The Sadness of Losing Sheep

Tuesday of Holy Week: Isaiah 49:1-6, John 13:21-33, 36-38.

Today, we hear part of  John’s account of the Last Supper when Jesus offers Himself to and through Judas, always giving Himself even in His own betrayal. As we contemplate the Word of God recorded by St. John, let us be drawn into the mystery of the Spirit that is “agitated” and the mind that understands all prophecy and all revelation. Below is a lightly edited version of my post from this same day in 2020.

The gospel reading opens with, “Reclining at table with his disciples, Jesus was deeply troubled and testified, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me.'” The Greek phrase used for “deeply troubled” is ἐταράχθη τῷ πνεύματι (etarachthē tō pneumati), which means “agitated in spirit.” This is nearly identical to the phrase used to describe the state of his spirit when He encounters an emotional Mary just before raising Lazarus from the dead. In my reflection See the Glory of God, I argue that this agitation of spirit is due to the gut-like passion of God rejecting the force of death in His midst. I feel that we are experiencing the same agitation of spirit and the same underlying cause here in today’s gospel. Just as “Amen, Amen, I say to you” is a common phrase used by Jesus throughout the New Testament, and one that we can take to mean “The truth is here, I am teaching it to you,” I feel that this phrase “agitated in spirit” signals a fundamental surge of the spirit in opposition to death’s enthralling grip on someone. Here, it is Judas, and Christ’s agitation is not tied to the fact that His own death is implicated, but that this apostle He loved, someone whose feet He just washed, had given himself over to death. This is a lament from Jesus, the Good Shepherd who goes to every length to rescue one of his sheep, over the loss of Judas’s soul.

The betrayal is even more symbolically devastating than we might think at first glance. The beloved one (John himself, the writer of the gospel) leans back on Jesus’s chest and asks who He’s talking about. Jesus replies, “It is the one to whom I hand the morsel after I have dipped it.” What morsel is He describing? Remember, this is the Last Supper, when Jesus institutes the sacrament of the Eucharist and provides His instructions to the apostles: “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19). John, for his part, doesn’t describe the Last Supper with these same words of institution as the synoptic gospels, but simply tells us, “So he dipped the morsel and took it and handed it to Judas.”

Could this be a different, more simple morsel of bread? Perhaps, but is any morsel of bread “simple” at this sacred meal? They are all handed to the apostles personally by the Lord on the eve of his Passion, with His sanctifying grace and the intention of instituting the sacrament of Eucharist. It is all the Body of Christ, meant to spark the mystical Body of Christ that is the Church.

And what happens with Judas when this holy morsel is given freely to him by Christ? John writes, “After Judas took the morsel, Satan entered him. So Jesus said to him, ‘What you are going to do, do quickly.'” It seems that Satan recoils and constricts his victim as the presence of God is placed upon him. Jesus, in turn, realizes that Judas is firmly in the devil’s grip and releases him from His Presence. 

The Last Supper (1786), Benjamin West | Creative Commons, courtesy the Detroit Institute of Arts. I think West captures a great range of humanity in the faces of the apostles and Jesus. We see the incredulous, questioning, uncomprehending, and earnest faces of most of the apostles, the divine relationship of Christ and God the Father as he institutes the sacrament of the Eucharist, and Satan darkly inhabiting the face and form of Judas.

The apostles aren’t sure what’s going on, but Judas, Satan, and Christ are clear. John writes, “So Judas took the morsel and left at once. And it was night.” Judas takes Christ’s life, His sanctified body, and leaves with it. He doesn’t eat the morsel, he doesn’t allow it to nourish him and bring the love of God into his being. Instead, he takes the gift like a greedy child, hoarding it away. And John gives us a poetic little sentence that signals the true darkness of this moment: “And it was night.” 

Newcomers to Christianity are more incredulous over this moment than many lifelong Catholics. Why would Jesus just let Judas go if he knew he would betray Him? He has it in His power to stop the whole, horrible ordeal before it starts. Yes, He’s always had this in His power, and that’s really the point. Jesus is the master of His destiny at all times. He can feed thousands and raise the dead with nothing but a word of thanks to the Father. But Jesus isn’t just the master of His destiny — He is the Master of Destiny, that is, of all destiny for all of humanity. As such, His responsibility has always been more than His human life; his responsibility is to provide salvation for all humans — life everlasting. The only way to do this is to take our sin and nail it to the Cross as a sacrifice to the Father, then to descend into death in a humanity He deliberately shares with us, but raise that human form with a divinity that is solely His. His choices are divine, they always exist within the love of the Trinity that is a pouring out of the self (kenosis) to a degree that we can’t quite comprehend. So He knows that He must let this sheep Judas escape with Satan in order to start the saving action He destines for us.

The rest of today’s reading shows us how Jesus tells his beloved apostles about His ordering of destiny. I am struck with how patient He has been throughout the gospels to this point, gradually revealing the mystery of His being and mission of salvation, trying to give them enough time to grow in understanding, and always pointing back to the glory of the Father. Now, things accelerate, as they must. He begins by saying, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.” I believe that we must again remember the importance of the Last Supper here and the seed of Christian ritual that Jesus gives the Church, one that will begin to make sense as his body and blood are literally poured out and then when he resurrects. But at the same time “glorification” refers to the necessary divine reaction to the fleeing Judas. How is Judas’s betrayal the thing that causes Jesus to say “Now is the Son of Man glorified”? I believe that this act enables Christ to display the overflowing, undeserved, and totally out-of-proportion love of God that the pours out in response to our infidelity. This is beyond turning the other cheek; this is the wellspring of love.

Christ in Glory (14th c. Crete, Greece), Hand-painted (written) icon by Plamen Kazakov | image from blessedmart.com.

Judas is the first in a cascade of sin and evil that will be rained down on Jesus during his suffering and death. His glorification and the glorification of God resides not in the smiting of the offenders but in the patient acceptance of this evil. This ability to love in the face of all the hate and injustice that can be mustered, well, it’s supernatural. It’s so paradoxical to how humans would respond that in it is the proof and the glory of God. The plea to forgive those “who know not what they do” as He hangs on the Cross! This looking out for His sheep in the darkest of night, this is the glorification.

So when Jesus says, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now, though you will follow later,” we can take a double meaning. The apostles can’t follow Him into the never-ending love in the face of torture and hate because of the supernatural divine love it requires, and this has not yet been poured out upon humanity. Secondly, they can’t follow Him into death and the underworld, where he must go so that His divine essence, which can never die, can raise up again. But, as he notes, their paths to sainthood will require them to follow in both senses.

Our reading today ends with Jesus explaining to Peter that although he claims he will lay down his life for Jesus, he will actually deny Him three times that night, before the crow signals morning. When I was younger, I imagined that a certain degree of understandable bitterness may have marked Christ’s statement, but now I see things differently. I think the emotion that overwhelms Jesus on this fateful evening that will take them to the Garden of Gethsemane is sadness. Not anger toward God or the people who will betray Him. Not fear of the impending torturous death. Not anguish over losing His family and friends. He may have experienced some measure of these things but I think it’s been in vogue since Vatican II to emphasize these aspects His humanity, perhaps to the detriment of remembering that the Good News is about the divinity that comes to earth. For me, I think that if we accept the reality of the love that defines the Trinity, which is the operative force brought into the world through the man Jesus Christ, agape must define for us who He ultimately is, especially in His final hours. That love is purely selfless, only wanting to draw others to unity with God. I think he grieves for humanity in the display of evil, the enthrallment of death, all of the cowardly and wicked acts. He knows that the cup the Father wants Him to drink will entail humanity digging itself even further down into the depths of evil by torturing and crucifying the Word of God, an unspeakable sin. This is the Good Shepherd, this is the Son of Man who has devoted His life to preaching the New Covenant of love, this is the Anointed One who cares more deeply than we can imagine for all of us.

So, no, I don’t think he was bitter with Peter, but instead sad. I can even imagine a tear on the cheek of our Savior when he gently tells Peter with some irony that the Rock who pledges to lay down his life is destined to deny any connection with Jesus three times that night. A tear of sadness, not for Himself, but for Peter, a lost sheep who will thankfully eventually find his way back to the Father.

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