The Easter story has been called the greatest story ever told. It is being read, sung and talked about on this day by millions of people all over the world. It’s a strange story–incredible really–and some people don’t believe a word of it, at least literally. But its theme of death and resurrection rings true, symbolically if not always literally. Look around you. Green shoots take their place in the garden. Yellow shines through the forsythia bushes. Cats and dogs leave their hair around your house as their bodies adjust to the warmer weather. This is resurrection. This is Easter. Life begins again. Life does not stay buried, it rises again. Metaphorically, this is what the death and resurrection of Jesus are about. We need reminders of the miracle that is life. We need reminders to help us live in a way that honors the miracle, or the natural fact, of life cycles.
Unitarian Universalist Max Coots writes, “We need a celebration that speaks the Spring-inspired word about life and death, about us as we live and die, through all the cycling seasons, days and years. We need the sense of deity to crack our own hard, brown December husks and push life out of inner tombs and outer pain. Unless we move the seasons of the self, and Spring can come for us, the winter will go on and on. And Easter will remain a myth, and life will never come again, despite the fact of Spring.”
Today is Easter Sunday – a day of hope, or resurrection: literal and metaphorical, of triumph over death, a celebration of fertility, of new life, of warmth, of light, of growth in spring. Lo the winter is past, it really is over. It’s all good, right? But this year as I thought about this story what stood out for me was the prevalence of betrayal in it. Not just one betrayal, not just two, but three or four depending on how you look at it. What’s that about? Virtually all of Jesus’ friends left him in one way or another. Deserted him. Sold him out. Ran away in fear. What does it mean that this holy day of rebirth and profound hope is rooted in betrayal? What’s the message for us as we go about living our lives?
Let me tell you the story. I will use, for the most part, the version in the gospel of Mark because this is considered the oldest of the gospels, written about 50 years after Jesus’ death. As the oldest, many consider it the most accurate account of Jesus’ life and death. Jesus, by his challenges of the established laws and values of his religion and society, had made powerful enemies. Some feared he would start a revolution; others feared he would stir up the people and undermine their own religious authority. Those in power wanted to get rid of him. Jesus and his disciples had made their way to Jerusalem for Passover. “Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve (disciples), went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. And when they heard it they were glad, and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him…. And as they were at table eating, Jesus said, Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who was eating with me. They began to be sorrowful, and to say to him one after another, Is it I? He said to them, It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with me….. (This is the moment depicted by Leonardo daVinci in his painting The Last Supper.) And they went to a place which was called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, sit here, while I pray…. And he took with him Peter and James and John and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. . And he said to them my soul is very sorrowful, even unto death; remain here and watch.” Jesus went off to pray by himself and three times he returned to his disciples, only to find them asleep, not watching, each time. “And immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and scribes and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, the one I shall kiss is the man; seize him and lead him away under guard. . . .and the rest of the disciples all forsook him and fled. . . . And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the maids of the high priest came.” She recognized Peter as a follower of Jesus but when she said that to him, he denied it. He moved away to the gate and the maid found him and said again that he was one of them. Again Peter denied it. Then the bystanders started on Peter, identifying him as a Galilean. For the third time Peter denied knowing Jesus. (Mark 14:10-72)
Then, two days after the crucifixion, on what is now Easter Sunday, at the very crack of dawn two women, both called Mary, who had been good friends and disciples of Jesus and had not fled the city, went to the tomb with spices or balsam that they hoped they could rub on his body in the Jewish tradition. But they were uncertain how they could do this. They’d seen the huge stone that had been rolled in front of the tomb. So as they made their way in the early dawn before the city had awakened, they wondered who they could get to help roll that stone away as they knew it was too heavy for them to move by themselves.
But when they got to the place they looked, and lo and behold, the stone had already been rolled back. They became frightened and worried. Had someone stolen Jesus’ body to mutilate and destroy it? Trembling they crawled into the hole to see whether Jesus’ body was still there and they were amazed to discover an unknown young man in a white robe sitting inside the tomb. The young man, seeing the women confused and terrified, said to them “Don’t be troubled. You’re looking for Jesus. As you can see, he is not here, look–the place where they laid his body. He is risen. Go–tell his friends that he has gone on to Galilee and he’ll meet you all there.” Stunned, the two Marys crawled out of the tomb and fled, trembling and afraid. They didn’t say a word to anyone. The oldest and possibly the most authentic Easter story ends just this way. They were afraid and said not a word to anyone.
Other gospel writers added elements to the story as they told it over the years. They tell about Jesus physically appearing to the two Marys, and then actually joining his surprised and delighted friends in Galilee. They have Jesus scolding his friends for not believing him when he said that he would never leave them and that he and they would live forever with God. Paul, one of the earliest Christian theologians, drew a meaning from the story which has become the defining meaning for Christians: through the love of God for humanity, there is hope for overcoming our destiny of eternal death to find eternal life with God — provided by Jesus’ death and resurrection.
But the story is rooted in fear and betrayal. What’s up with that?
On a small scale, Jesus’ story is our story. Betrayed, deserted and denied by his friends Jesus died and, as the story goes, came back three days later. What did he do? Except for Judas, who hung himself, Jesus returned to the very friends who ran away from him. They might have abandoned him but he returned to them.
Now betrayal and abandonment are big words but I would hazard a guess that quite a few of us might have felt betrayed and/or abandoned in our lives. And there are the little abandonments and betrayals, perhaps better called disappointments. Our friends don’t call when they say they will; our boss makes decisions that directly impact us without any input from us; our partner doesn’t tell us about those scary symptoms he or she has been having; our children don’t want to spend any time with us. And it goes both ways. Sometimes we are the ones who don’t call or make decisions unilaterally, or hide the state of our health. These are mini ways we let each other down. Whenever this happens we step away from each other, we add to our sense of aloneness. What happens then? In our efforts to cope with the isolation we find someone to blame or we sink deeper into our aloneness or we decide it’s all for the best anyway. How many of us actually practice resurrection? How many of us can return, even distantly, to the friends and loved ones who let us down, or worse, betrayed us? I know that sometimes we can’t. I do know that. I believe that sometimes we can. That’s why Jesus’ returning into relationship with the friends that abandoned him is so powerful. The resurrection of relationship is the resurrection.
When I got married, to another woman, I invited my cousins and their children. It was a coming out because some of them did not know I was lesbian. Some were happy for me, others not so much. The member of my family I feel closest to, my only first cousin, would not come to the wedding. She’s Catholic and thinks it’s a sin to marry someone of the same sex. Her absence hurt me. It felt like she abandoned me. A couple of years have gone by and although we have had sporadic contact we have not seen each other in that interval. Now her husband is very ill and he could die and she reached out to me for a shoulder to cry on. I decided to practice resurrection. I decided to return to relationship. I have known her all my life and our relationship is more than her opinion of my marriage. Don’t get me wrong, the wound was made and the memory of the hurt is there. It’s just not all there is in my soul regarding her. So we resurrected. For me, it beats holding onto the blame or deciding it’s for the best that she’s not in my life anymore.
Judas has gone down for all time as the ultimate betrayer. You might be aware that the National Geographic Society has published the Gospel of Judas. According to this gospel, Judas’ betrayal of Jesus was part of the plan. Judas was the only disciple strong enough to play that role of betrayer. To quote the gospel, Jesus said to Judas, “Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal. For someone else will replace you, in order that the twelve may again come to completion with their God.” The idea would be then, that Judas offered himself as a sacrificial victim in order for Jesus’ sacrifice to be accomplished. Judas was not to be blamed as the ultimate symbol of betrayal, but rather Judas was Jesus’ friend. The Gospel of Judas.
Whether friend or foe, I think if we take Judas’ betrayal story literally we diminish its important meaning. For if we believe it literally we are compelled to ask: Why did Jesus need to be betrayed in the first place? People knew who Jesus was. The gospels relate that he came into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday amid much hoopla. Why did he need to be identified to the soldiers and the high priests by Judas’ kiss? Lots of people knew who he was. And then one must ask of this story, what kind of God is being portrayed here? Why did betrayal need to be a part of plan? Why does this God need to create so much suffering in the name of love? What purpose does the betrayal and subsequent suffering of Judas’ serve? This is similar to the question that many have at Passover time: why did God have to kill the firstborn of all the Egyptians just to convince one man– Pharaoh– to let Moses’ people go? What God works in this manner?
On significant levels, the story does not work. If Judas is the evil enemy who betrayed Jesus, he becomes a scapegoat for us to blame when things fall apart. Scapegoats relieve the rest of us from suffering and responsibility, but ultimately do we really want to be relieved from that? Is it in our best interest? There’s a certain loss of power, a certain loss of justice, that come with scapegoating. On the other hand, if Judas was a friend who participated in a grand plan, he becomes a way of explaining that everything happens for the best. There’s an unreality in that stance because there’s no room in it for grief and pain. Do not stop at death–proceed straight to heaven. Neither position is satisfactory, psychologically or spiritually.
What meaning other than a literal one might then exist in this story of betrayal? And how does betrayal tie in to resurrection? The connection is this. Things fall apart. We all are betrayed. Our friends betray us; our lovers betray us; our parents betray us; our society betrays us; our bodies betray us; our hearts betray us. Things fall apart. Some, perhaps many, of us are not only betrayed but betrayers as well. Things fall apart. And mostly when they do, we run away from them, or we try to. Just like the disciples. We don’t want to stand with the brokenness. We don’t want to feel what we fear we might feel. We distract ourselves, we deny and/or minimize, we anesthetize ourselves with some substance. And that is understandable. Who wants to feel the pain of things falling apart? Who wants to embrace betrayal? I’m afraid of that. Are you?
Willingly or unwillingly, betrayal propels us into changes and changes offer us choices. That’s the paradox of betrayal. Change might involve loss, but it also involves opportunity if we can allow ourselves to remain open to that possibility. Jesus’ story is that resurrection is possible in many relationships. Disappointment and betrayal move us off the status quo. They shake us up; they shake us out. They bring a chance to chart a new course. To make different choices. To learn something. A chance to grow. A chance to transform. It’s not easy and it cannot be taken lightly, but there is often resurrection in the muck of betrayal.
One of my favorite Buddhist writers, Pema Chodron, speaks of this when she says: “Life is a good teacher and a good friend. Things are always in transition. . . Nothing ever sums itself up in the way we like to dream about. The off-center, in-between state is . . . a situation in which . . .we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit. . . . To stay with that shakiness–to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with a feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge–that is the path of true awakening.”
Judas’ treachery, the disciples’ falling asleep, Peter’s denials, the silence of the Marys, all carry the metaphorical message that things fall apart and when they do we often feel as though we have been betrayed. But if we don’t place all of the blame on a scapegoat and if we don’t treat it superficially by saying it’s all for the best, or it’s all part of a plan over which we have no control, betrayal may have something important to give us. Betrayal itself moves us, forces us to change and offers us an opportunity to grow, if just a small part of us can remain open to it. If just a small part of us will dare to look into the distance, beyond the outrage of betrayal. Herein lies the resurrection. We die to the old and arise to the new.
A Tomb is No Place to Stay by Richard Gilbert.
A tomb is no place to stay,
Be it a cave in the Judean hills
Or the dark cavern of the spirit.
A tomb is no place to stay
When fresh grass rolls away the stone of winter cold
And valiant flowers burst their way to warmth and light.
A tomb is no place to stay
When each morning announces our reprieve,
And we know we are granted yet another day of living.
A tomb is no place to stay
When life laughs a welcome
To hearts that have been away too long.
This Easter, may whatever betrayals you have experienced help you find your way to rebirth. Whatever tombs your betrayals have closed you up in, may you break free of them. May the doors of our hearts and minds remain open enough to remind us how strong we really are. We can weather the betrayal and survive its devastation. We can die to the old; even if we have to spend some time in hell, but one day we rise again as betrayal helps us to move the seasons of ourselves. In the tatters of betrayal there may be a possibility of resurrection. If it be there for us, if there be anything that may be born anew in our shredded relationships, may we have the courage to practice resurrection. May it be so.