Wednesday of Holy Week
Readings: Isaiah 50:4-9a and Matthew 26:14-25
Our Lenten journey, which began in ashes, ends today with betrayal. Perhaps it’s not what we expected. At least, it’s not how we wanted it to end. In which case, we are in good company, for neither did the disciples; Judas certainly didn’t.
But here he is, Judas, bargaining with the chief priests. “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?” Thirty shekels. It is the amount, according to the Law (Ex. 21:32), owed in “damages” for the unintended killing of a slave: an insulting sum, to which, in this case, much injury will soon be added. Did Judas know what he was doing?
He no doubt thinks he is in control of the situation. How else are we to account for his startling insincerity in the face of Jesus’ recognition of his betrayer: “Surely it is not I, Rabbi?” Or his even more startling kiss later that night in the Garden? A kiss! With that sign of affection and discipleship Judas unleashes forces over which none—least of all him—can claim control.
Caravaggio wonderfully, and characteristically, captures the moment in his masterpiece “The Taking of Christ” (1602).
Judas has just kissed Jesus, who forlornly looks down and away from his betrayer. Three heavily armored soldiers are laying hands, not so much on Jesus as on Judas, who from the look on his face is just beginning to understand the consequences of his deed. John, on the far left of the tableau, his mouth open in a cry of alarm, is attempting to flee, but like Judas, he too is captive, his cloak firmly in a soldier’s grasp.
A figure on the far right—a self-portrait of the artist—holds a lantern aloft, but it is not the source of the painting’s light. That is coming from somewhere to the left, outside the frame. It bathes the face and praying hands of Jesus as it illuminates John’s panicked and Judas’ wrinkled brow. Much to the annoyance of some early critics, it also leaves a jarring reflection off the polished armor of the soldier at the very center of the painting.
There is much debate over what Caravaggio intended with this streak of light. I tend to think he meant it to represent a moment of disclosure, the surprising revelation of divine mercy. And it is the Father’s love, finally, that is in control, not us.
Do we, like Judas, find this puzzling?
Paul J. Wojda, Theology Department