“On the night in which He was betrayed…”
These words echo hauntingly through the centuries – this phrase which begins St. Paul’s account of Christ’s institution of the Eucharist. Later usage in the liturgy will make a play on the Greek word for “betray.” Strangely, it is the same word used for “tradition.” It is a word which simply means to “hand over” or to “give over.” Thus the liturgy will say, “On the night in which He was given up, or rather on the night in which He gave Himself up…” It is a quiet recognition of Christ’s teaching, “No takes my life from me; I lay it down freely of myself.”
Nevertheless, in St. Paul’s usage, and as translated in many languages, the event is framed in the language of “betrayal.” It is a pivotal moment in Christ’s ministry. The energy and dynamic move away from teaching and towards the drama of sacrifice. Christ will become, before the eyes of all, what He has always taught. The Word indeed becomes flesh!
For the eleven disciples, it was only a moment amid so many moments. Christ’s warning fell on very sleepy ears. They are asked to remain awake. They are asked to pray. St. Peter is warned that the “enemy has sought to sift you like wheat.” None of Christ’s stern warnings, none of His plaintive questions, “Could you not watch with me one hour?” have any effect. It is just a moment among moments – until it is defined by the actions the disciples had refused to accept as possible. Christ is betrayed and the disciples fall into disarray and cowardice. The Shepherd is smitten and the sheep are scattered.
Our lives consist of trillions of moments. The are “one thing after another.” Occasionally we recognize that this moment is deeply significant and we remain awake. A young man and woman at their wedding – awake – alert – and yet probably blind to much that is taking place. A parent at the birth of a child – mother or father – everyone knows this is significant – but none of us begins to imagine just how significant. Nothing will ever be the same.
Over thirteen years ago, my family was received into the Orthodox faith. My oldest daughter was seventeen – my youngest was only seven. We were surrounded by friends, strangers, some family…but I recall the utter silence that fell across the congregation as my seven year-old daughter read the traditional words of promise at her Chrismation:
This true faith of the Orthodox Church, which I now voluntarily confess and truly hold, that same I will firmly maintain and confess, whole and unchanged, even until my last breath, God helping me. And I will teach and proclaim it, insofar as I am able. And I will strive to fulfill its obligations with zeal and joy, preserving my heart in good deeds and blamelessness. In witness of this, my true and pure-hearted confession, I kiss the Word and Cross of my Savior. Amen.
In the silence, everyone wept. The purity of a seven-year-old’s confession caused us to blush. The innocence which spoke such solemn phrases as “even until my last breath” took the breath away from all who stood around. It was a moment of which the witnesses knew far more than the child whose moment it was.
Our lives move from moment to moment – and only rarely do we recognize a moment to possess a singular character. But this is a great oversight on our part. The betrayal of Judas was more than a single moment of indiscretion. His doubts, envy and greed had been defining the trajectory of his moments from long before. The betrayal was a culmination, not an accident.
There are some who would reduce the Christian life to a single moment – that time at which we first profess faith in Christ. For those who have a clear memory of such a moment – it is significant indeed. But a lifetime of significant moments follow (“even until my last breath”). The race is finished when it is finished.
However, as we move from moment to moment, we do well not to live in moments of the past (for they are not our present), nor in moments of the future (for they are yet to come, even as we ourselves are yet to come). “Today is the day of salvation…”
The Wise Thief (as he is called in Orthodox hymns) found salvation in a single moment – God is indeed gracious and willing to accept us even in such a last moment. But we ourselves must be willing to allow such moments to occur. Ever idle word, every careless thought, creates its own moment. From idleness and carelessness we can create within ourselves a heart of stone. The fathers refer to this “lack of care for our salvation” as akedia – it is sometimes known as the “noonday devil.” Such a name sounds rather innocuous – but it is the small moments of our “noonday” lives that form the arena in which our salvation is worked out.
God give us grace in the small things – even to our last breath.
I felt some real beauty and power in this brief post.
There is something wonderful in seeing children participating in worship and the life of the Church. We have some small children in our small congregation (including mine, 2 and 4) and it is such a treat to see them bowing, crossing themselves, prostrating, kissing icons, taking communion, etc.
That seven year-old child of mine is now a strikingly beautiful and mature 20 year-old. Later this month, she will be joined in marriage to a young man of our congregation. Again, I think we will all weep and wonder at the moment. I know that I will.
I am not ready to utter those words yet, but the uncertainty is good. Only God is certain. It is amazing to see how my kids have responded to Orthodoxy after only two times. Lord have mercy.
Thank you Fr. Stephen!
I found it interesting, when studying Russian, that the word for “change” — “menyat'” — becomes “betray” with a single prefix, “eez.” “Eezmenyat'” = to betray. Says something about Orthodoxy, I’ve always thought.
From the perspective of a 42-year-old marriage: Many years to your daughter and her husband! May her marriage last twice as long as mine. 😉 And many years to you and Matushka, as one more “voice at the table” becomes a bit more distant. It’s painful, but sweet at the same time.
I fear to think of the sheer number of times that I have missed something significant, some blessing of God. One of the greatest blessings in
my life was losing a mailbox key; it was then that I realized God loved me. I guess just another example of God communicating through the mundane, using foolishness to teach wisdom.
I used to want great signs. On a journey now seeking the Kingdom, I know my wife and I do, from time to time, wish for an obvious sign. But maybe all we need is a simple blessing that makes us realize something we have known all along.
Congratulations, Fr. Stephen, on the joyous occasion of your daughter’s wedding later this month!
It has been fascinating to me how children take to Orthodoxy so eagerly and naturally. We were chrismated (the boys were also baptized) a little over 2 years ago. They both enjoyed their baptism, are fascinated with the icons, and my current difficulty is to keep them from running to the chalice. Two years ago, when I first put up icons of our patron saints, the older boy made it clear that he already knew at least some of those people. He wasn’t talking much then, but called them “ghosts” while we couldn’t figure out where he’d even heard that word. My youngest has been holding Bibles and prayer books while making chanting noises since he was about one and a half. He takes his mother’s necklaces and ‘chants’ while walking around and swinging them like censers.
I have been told that being a child is the way to enter the kingdom; I’m trying to learn from them.
Yesterday, Thursday, during the whole church service of blessings of the water and the liturgical service, along with all the people, candles and smells..one thing was going through my mind, “There is truth behind symbolism!” This was accepted by the early church. (Read in The Heavenly Banquet by Fr Emmanuel Hatzidakis)
The greatest miracle and blessing in my life is my wife and the one flesh that we became at our wedding.
..George…your comment strikes a chord within my spirit…I thank God for my wife too….there are times when the sense of bond is unspeakable..a communion of souls…i’ve slowly come to learn that each of us needs someone..if only to reflect the face of God back to us on occasion….and sometimes when in silent still prayer with God i get this same sense of union..abiding before the Father in the Spirit…..
..From Thomas Merton:”We must be willing to accept the bitter truth that, in the end, we may have to become a burden to those who love us. But it is necessary that we face this also. The full acceptance of our abjection and uselessness is the virtue that can make us and others rich in the grace of God. It takes heroic charity and humility to let others sustain us when we are absolutely incapable of sustaining ourselves.
We cannot suffer well unless we see Christ everywhere—both in suffering and in the charity of those who come to the aid of our affliction.”
‘the moment of small things’…’it is the small moments of our “noonday” lives that form the arena in which our salvation is worked out.’
Father, is this kairos time? Every moment a moment of judgment
Are there other places you have written on kairos?
Yes, Jeremy. One place is this previous article.
I have written more extensively on the nature of time in my book: Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe.
Thank you for your instruction.