Hope, Zeal and Plodding On

Once again the liturgical calendar asks us to celebrate two virtual unknowns: the apostles Simon, surnamed the Zealot, and Jude, otherwise known as Thaddeus, who had the misfortune to share the same name as Judas Iscariot, betrayer of the Lord. It is a fine mix, one that I myself find helpful.

Take Simon first. If he was indeed a Zealot, he must have made an uncomfortable companion at times. The Zealots were the spiritual heirs of the Maccabees, but they were not necessarily men of peace. The nationalistic fervour of many led them to perpetrate acts of violence and resistance to Rome which ultimately led to the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. It is a curious paradox, that those who most longed for the purity of religion were themselves unwitting agents of the destruction of its most potent symbol. That is the problem with zeal. It can easily become destructive. It may even descend into the ‘evil zeal of bitterness’ of which St Benedict writes, that separates from God and leads to hell. (cf RB 72.1) Clearly, in the case of St Simon, zeal was transformed into something wholly good, the kind that leads to God and everlasting life. (cf RB 72.2) That transformation can only have been wrought by being brought into contact with Jesus Christ: he is the agent of change, the Person who turned the hot-headed Simon into a man of God. That is something we need to remember when our anger or idealism is tending to run away with us. Anger and idealism have similar roots, which is why we are apt to mistake the one for the other. Only by bringing the light of Christ to bear on them can we see the difference. St Simon is an excellent patron for those of us who act first and think second. He shows us how zeal can become holiness — not changing its nature but achieving its full potential.

Who does not feel sorry for Jude? To be for ever associated with the man who betrayed Jesus, and often confused with him by the less literate! It is a horrible fate, made scarcely more bearable by that small change of name which fools nobody. But I think the fact that we have a St Judas as well as a traitor Judas is highly suggestive. We are a Church of sinners. Only grace prevents our being worse than we are. But Jude/Judas reminds us that grace is ultimately triumphant, if it is not rejected. By his fidelity, today’s saint compensated, as it were, for the other’s infidelity. He showed that love could achieve great things. His popular association with lost causes tells us something important about the nature of Christian hope and being open and receptive to God’s action. Too often we try to limit God by saying, ‘That’s not possible’; or, conversely, we try to make God into a magician, expecting him to step in when we have made a mess of things and are unable or unwilling to do anything ourselves. St Jude is a saint who challenges us to respect the nature of God, and to love him faithfully and trustingly. He is an excellent patron for those of us whose faith is wobbly, who know we don’t have answers but who want to be faithful.

Simon and Jude: the apostles of plodding on — one with his zeal transformed, the other with his fidelity making up for loss and betrayal. Together they give us hope that we, even we, can become saints.

Personal note: I love the image of the two apostles in the Santa Croce altarpiece at the National Gallery. It is copyright but you can view it here.