Ars Praedicandi: “On the night he was betrayed…”

The students to whom I teach Dante’s Divine Comedy
are often surprised that in the lowest depth of Hell
Dante places, not those who committed sexual sins
(which is what they expect from someone
who lived in the prudish Middle Ages),
nor those who committed crimes of violence
(which is who most of them think deserve
the most serious punishment),
but rather those guilty of betrayal.
For Dante, betrayal is the act that ends you up
in the deepest, coldest circle of Hell
because it is springs, not simply from
a failure of reason to properly direct our desires,
the ways that sins of lust and violence do,
but from an abuse of the love and trust
that others bear toward us.
You can only betray someone who trusts you,
and to betray such trust is to exploit
the most precious gift one person can give to another.
It is the action that makes us most unlike God,
for God is eternally faithful in love toward us,
and asks for nothing but faithful love in return.
And because it makes us most unlike God
it places us at the farthest distance from God.

We all know the experience of betrayal
because we live in a world marked by betrayal.
In the Biblical story of humanity’s fall
we find not only the disobeying of God’s command
not to eat from the tree in the garden
but also a primal act of betrayal:
“it is her fault; she made me do it.”
We all know betrayal,
and we know it from both sides:
we have had our trust betrayed
but we have also betrayed the trust of others.
Perhaps it is a seemingly trivial betrayal—
a small promise made but not kept—
or perhaps it is a life-shattering breach of trust:
a deceptive co-worker,
a devious friend,
a disloyal spouse.

And the betrayal that pervades our world operates
not just on an interpersonal level
but on an institutional level.
Many today feel betrayed by our government,
by our educational and medical establishments,
by our Church.
Some, faced with crushing disappointments in life,
may even feel betrayed by God
We feel that there were
promises made
that were not kept,
hopes held out
that were not fulfilled,
trust engendered
that was not deserved.
We may be tempted to adopt the view
that trust is for suckers,
and the only way to avoid betrayal
is to hold yourself back
from trusting anyone or anything,
to protect yourself by sealing up your heart.

Tonight puts us into the middle
of the story of history’s greatest betrayal:
the betrayal of the God who took flesh
for us and for our salvation,
and whom we handed over
to suffering and death.
In every celebration of the Eucharist
we recall this night with these words:
“For on the night he was betrayed…”
Jesus is betrayed by Judas with a kiss,
for thirty pieces of silver.
Jesus is betrayed by Peter and the other disciples,
who had said that they would die with him,
but then flee and hide and deny that they knew him.
Jesus is betrayed by religious and political authorities,
who claim to rule in the name of piety and justice,
but show themselves instead to be ruled by fear
and by the desire for domination.
Jesus is betrayed by the crowd,
which had rapturously greeted him
as he entered Jerusalem,
only to call for his crucifixion a few days later.
It seemed to some, even,
that he has been betrayed by God:
“He trusts in God;
let God deliver him now, if he wants to” (Mt 27:43).

In this midst of this scene of betrayal, however,
Jesus does not hold himself back from trust,
but rather leans into it,
knowing that the one whom he calls Father
remains faithful in his promises.
He does not protect himself by sealing up his heart
but opens his heart to us in love
so that water and blood might flow forth—
the water that washes our sins away,
the blood that becomes our food and drink.
For on the night he is betrayed,
the night he is handed over by a friend
and abandoned by his followers,
he takes bread and wine
and, giving thanks, hands himself over to us
in an act of loving self-abandonment:
“This is my body that is for you….
this…is the new covenant in my blood.”
He offers his own blood as the sign of covenant,
the sign of promise in which we can trust,
even in the midst of betrayal.
In the night that lies at the center
of the long, sad history of human betrayals,
Jesus shows us that betrayal must be answered with love.
He is not telling us to turn a blind eye to betrayal,
to ignore it or pretend it doesn’t happen.
Jesus knows Judas will betray him,
and lets him know that he knows.
But still he washes his feet,
for he also knows that if betrayals make us bitter
it is we who are defeated, not our betrayers.
The only way to defeat betrayal
is through the reconciling power of love—
not our paltry human love,
which falters so in the face of betrayal,
but the love that pour itself out
into our hearts to wash away our bitterness,
the fullness of charity and life
that becomes our food and drink
in this banquet of Christ’s love.

In this night that he is betrayed,
Jesus hands himself over to us
so that the power of divine love
that carried him from betrayal
through the cross
to the resurrection
might come to dwell in us as well.
Even in the midst of betrayal he invites us,
come to the feast of love.

5 comments

  1. Many elders or leaders who I admire, when asked to give some general life advice, offer some version of, “Do what you say you’re going to do.” Essentially, keep your promises. Maybe just as important to be honest and not promise something that you can’t deliver on.

    What a gift and a building block for families and communities and societies for one person to be able to trust another to the extent Jesus trusted his Father as we sang of yesterday, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”

    Thanks so much for sharing this homily!

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