As an aid for living the time of Lent, we propose a meditation on Good Friday, which focuses on the Gospel account of the arrest of Jesus and on two of the protagonists who experience this event in two opposite ways: Judas and Peter.

Faced with the events of Good Friday, we, like the Apostles, remain at a distance, contemplating something that is too great for us to comprehend or accept. There is a psychological and spiritual annotation in the Gospel of Luke that reveals a detail about Peter, James, and John, the three who most closely witness the agony of Jesus: whereas, the Evangelist Mark has them become drowsy more so because they are tired, (“their eyes became heavy”, Mk 14:40) instead, in Luke, they sleep out of sadness (Lk 22:45). It is the same sadness that afflicts the Lord, but the apostles are not yet able to bear it, and so their sleep is described as an escape, a spiritual obstacle and a mental defense against the profound affliction that is literally costing their Lord His own blood. It is not yet time for them to drink the chalice that Jesus is drinking (cfr. Mk 10:48). Only the event of Easter will make it possible for them to remain with Him unto the very end. Good Friday invites us to a journey, one in which our gaze must follow Christ; it also invites us to contemplate the gestures of those who followed Him most closely.
Let us look now at two figures from the Gospel or, better, at the contrast between two figures who, in different ways, deal with the theme of obedience in front of the Passion. I am speaking, obviously, of Peter and Judas Iscariot.


The intentions of Peter

A short flash back: on the night of Holy Thursday, after the arrest of Jesus, all of the disciples escaped (Matt 26:56; Mk 14:40). The dynamic is rather clear. Each one of us, confusedly, has in our hearts an image of how our particular human adventure will be fulfilled. Evidently, the arrest of Jesus did not align with the plans of the Twelve. It seems, therefore, that Peter and the others flee having been terrorized in front of the change of fortune that happens to their company.
Yet, a question could arise here. During the Last Supper, Peter clearly expressed the desire to follow Jesus: “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” (Lk 22:33); “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (Matt 26:33); “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you” (Matt 26:35). Peter understood perfectly what was about to happen. When Jesus said to him: “Where I go you cannot come,” He has no doubts in affirming Peter’s desire to die at the side of his Master. And so, it cannot be only fear of persecution or of death to stop him.
We know that, in the moments in which life is in jeopardy, men manifest the most varied reactions, often uncontrolled and unforeseen. The state of soul that is revealed in peaceful times cannot correspond to the manner in which we do respond to danger or to an extreme situation. It is not, however, the case of Peter, who even launches himself, armed, against the unit of soldiers sent by the high priests and elders. How many were there? 600? 60? In any event, the fisher from Galilee, with a sword that he pulled from nowhere, did not have good prospects versus a group of professional soldiers. We can say, therefore, at the very least, that Peter had guts. And so, how can we make sense of his running away?
The fear of Peter could have been based on his understanding that Jesus wanted to go to the bitter end, that he was ready to die without defending himself. The unfavorable circumstance would not have scared him, but the revelation of such an extreme aspect of the personality and the mission of Christ.
Peter knew Him; he had followed Him for three years. He had seen Him get out of situations that appeared lost. He had seen Him calm the seas and the winds, multiply food, walk on water, escape every attempt to put Him to death, resurrect dead persons, transfigure Himself in glory.
Therefore, he knew well that Jesus, if He wanted, would have been able to save Himself in this circumstance as well; in order to avoid equivocation, the same Lord emphasizes this truth:

Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?  But how then should the scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But all this has taken place, that the scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples forsook him and fled. (Matt 26:53-56)

One who had power over nature, one to whom “even the winds and the seas obeyed”, who, despite all of this power, hands himself over to his assassins without putting up the least resistance, is an objectively frightening thing. Peter was even ready to give his life, but he was not ready for this. Are we too not taken by a certain sense of horror in seeing a person, able to escape his persecution, who submits instead to suffering and death?
In these words, a great equivocation is revealed. In general, we should valorize the impulses of Peter, even if, often, his endeavours do not end up with glorious results. Nonetheless, the Galilean fisherman knows how to get to the heart of the matter in every situation. For this reason, even his profuse offers of solidarity with the lot of the Lord should be taken seriously. All of the evangelists report his heartfelt claims in the course of the Last Supper. The Synoptics underline his desire to share in Jesus’ fate: “Peter declared to him, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (Matt 26:35; Mk 14:31); “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death” (Lk 22:33).
John uses another expression: “I will lay down my life for you” (Jn 13:37). The concept is the same but there is a different emphasis. These words are a citation: Peter is taking up the words he heard from the Master, who said, “The good shepherd gives his life for his sheep” (cfr Jn 10:11).
The interior movement of Peter that pushes him to imitate His Lord is truly praiseworthy. Perhaps it is one of the most beautiful aspects of his personality and of his office as leader of the Apostles, Vicar of Christ. Peter must and is called to imitate Christ.



The profound offering of oneself

Yet another time the generosity of Simon arouses our sympathy. But, as often happens, his action has a grave defect, for which it comes to nothing but a retreat in front of the fate that he had previously affirmed to want to embrace.
There is, in fact, another aspect to underline about the expression “to lay down one’s life for another.” This phrase could be understood as saying “risk one’s life” or as saying “give one’s life”. If a generic shepherd can risk his life, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, instead, gives, makes a gift of his own existence.
The words of Christ recorded by John – “I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again” (Jn 10:17-18) – confirm for us that He “lays down his life” in the second sense we laid out above: only the one who fully possesses something can truly offer it.
Peter had heard the parable of the Good Shepherd, but he did not fully understand its message. Or, perhaps, he did not want to understand. It is a fact, in any event, that his interpretation of this “giving of life” remains tied to the first meaning: risk one’s life. If we read the Synoptic Gospels, it does not seem like a stretch to say that the intention of Peter was to imitate the Lord, but at a lower level than Jesus had intended to propose. No one wants to put into question the love of the apostle for his Master, but perhaps it is an affection that is still attached to a “romantic” image.
In the episode of the arrest, this equivocation comes to light. Jesus does not ask for an act of heroism, but for a profound sharing of His being, which Peter has not yet accomplished. He has the power to give His life and to take it back, and freely choose to suffer and to be crucified. Peter is ready to die, but does not yet accept the modality that God has chosen for him.
Let us consider now the attitude that Jesus had towards Judas, keeping in mind the theme of the gift of self. The Iscariot has, by now, removed his mask: he is the traitor. The words of Jesus do not leave any doubt, if there even had been any before. Peter, James and John are with Jesus when Judas comes surrounded by the band that has been sent to arrest him. The apostles would have had before their eyes the scene of the horrible betrayal of Judas, on the one hand, and, on the other, the gaze that Jesus, while knowing everything, had upon his betrayer. Even if they had not been able to glimpse that gaze, on account of the obscurity, at least they would have noticed the affectionate word: “Friend!” If even those words had not been audible, they would have at least been struck by the welcoming tone of Jesus. All of the wishful thinking of rebuilding the kingdom of Israel would have crashed into that meekness which was absolutely out of place.
There is, in the end, a detail of the scene that is truly the drop that makes the vase overflow: the healing of the servant of the high priest. The fact that Peter strikes out at him is not incomprehensible (at most, we could ask why he did not lash out at Judas), but the healing of Malchus does not make any sense in this situation: it does nothing to save the life of Jesus. Let us try to think what it would have meant for the apostles to see a miracle in this context. It is a gesture that is so useless that it could not but be divine, in the sense that it is so privy of any possible retribution, so extraneous to any utilitarian logic, that it cannot but be ascribed to the true character of Christ: His charity and love for the enemy. They were expecting legions of angels and, lo and behold, Jesus annihilates any militaristic expectations that the Twelve had been harboring.
Therefore, Jesus, according to the logic of the Letter to the Hebrews, “ made perfect through what He suffered”, offering to the Father that “will by which we have been sanctified”, is entering into the heavenly sanctuary to appear now in the presence of God in our favor. It is, evidently, another level, still inaccessible for His friends.


Peter vs. Judas

Returning to the comparison between Peter and Judas, we can observe that, as far as externals go, the two are “the same” in a certain sense. Both have sinned, but their sin eventually was made known to them by Jesus, who, acting in this way, had made an opening for mercy: revealing that He knew their betrayal, in some way, he had anticipated their forgiveness. Yet, their actions on Good Friday are very different, as we know. What accounts for the difference? Let us try to understand why Peter, although he disappears from view after those bitter tears shed for his betrayal, is saved.

They are good tears, those that wash away sin. Those who Jesus looks upon shed tears. Peter denied Him a first time and did not weep, for the Lord had not looked upon him. He denied a second time and, again, he did not weep, for still the Lord had not turned His gaze towards him. Peter then denied a third time; Jesus looked at him, and he began to cry bitterly […]
Even you, if you want to be worthy of forgiveness: cancel your sins with tears. In that moment, Christ looks at you. If you get caught up in some sin, He, ever present testimony of all of your secret life, looks at you to remind you of the error and to push you to confess it. Imitate Peter who, on another occasion, says three times: “Lord, you know that I love you” (Jn 21:15). He denied three times and three times does he confess his faith. He denied at night, but confessed in the light of day […][1]

Simon had been scandalized by the gaze of love directed towards the betrayer. He felt like the “just one” after having made his beautiful profession of faithfulness, but now, after having experienced the bitter repayment of pride, he begins to beg to be looked at in that same way.
It is what had been foretold to him by Jesus, when he said: “And you, once you have been converted, confirm your brothers.” Precisely because he has had this experience, Peter can be the first among the other apostles.
“Teach us what good your tears have done for you. But, already, you have taught us: in fact, before crying, you had fallen, and after the tears, you were chosen to guide the others, you who, before, did not know how to conduct yourself.”[2]
None of this happens to Judas. And it should be noted that he too received that same gaze of mercy from Jesus. We can only approach the mystery of his evil. The figure of Judas raised a great question in Christians of every age. The same evangelists do not know how to handle the moral heredity of his betrayal. John espouses the thesis of the excessive love for money: “he was a thief and, since he kept the money box, he used to take what was put into it” (Jn 12:6). The Byzantine liturgy takes up this argument in an almost obsessive manner, but, then, puts the following rhetorical question to Judas:
Why, if you loved riches, did you follow Him who taught poverty? If, instead, you loved Him, why did you sell Him who is without price, handing Him over to the homicidal madness?”[3]
The thesis of John does not hold all the way to the depth of the matter. It is necessary to think further.
Not that it is exactly a fount of orthodoxy, but at the beginning of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, there is a suggestion that could help us to resolve the mystery. Judas opens the scene, saying:

If you strip away the myth from the man, you will see where we all soon will be/ Jesus! You’ve started to believe the things they say of you / You really do believe this talk of God is true […]
All the good you’ve done will soon be swept away / You’ve begun to matter more than the things you say.

To me, this seems to be an interesting hypothesis: there is a reef on which the faithfulness of Peter ran aground, and the same could have happened to Judas, who had perhaps simply understood this before him. Their imaginings of fulfillment did not correspond in the least to the plan of Jesus. However, in Judas, this disillusionment becomes associated with a grave lack of faith and perhaps a lack of charity as well.
Certainly, we can say that Judas giving into the devil does not happen once and for all; it is a progressive fall. John identifies two moments in the Last Supper; Luke has yet another at the beginning of Holy Week. It is a progression of revolt, closure, of obstination. What happened within Judas was an abyss of rebellion about which we can only hypothesize, accentuated, paradoxically, by our nearness to Jesus, who reveals the secrets of our own hearts.
Perhaps it might be useful to reconstruct the fight that happens inside of Judas by paying attention to the actions that he performs. The great difference between Peter and the Iscariot, with respect to their conduct after their respective betrayals, is that the latter tries to justify himself, while the former does not.
When Judas, his betrayer, saw that he was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood. (Matt 27:3-4)
“He repented.” It is a strong affirmation. And yet, it is a tragic repentance, first of all, because he asks to be absolved to his own accomplices – the high priests – who are inefficacious in interceding for sins and, above all, profoundly corrupt. But not only: the theatrics that ensue because no one wants the thirty pieces of silver and, together with them, the responsibility for the innocent blood of Jesus, is a grotesque representation of the true essence of the problem. The two sides, in a manner of speaking, toss the cursed sum back and forth, until a solution is proposed that keeps up appearances: a field will be bought (cfr. Matt 27:7).
The tragedy is that they refuse to be associated with that blood which alone could save them.
Ironically, it is the same blindness that afflicts the people of Jerusalem who, before Pilate, take upon themselves the blood of Jesus (cfr. Matt 27:25). Apparently, the situation is the opposite, but, as a matter of fact, the dynamic is the same, despite the appearance of an admission of guilt. The Jews thought they were in the right, and so they can take ownership, so to speak, of the shedding of the blood of Jesus, but, in reality, they are bluffing: they are sure that their actions will have no consequences. The moment has arrived in which all those who persecute Him think that they are rendering homage to God (cfr. Jn 16:2).
Naturally, no one is thinking of reducing the problem to a question of nationality: there is neither Jew nor Greek, but we are all one in Christ Jesus, Our Lord (cfr. Gal 3:28).
The criterion that divides up the world is not a happenstance ethnical belonging, but the response of faith that one gives or withholds to the claim of Jesus Christ to be the Lord of history. As John Chrysostom says, the curse that the Jews invoke is not irreversible, in as much as:
A merciful God did not ratify this sentence but accepted many of the Jews. Paul was one of them and many thousands of those who believed in Jerusalem.
By way of conclusion: there is no difference between those who do not want to be responsible for the blood of Christ (Judas and the priests) and those who think that they are able to invoke upon themselves the curse, while retaining their own innocence (if Jesus had simply been a man, the Jews, in killing Him, would have simply been following their own law). They all miss the central question.
As Nicholas Cabasilas says:

Many obstacles can get in the way of our own salvation, but the most grave consists in the following: that after having sinned, we do not return immediately to God to ask for forgiveness, but, full of shame and fear, we think that God is scornful and angry ith us and that, for this reason, there needs to be a long preparation if one wants to go back to Him. Now, the consideration of the friendship of God with men banishes this thought completely from the soul. If you know with clarity how sweet is the Lord and that, “while you are still speaking, he will say, ‘Here I am’”, then what is preventing you from presenting yourself immediately to Him, after having sinned? […] There are two types of sin, then: one uplifts and the other destroys those who are affected by it; of both we have clear testimony: the blessed Peter, first, and the wretched Judas, second.
In Peter, pain is a guardian of good will and he, with his bitter cry, was not less united to Christ than he had been before sinning against Him. Instead, the pain of Judas pushed him to hang himself, and he went away weighed down by the chains in a time of common liberation; while the blood that would purify the universe was being shed, he alone despaired of his own possibility of purification.
[…] Sin, therefore, makes us wicked in front of God and in front of ourselves, but, while pain for our ingratitude toward the Lord does not bring us any damage and, what’s more, will be very useful for us, it will not happen in the same way if, after having established an excellent opinion of ourselves, seeing it then destroyed by our sins we will be afflicted and cast down and we will torture our hearts with the bitter regret, as if we could no longer go on living once we had fallen with such sins. This sadness must be fled, because it is clear that it generates death, just like the excessive opinion of ourselves; while the other is born from love for the Lord, from clearly recognizing the One who does us good, and from knowing that not only do we not give Him nothing of what all owe to Him, but that we even recompense His goodness with our own wicked deeds.
Therefore, just as pride is an evil, so to is the pain born in the soul for pride. On the contrary, how infinitely worthy of praise is the love for Christ, so that nothing procures more blessedness to men of right feeling than feeling afflicted and heart-pierced, wounded by the arrows of such a love.” [4]

Let us close with a prayer from the Byzantine liturgy:
“Let us present our senses purified to Chrsit and, since we are His friends, let us orient our souls toward Him. May we not be suffocated by worldly preoccupations, as Judas was, but let us, in our cells, cry out ‘Our Father, deliver us from evil!’”[5]


(Retreat for Good Friday in the House of Formation, 10 April 2020).



[1] Ambrose, Expositio evangelii secundum Lucam, X, 88-90.

[2] Ambrose, Expositio evangelii secundum Lucam, X, 91-92.

[3] Byzantine Liturgy, Lauds of Holy and Great Thursday

[4] N. Cabasilas, Life in Christ, 652b, 652c; 653a; 653b; 653c.

[5] Byzantine Liturgy, “Office of the Passion”

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