Wednesday, April 8th

“Surely it is not I, Lord?”

Valentin de Boulogne, Last Supper

Valentin de Boulogne, Last Supper

The early Christian community was deeply shaken by what Judas had done. That one of the inner circle, to whom he had confided so much, could have betrayed him, was shocking. That comes through in today’s Gospel when, after telling the twelve that one of them is about to betray him, what follows has the tension of a courtroom drama. One after another of them says, “Surely it is not I, Lord.”   

How are we to understand their reaction?  The words are the same, but their meaning, it has always seemed to me, depends on the inflection that is given to them. “Surely it is not I, Lord” with the accent on the “surely” and the raised inflection on the “I” is the voice of indignation. How could anyone, and certainly not me, ever think of doing such a thing? It’s the verbal equivalent of keeping at arms’ length, of emphatically distancing oneself from what is about to happen. Indignation has its place as a response to a perceived evil. But it has its limits and its clear dangers as well.

A different interpretation of those same words derives from a less assured, more hesitant tone. “Surely, it is not I, Lord?” It is put in the form of a question, as if to not so quickly disassociate oneself from the awful moment to come and not to presume on one’s own strength. It has the great advantage over the voice of indignation in this respect: it means that I am a full participant in the drama of salvation. Not watching the events unfold from a distance, not resting secure in my own righteousness, but understanding, at some deep level, the words of my Irish forebears: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Yes, we’re placing a lot of stock in an inflection of voice. But rightly so, I think, because it’s the difference between opening oneself to redemption, and effectively closing oneself off from it. Forgive me for this, but Holy Week is not cops and robbers, with the good guys and the bad guys easy to identify. Hard as it may seem, we are called to identify with Judas, knowing ourselves capable of this kind of betrayal. As our father Augustine prays in the Confessions: “All of our hope is nowhere, O Lord, except in your great mercy.”