I’m not wild about bringing this up, I’ll be honest. Whether it is because Easter is close, or because past conversations have woven in and out of it, or because a recent tv series we watched was so incarcerated by it, I don’t know, but I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the subject of Betrayal. Ugh. Sorry. I know, it’s not pretty.
I was remembering a recent visit to the National Gallery. I don’t have an in-depth knowledge of Art. Some would argue I have no real appreciation of it either. Bit harsh. I am certainly a novice, at times maybe even a heretic, but I know what I like and this visit showed me something I didn’t.
After a number of hours wandering from beautiful room to beautiful room, we landed in front of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s painting, The Taking of Christ. (Here’s a link to it in the National Gallery – https://www.nationalgallery.ie/taking-christ-michelangelo-merisi-da-caravaggio). It chilled me. Somewhere in the background, a voice murmured the detail of its evolution, its history, its relationship to the painter and, of course, its dramatic rediscovery story. But I was only half-listening (heretic). I was captivated, haunted maybe, stopped in my tracks by something I hadn’t thought about before (novice). How did he do it? That kiss. How did Judas look Jesus in the eye and, with the most intimate gesture, betray his friend?
3 years he walked with Jesus, listened to him, watched him. Side by side. Friends. All those words of love, grace and forgiveness; those works of healing, those miracles of life and death and life again; those parables that taught who Jesus was. How could Judas have missed it? He sold out his friend.
It was difficult not to be moved by the scene unfolding on the canvas; betrayal is an all too familiar subject. Movies are made about it, books are threaded with it, relationships are dogged by it. No one of us will want to be the bestower of it. But not one of us will avoid it. The word ‘betrayal’ doesn’t own the dictionary description “Judas kiss” for nothing.
Recently, I heard a professional speak about betrayal. I heard her bring a lightness to the subject; humour even, hope certainly. She suggested that “healing begins with expressing remorse and guilt”, that growth and rebirth can happen.
I recognise what Judas did. The language in the gospels is clear. He was named “the Betrayer”. Matthew 26:3-4 records, “he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders. ‘I have sinned,’ he said, ‘for I have betrayed innocent blood.’” What a shame then, that the next words he heard were not from Jesus. “What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.” Broken by guilt, Judas left and did the unthinkable. Sin breaks. No question.
As a bystander in front of that painting, my feelings towards Judas morphed from judgement to sadness. Apparently, Caravaggio positioned the arresting soldier’s highly polished metal-clad arm right at the front of the painting “to serve as a mirror of self-reflection and examination of conscience”. That’s very wordy, but I get it. In looking at the soldier, or at Judas, or at the entourage arriving in panic, we are drawn to see ourselves in the story. Would we betray Jesus? Do we? If we are honest, do we sometimes feel as though God has betrayed us?
Healing begins with expressing remorse and guilt. Growth and rebirth can happen. Those words struck me as an antidote missing from the painting. The dark, awful, intimate moment of that kiss; an act of betrayal. But not the end of the story. Because of the gospel. Because of the Betrayed.
Jesus stands at the centre of the painting. His eyes don’t meet Judas’. His expression is one of pain, but humility too. The journey to the cross had begun in earnest: to restore relationship, to bear the unbearable. A friend is harmed, but a Saviour is born.
So, this is where I leave the painting – one scene from God’s overall plan to love us back. And where I start to come back to the cross – the welcoming path into his presence. Growth and rebirth.
No one understands like Jesus the guilt and shame of sin, nor of betrayal and loss. And no-one knows how to love in the most broken of all stories like Jesus. Though he was abandoned by sleeping disciples, and betrayed by a friend, he will never abandon us. John 14 is a powerful reminder of that.
In the course of all of this blogging, I found myself listening to some lovely renditions (don’t you love th’ole Internet) of the old, old hymn “It is well with my soul”. The story behind its author, Horatio Spafford, is awesome, but that’s for another blog (phew). For this one, a verse will do:
My sin – oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! – my sin, not in part, but in whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
Sin breaks. Jesus restores. We are loved with a passion. Easter is just one moment in time to stop in our tracks and soak it up.