Wednesday, Holy Week
March 27th, 2013
A Meditation on Judas by the Rev. Dr. Kristin Largen
It is well-established in the Christian theological tradition that if anyone is in hell, Judas certainly is there—if not for his betrayal, then for his suicide. And, while I am not going to talk specifically about that aspect of Christian teaching on Judas, suffice it to say that much of it is deplorable [including what is found in the theology of Augustine and Luther—just to name a few examples]. Catholic doctrine still considers suicide a grave sin; and over the centuries, Judas has been held up as doubly-condemned, and used as a threatening example of someone who despaired of God’s grace, thereby permanently cutting himself off from God’s forgiveness. This rhetoric suggests, either implicitly or explicitly—depending on how it is wielded—that all those who have completed suicide have damned themselves and are beyond God’s reach; and that is neither for us to say, nor for us to assume, based on who God has revealed Godself to be in Jesus Christ.
So, back to Judas the betrayer. We have Dante to thank, as much as anyone, for the vivid imagery that describes not only hell itself, but Judas’ torment there as well. In Dante’s imagination, Judas is at the lowest point of the universe, in the very center of the icy floor of hell. In other words, Judas himself represents the absolute nadir of hell.
In Dante’s Inferno, after descending circle by circle, passing the gluttonous—forced to lie in stinking, freezing slush in circle three, the angry and the sullen—the former fighting on the surface of the river Styx and the latter gurgling beneath it in circle five, and the heretics, trapped in flaming tombs in circle six, Dante and his guide Virgil finally reach the frozen center of hell, where the betrayers are found: the worst of the worst, the lowest of the low. There, frozen in the center, stands an enormous Satan, encrusted in ice up to his chest, black wings beating an arctic frost into the air. He has three terrible heads, and three insatiable mouths, with which he gorges himself eternally on the three worst betrayers in human history. Brutus and Cassius [betrayers of Julius Caesar] are on the left and the right, and Judas is in the middle—head eternally gnawed in Satan’s mouth, back eternally flayed by Satan’s claws. According to Dante, Judas bears the greatest pain of anyone in hell.
Perhaps this is true; perhaps this is fitting—certainly, it satisfies our human sense of justice and just desserts. But there is another possibility regarding Judas that also has persisted down through the centuries. One imagines that this possibility was whispered ear to ear, not trumpeted from pulpits or in encyclicals—but it, too, has survived. There is a famous medieval legend that tells that when Jesus first descended into hell, and "preached to the spirits," as we read in I Peter, Jesus intentionally sought out Judas, in order to forgive him and redeem him. This is how Marty Stortz tells it.
The canonical biblical texts present Judas as a
tragic example of the power of guilt. His deed brought him
censure from his friends, ridicule from the temple hierarchy,
and overwhelming isolation. Alone and miserable, Judas
watched events that he had set in motion now spin out
of his control. He could no longer live with himself.
Crushed by the weight of his crime, Judas hung himself in
a potter’s field.
The biblical story ends in suicide, but this legend keeps
the cameras rolling. According to this legend, Jesus
descended into hell after his crucifixion.
There he remembered Judas.
Jesus sought him out among the lost souls in hell
in order to unburden him. Jesus found Judas in order to
re-member—and to forgive.
The point of this legend, of course, has nothing to do with whether or not it is "true"—as if any of us could really know for sure anyway. And the point of the legend isn't about Judas, either: whether or not he was an irredeemable sinner, whether or not his betrayal was a part of God's plan. No, the point of this legend—and why I love it—is what it says about Jesus: what it says about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, what it says about God's relationship with us, and what it says about the meaning of these three days that loom before us. If pushed, here's the real truth I think this legend brings into sharp relief. People ask why Jesus had to die; but the fact is, he didn't. Jesus didn't HAVE to die—he chose to die. Jesus chose the cross and he chose death, because he knew that in no other way could he seek out, find, and rescue Judas, stuck in a hell of his own making. And not only Judas, of course, but me, and you, and all of us—stuck in the hells of our own making.
As we prepare, then, to enter into the great three days, contemplating this profound, unfathomable mystery of our faith—the death of the incarnate God, may the depth of Judas' darkness remain before us; not as something "other” than us, but as something uncomfortably, tragically familiar to each one of us, so that when we reflect on the immeasurable gift of our salvation, the unimaginably deep, vast love that God has for us, we might truly believe that if we can dare to hope for Judas, we can dare to hope for ourselves as well—and for the whole world along with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Editor's note: The authoritative Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraphs 2280-2283) makes the following points about suicide:
• "Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of."
• "Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God."
• "If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal."
• "Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law."
• "Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide."
• "We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives."