Saturday, April 19, 2014

The apparently inevitable victory of evil

As I was reading through the accounts of Christ's death in Matthew and Mark, I was struck by a particular feature of the narrative contained therein. More specifically what I am referring to is that horrific sense of the dreadful inevitability of Christ's death -- that sense that everything is going wrongly, horribly wrongly, and there is nothing we can do about it.

Mt 26 opens with Jesus declaring to his disciples that he will be betrayed and killed (26.1). There is also a secret meeting of the chief priests and religious authorities. They discuss when they might seize Christ and kill him, thought they don't want to do it during the festival out of fear of a riot (vv. 3-4). After the woman anoints him at Bethany Jesus declares that she has prepared him for burial (v. 12). Judas consults with the religious authorities to determine a price of betrayal (v. 14-6). Jesus tells his disciples during the final supper that one of them will betray him (v. 21), and speaks of the breaking of his body and shedding of his blood (vv. 26-9). He prays in the garden of Gethsemane that there might be some other way of accomplishing his task, but there is none (vv. 36-43). Then a band of armed men come upon them in the dark, and they take Jesus off -- but not before a spontaneous act of violence in self-defense on the part of his disciples, an act he notably condemns (vv. 47-52).

While Christ is being questioned by the high priests, accused of blasphemy and physically abused by those present (v. 67), Peter -- who previously swore to follow Christ even to death -- denies him and curses him when the allegation of a relation between the two is made. Upon realizing what has happened he goes off and weeps bitter tears (v. 75).

One of the most poignant moments occurs at ch. 27 of the gospel according to Matthew:

Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people made their plans how to have Jesus executed. So they bound him, led him away and handed him over to Pilate the governor.

When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”

“What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.”

So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself (27.1-5).

Judas feels regret for the grave sin he has committed, but when he returns to the religious authorities, they are even more reprobate than he is. He's sold his soul to the devil, but that is no concern of theirs -- they are too busy continuing in the work of Lucifer, anyway. Judas' end is a dark one, indeed: guilt for betraying his master having consumed him to the point of suicide.

Pilate, too, it would seem, makes some kind of attempt to prevent this death from happening. His wife suffers because of a dream she had about Jesus, and suggests that he have nothing to do with it (v. 19). Even he poses the question to the ravenous public demanding his blood: "Why crucify him? What crime has he committed?" (v. 23). He can't convince them otherwise, however, and washes his hands (literally) of the whole affair in public (v. 24).

Matthew does an excellent job in describing the sequence of events leading to Christ's death. A sense of a terrible determinism leading to a horrific death of an innocent man is skillfully and artfully invoked: Christ foretells his death and abandonment, though his disciples protest the thought and refuse to leave him; Judas sells him but later regrets the act, throwing the thirty silver coins on the ground in agonized frustration; Pilate attempts to reason with an irrationally bloodthirsty crowd, but to no avail. It is that back-and-forth between opposing forces, the pro and contra, that makes this sequence so interesting. The misfortune is that the pro always seems to win.

This is a sense we may have in our own lives, with respect to ourselves and to the world at large -- that things are going bad and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it. And on this day, this Black Saturday, it would be well really to live this experience of the victory of evil. Christ is dead, he's in the tomb, the disciples are dispersed, and the enemy has apparently won. This is more often than not the perception we have of our own world: in a day and age characterized by the Holocaust and 9/11, it seems obvious to us that evil wins, that it is destined to win, and that there's nothing any of us can do about it.