Each year on Ash Wednesday at our Mass for the beginning of Lent we are always reminded both of our human frailty and the fact that our lives have a limit set upon them. The words “remember you are dust, and to dust you will return,” together with the application of a cross of ashes to our heads, is a fairly stark reminder of human vulnerability and weakness, not only in terms of health and lifespan but also our tendency to drift away from the things of God, our seeming inability to keep focused on the things which really matter.
Holy Week itself in many ways reinforces this sense of human weakness; today’s Gospel forcibly reminds us of our inconstancy and our tendency to turn away from God as St John shows us Jesus predicting both Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial of him.
Whatever the psychological reasons may have been for what he did, the Gospels don’t let us forget the fact that Judas was a deeply flawed character, dishonest, defensive, judgemental. In many ways we can see his betrayal of Jesus as an act of evil, pure and simple. Satan entered him, St John says, but it is equally clear that in the battle being fought out during the course of this Holy Week Judas chooses evil over good and willingly lines up with the enemies of Jesus. Many people over the centuries have speculated as to his reasons; anger, jealousy, disappointment over the refusal of Jesus to use his popularity with the crowds to seize power, despair about the inevitability of disaster, the wish to save his own skin at any price, even blackmail on the part of the worldly-wise and cynical religious leaders. We don’t know. But Judas clearly at least for a time - the crucial time - becomes the willing tool of evil. It is St Matthew (27.7) who gives us the information that Judas didn’t intend things to go so far as Jesus being condemned to death, but that when he comes to his right mind, realises what he has done and tries to return the thirty pieces of silver to the high priests who laugh in his face. Perhaps we can say that Judas, as so many people do, for a time becomes a willing accomplice in events which escalate and get out of hand, and that his ultimate sin may not even be in itself the betrayal of the Lord, but the final despair which leads him to kill himself; by that act he turns his back on even the possibility of redemption. Hell, they say, is populated by those who definitively and categorically in this turn their back on even the possibility of God's love and forgiveness.
Peter’s circumstances and his character are very different. The Gospels see him as uncomplicated, straightforward with tendencies towards both impulsiveness and fearfulness which often lead him astray. He is the opposite of Judas, whose brooding leads him to betrayal; Peter rarely seems to reflect at all before he responds, so much so that he simply doesn’t know how he will react in any given circumstance. But his repentance when it comes - and it comes immediately after he denies Jesus in the courtyard of the High Priest - is real and heartfelt and keeps him open him to the possibility of life and hope and redemption.
But whatever the characters and psychological make up of these two men may have been, we can say with certainty that they found themselves caught up in a situation which would test us all severely. Who can say how we ourselves would respond?
For those who lived through the terrible events of this week, on the first Easter Sunday comes an experience of hope we can only begin to imagine; for Peter himself but also for the other apostles and disciples who ran away in fear and desperation their first experience of the pascal mystery is overwhelmingly one of forgiveness and a new beginning. Their frailty and weakness, our frailty and weakness, is not only understood but is assumed, taken on, by the Lord who takes our human vulnerability to the cross and the grave, but who bursts out of the tomb, having triumphed over the darkness of a fallen world and of a human nature partially if not wholly cut off from the source of its life and freedom. Crucifixus pro nobis. He dies - and rises - for us all.
In Holy Week we see Jesus as he walks the via crucis fulfilling the role of the servant of God we see predicted by the prophet Isaiah in the first reading. And as we walk with him along the way of the cross this week we pray that our own participation in these events of our salvation may lead us to a deeper understanding of our human conflicts and inner divisions and weaknesses so that we can bring them to the foot of the cross and to the light of the real forgiveness and redemption which we will see there.
The darkness does not prevail.