(Is 50:4-9 / Ps 69:6-14, 21-22 / Heb 9:11-28 / Matt 26:1-5, 14-25)
Assist us mercifully with your grace, Lord God of our salvation, that we may enter with joy upon the meditation of those mighty acts by which you have promised us life and immortality; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Holy Week begins and ends with the most stark contrasts imaginable. Palm Sunday is a day of raucous celebration with people shouting Hosanna! and waving palm branches in a grand coronation parade that gets the attention of both church (Temple) and state (Rome). A week later — Holy Saturday — is a day of somber confusion, bewildered mourning, and silent waiting for God knows what as the King of the Jews lies crucified, dead, and buried in a borrowed tomb while his followers are hiding in fear behind locked doors.
Today we find ourselves in the middle of Holy Week, in the middle of these extremes, on Holy Wednesday. The Book of Common Prayer has no special service, no unique liturgy appointed for the day, though it is not uncommon for Anglican churches to observe Tenebrae, as indeed we do at Apostles. No, the Book of Common Prayer skips from Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday with no mention of Holy Wednesday. But, this is a pivotal day in the story. If Palm Sunday is one end of the Holy Week seesaw and Holy Saturday is the other, then Holy Wednesday is the fulcrum right in the middle, the fulcrum on which the story pivots from joy to mourning. As with other important moments in Jesus’ life, it all centers around a table.
Mark 14:1–11 (ESV): 14 It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, 2 for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.”
3 And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. 4 There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? 5 For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. 6 But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. 9 And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
10 Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. 11 And when they heard it, they were glad and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him.
That was Holy Wednesday. It has already been a busy week for Jesus: Sunday, the Triumphal Entry; Monday, the cleansing of the Temple; Tuesday, an intense day of teaching his disciples on Mt. Olivet. He alone knows what Thursday and Friday hold in store, so he takes this moment on Wednesday to rest at Bethany. He may well be staying with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus off and on during the week, but tonight he is dining out in the house of Simon. A woman — the Synoptic Gospels do not identify her — a woman in an extravagant gesture of devotion anoints Jesus with precious ointment worth a year’s wages. You know the story, both from the Synoptic Gospels and from John; the details differ somewhat but the point is the same. Judas is incensed over this waste, at least he feigns outrage at the loss of potential communal revenue from which he could have pilfered a share. Somehow this is the last straw for Judas, the tipping point for him and for Holy Week. He agrees to deliver Jesus to the authorities, to spy out the perfect opportunity to betray Jesus into their hands. That’s why Holy Wednesday is also called Spy Wednesday; Judas pivots from disciple to spy and the week pivots from Triumphal Entry toward Holy Saturday.
Why did Judas do it? Forgot psychology; there’s no real help there, no definitive answer. Luke has the only answer that does justice to Judas’s perfidy.
Luke 22:3–6 (ESV): 3 Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve. 4 He went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers how he might betray him to them. 5 And they were glad, and agreed to give him money. 6 So he consented and sought an opportunity to betray him to them in the absence of a crowd.
This is one of the most terrifying verses in all Scripture: Satan entered into one of the twelve. If this is not a cautionary tale, then I don’t know of one. It had all started so differently, so hopefully, some three years before.
Mark 3:13–19 (ESV): 13 And [Jesus] went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. 14 And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach 15 and have authority to cast out demons. 16 He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); 17 James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); 18 Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot, 19 and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.
These twelve are the men Jesus desired to be with him, to preach in his name, to cast out demons and so to proclaim with power the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom. Judas was there; he was one of them. Remember that the phrase “who betrayed him” was written only in hindsight. On that day, he was simply one of the twelve who Jesus chose.
Mark 6:7–13 (ESV): [Jesus] called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8 He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts— 9 but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics. 10 And he said to them, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. 11 And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 12 So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. 13 And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.
Judas was there; he was one of them preaching and casting out demons and healing. God was at work in and through Judas just as he was at work in and through Simon Peter. But, over the ensuing years something changed for Judas; something changed in Judas. We don’t know what and why and when and where and how. We only know that on this Holy Wednesday “Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve.”
It is a good thing, a sobering thing, for us to pause mid-Holy Week to ponder this mystery of iniquity: how one so close to Christ can fall so far from him, how an erstwhile disciple can become a traitor. It is a good thing, a sobering thing, for us to pause mid-Holy Week to examine ourselves, lest being unaware of the wiles of our foe and the weakness of our human nature we drift away from the one who called us, from the one who desires us to be with him, to proclaim — not only with our lips but in our lives — the glory of his name. This need for self-examination, for intentional awareness is a theme in Scripture. Listen to St. Paul in 1 Corinthians:
1 Corinthians 10:1–12 (ESV): 10 For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.
6 Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” 8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, 10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. 11 Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. 12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.
These things took place as examples for us. Remember this and ponder it: with the exception of two faithful men, the entire adult generation of the Exodus forfeited the privilege of entering the promised land due to their unfaithfulness. The generation that crossed the Red Sea was not allowed to pass through the Jordan. The generation that feasted on manna and quail did not taste the milk and honey promised to their fathers. God forbid that this be said of any of us, that having been baptized into Christ, having been fed on his Body and Blood, having been filled with his Spirit, anyone of us should turn back or walk away.
Paul himself carefully guarded his own faith:
1 Corinthians 9:24–27 (ESV): 24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
On this Holy Wednesday, the tragic example of Judas calls us to be aware but not fearful, sober but not anxious, diligent but not despairing. It calls us to do this one thing: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, to press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus, holding true to what we have attained (ref Phil 3:14, 16).
On this Holy Wednesday and on every day after, may the God of peace himself sanctify us completely, and may our whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls us is faithful; he will surely do it (ref 1 Thess 5:24). Amen.