The Shame of Holy Week

We read Matthew’s account of the betrayal today, but it is set in context by being linked with Isaiah 50. Jesus is not a victim in the sense that we usually use that word. He gives his life; it is not taken from him. But Matthew is harder on Judas than John is. Instead of a last, intimate dialogue which could have led to a different outcome, we have a brazen Judas defying Jesus, almost goading him to unmask him.

Here is the shame of Holy Week, when Truth stands before all our lies and half-lies. There is no confrontation, no attempt to challenge the falsity. The shabbiness of betrayal and deceit is shown up for what it is, but Jesus’ response to Judas is one of anguish, not condemnation. The medieval poets understood this better than most. They move from voice to voice, from Christ to the onlooker and back again, their lines marked with a huge compassion simply expressed. Christ is the noble lord betrayed by his beloved . . . ‘Lovely tear from lovely eye, why dost thou look so sore?’ . . . The believer can only mourn the wrong which results from that betrayal:

With sadness in my song
And grief at what I see
I sigh and mourn the wrong
Upon the gallows-tree.

We are very close to the Sacred Triduum now. Today is a day for confession of sins and a firm purpose of amendment. Sometimes the only way of dealing with shame is to acknowledge the source of it and allow God’s healing grace to flood the soul.

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Holy Innocents

This feast is often used by Catholics to condemn the evil of abortion. I have already written something on the subject here. Today I would rather share some thoughts with you about the strange event to which the gospel refers: Herod’s murder of young boys in the Bethlehem district. The historicity of the event is often questioned, although we all know that not every villainy is documented in ways that would satisfy a court of law. What interests me, however, is Rachel ‘weeping for her children because they are no more’ (referring back to Jeremiah 31. 15 – 17).

In their original context these words relate to Israel’s experience of exile and restoration. I find unconvincing attempts to turn the words into some sort of messianic prophecy fulfilled in Jesus. I think Matthew uses the phrase to express the grief and hopelessness of Jewish mothers suffering the loss of their sons at Herod’s orders and links to Ramah because that is the place from which the Jews were gathered together for deportation to Babylon. It is, if you like, a coded message: death and destruction were not far from Jesus from the very beginning of his earthly existence as they have never been very far from any of the Chosen People.

There are a number of Jewish midrashim on ‘Rachel weeping’ which add to our sense of the universalism of Matthew’s point. In one of them Rachel moves heaven and earth and the Holy One, blessed be he, to weep with her; in another she not only weeps but argues with God and prevails upon him to rescue Israel from danger. In other words, the grief of Rachel is the grief of every generation which experiences death and exile.

Today, with so many refugees in the world and the borders of many hitherto hospitable nations being closed against them, we could spend a few moments thinking about the plight of those who, like the Master we follow, ‘have not where to lay their heads’ and whose lives are vulnerable to attack. Tyranny did not die with Herod, nor did the coming of the Prince of Peace destroy the cruelty in human hearts.

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