 6:30-8 PM



Lenten Lit


My sister wrote a beautiful piece yesterday about learning to embrace a different “style” of Lent with little ones. You should read it, but the gist is: when you have a lot of external demands (as you do with motherhood), Lent shouldn’t be about beating yourself up for all of the things you wish you could do, but can’t. Instead, learn to offer up the daily things as means of sanctification and carefully choose which Lenten activities you can reasonably do. She mentions reading “Come, Be My Light” by Bl. Teresa of Calcutta, which I think is a marvelous idea.

I am always striving to read something theological/spiritual anyway, but during Lent I try to grab something that directs me specifically to Holy Week. I thought I’d leave a little list here of suggested Lenten reading and I hope you’ll leave me some suggestions in the comments!

“The Living Wood” by Louis de Wohl
De Wohl shows up quite frequently on my reading list– I don’t know how he managed to elude me until my mid-twenties. This particular tale of his recounts the story of Helena and her son, the Emperor Constantine. “The Living Wood” refers to the tradition that St. Helena was the finder of the True Cross, but the story is about so much more than that. How do we face adversity in life? Where is Christ when we need him? How can even our most selfish intentions be brought to serve the Almighty? A quick, engrossing read, 370 pages.

“The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son” by Jon D. Levenson
This text by one of the foremost Hebrew Bible Scholars in the world explores the Jewish contributions to the Christian narrative of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. Levenson is a devout Jew, with a special gift and penchant for Jewish/Christian relations. His text is thick, rich, challenging and ripe with passages for contemplation. Recommended for those with a strong Biblical studies background, 232 pages.

“The Everlasting Man” by GK Chesterton
How does Christ stand completely apart from every other religious figure, even when He appears to be so similar to many of them? What is the relationship of historical man and this God-man we call Jesus Christ? Chesterton’s gift for rhetoric and a happy turn of phrase are on prominent display in this text. But don’t be fooled by his fast-paced style– this text needs digestion, so be prepared to read and re-read passages as you ruminate, 276 pages.

“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” by CS Lewis
You are never too old to revisit such an enchanting, heart-softening allegory. If you’d like a text that leads you to contemplation of the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection, there is none better than a text which asks you to do this through the innocence of childhood. Revisit Aslan and the stone table before Good Friday. Which character do you most identify with this time? 224 pages

“The Way of a Pilgrim”
I wrote not that long ago of viewing Lent as a pilgrimage: This Russian Orthodox classic is perfect for this time of year because of its call for and instruction in deep, interior prayer. Though written as a travelogue, the Way actually takes the reader on pilgrimage with its anonymous author, through the devotion of constant meditation on the Jesus Prayer (‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’). Join this monk as he seeks to “pray without ceasing”– can we follow in his footsteps? 208 pages

“Salvifici Doloris” Apostolic Letter, Pope St. John Paul II
‘Theodicy’ is the big word we theological-types use to describe the universal intellectual struggle we humans have in trying to understand good and evil. This text faces the specific problem of “suffering” in the Divine Plan: how can God allow people to suffer evil? Why did God choose to suffer for our deliverance? How do I find meaning in my own suffering and what must I do in the face of my neighbor’s suffering? A must-read for every Christian, but especially poignant as we approach Holy Week. Free on the Vatican archives, or 64 pages in print.

“Little Talks With God” the Dialogues of Catherine of Siena
I’ve written about this text before and my preference for the new translation over the old. If you’d like a totally different genre, then this is it. My sister Dominican (and a third order at that!) and Doctor of the Church, Catherine, dictated these dialogues while in an ecstatic state, conversing with God about penance, obedience, sin and retribution and all sorts of other things besides. If you’d like a text which weaves together mystical experience, the Bible and the teachings of the Church, this one is for you. I also notice with much chagrin that this is the only text I have here by a woman. I must remedy that in subsequent lists, 188 pages.

You may notice that all of the purchasing links direct you to Better World Books. Of course you can purchase them through Amazon, but this business is near and dear to my heart, as it was founded by fellow Domers. Through collecting donations of used books and selling them online, Better World Books is able to fund literacy initiatives all around the world. Finally– a charity that allows me to give the gift of reading to others AND myself! Happy reading and blessed Lenten journey.

What are your suggestions for Lenten Literature?

Please let me know so I can add them to my personal queue!





Lent as Pilgrimage


Lent is a privileged time of interior pilgrimage towards Him Who is the fount of mercy. It is a pilgrimage in which He Himself accompanies us through the desert of our poverty, sustaining us on our way towards the intense joy of Easter

                                                                                     —- Pope Benedict XVI, Lenten Message 2006

Onward, fellow pilgrims! Let’s TO EASTER!

As part of my Lenten preparation, I’ve decided to reconnect with a text that I only read portions of during my time in undergrad. It’s called “Egeria’s Travels,” or “The Pilgrimage of Egeria” and it’s a first-hand account of a fourth-century Spanish woman, presumably a nun, who travels throughout the Holy Land.

The text of “Egeria’s Travels” has quite an interesting history, as do all ancient manuscripts that survive today. It seems that at one point, her text was fairly well-known, especially in Medieval Spain, since a 7th century monk gives reference to it in a letter. We know that a copy was held at Monte Cassino in the 12th century, because Peter the Deacon used it as a major primary source for his book on “The Holy Places,” though he does not quote her text directly. Unfortunately, however, we find no reference to her text after this. It was not until 1884 that the text was rediscovered in the Codex Aretinus, an 11th century document also composed at Monte Cassino, but housed in a library at the Brotherhood of St. Mary’s in Arezzo, Italy. Yet the text was not copied completely:  the Codex only contains about 1/3 of Egeria’s original text (the middle part). Why only that section was preserved is unknown, since we can reconstruct from Peter’s text many parts of her travels that are not accounted for in the Codex. Where did Peter’s copy go? Are there any other copies yet to be found? This is why we all still need good librarians.

The travelogue itself is a fascinating peek into the mind and life of a fourth century Christian woman. We know very little about Egeria herself (what her background was, how she came to read and write), but we come to know a bit of her personality as we read about all the holy places she visits and all the holy men and women she encounters. She’s very grateful to her guides, familiar with Biblical texts, inquisitive and supremely trusting. Egeria seems to possess an incredible amount of stamina and remarks occasionally about older people who cannot join her on certain excursions. She also has a keen ear for liturgical phrases and takes very seriously her responsibility to guard the Christian mysteries (the sacraments) from any hostile person who might intercept her messages en route back to Spain.

Perhaps most striking for the reader are her accounts of her participation in specific Jerusalem liturgies which eventually spread to all of the Western Church (e.g. the celebration of Palm Sunday before Easter, the veneration of the cross on Good Friday). These celebrations were strange and new to her, so for a 21st century Catholic who has participated in them every year since birth, her accounts give a fresh new look at what has become rote for most of us. Yet in the midst of novelty, the reader experiences a deep sense of connectedness with the ancient Church. Through Egeria’s words and experiences, we in turn experience a profound sense that while many things have changed in our liturgy, many things have been preserved.

I am hoping that walking with Egeria through her pilgrimage in Jerusalem will enable me to contemplate my own pilgrimage to Easter through these next 40 days. I hope to learn not only the facts of her travels, but also to learn to approach these liturgies with open eyes and a renewed sense of wonder at not only the “historical Christ,” but the active Living Christ, who watches over all of us through the Life of the Church. A Church which is a family of people, interconnected for better or for worse, traveling together to the Bridegroom.

So if I’ve managed to pique your interest in my new (old) friend, Egeria, I suggest finding a copy of her travels (I’m currently reading Wilkinson’s 1999 critical edition) or even clicking the link above to go to a free online translation. I’m sure she’ll have something unique and special just for you to meditate on as you continue your journey.

Busy Prep


Preparing for something is a lot of work.  Think about the last time you hosted a dinner– regardless of the occasion or how many people were coming. If you’re anything like me, the planning had many stages: invitations (formal or informal, they still require effort), setting aside time in an already-packed schedule, planning a menu, doing the shopping, prepping the food, cleaning the house…

Beauty tips?!? You mean I have to try to look good, too??

…it’s exhausting!

And don’t even get me started on Christmas. Rather than being a relaxing, contemplative time of the year, Advent is SO BUSY with travel-planning, gift-buying and at least for us– FINAL EXAMS… ughhhhhh… that I barely have time to appreciate the pretty purple… no wait– rose already!– oh no, back to purple… vestments.

It really should come as no surprise by now that Lent is also a season of “Busy.” As someone who has worked for the Church as a music minister, campus minister and all sorts of odd jobs in-between, my Lent is always a struggle to FIT. IN. ALL. THE. PREP. so that I can prepare myself and my community to truly “enjoy” Easter.  I looked at my calendar today and my head is already spinning at the prayer services, musical rehearsals and classes I have coming up before Easter. This is a light year for us in terms of Lenten ministry and it’s still a little dizzying. Plus, I just realized that my hubby and I *still* need to find time to go to confession, too!

But before I freak out about how un-desert-like, un-restful and un-fulfilling this Lent seems to have been, I have to stop and think: “Fasting.” Fasting is when we give something good up in order to make room for a greater good. Fasting can mean abstaining from things, or it can mean giving up our time– in this case, any “free” time I was under the illusion I possessed. Perhaps this is as it should be. Maybe in this midst of all this outward busy-ness I can still find my “center of stillness surrounded by… chaos.”

Of course, this could also be the eye-opener I need that allows me to check myself and say “Slow down…” But for now I’m going to keep on “fasting,*” because that’s the only way I know. And I hope that as long as I offer up these busy times and ask God to bless them, too, that I will be ready to receive Him when Easter comes.

Do you find time to appreciate “stillness” during Lent? 
How does God reach you through your Busy Times? How do you reach out to Him?

*Please tell me you got the pun, because I thought that was awesome.