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.