“And it was night.”
Those words from tonight’s Gospel reading aren’t just an indication of the time of day it took place. They aren’t just a comment on the fact that it had got dark by the time Judas slipped out to betray Jesus. John is telling us something far more profound than that.
Light and darkness are always significant in John’s Gospel. John is the one who starts by telling us that in Jesus, light came into the world which “shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” It is the one who calls Jesus “the light of the world” when he heals a man who has been blind from birth, and challenges those around him who criticise him for doing it on the Sabbath. Who was really in the darkness, he asks, the blind man or those who couldn’t just rejoice at his healing? Light and darkness in John’s Gospel are always about more than physical illumination, and in the reading we heard tonight the darkness is a sign that we have reached a point of no return.
“And it was night.” From this moment, for a while at least, it will look as if the darkness has won. Judas goes out to fetch the soldiers who will arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He goes out to set in motion a chain of events which will lead inexorably to Jesus’ death. Some of the Gospels say that he felt remorse afterwards, and killed himself as a result, flinging back the thirty pieces of silver the High Priests paid him to betray Jesus, but nothing can undo what has been done. This moment, when he slipped out of the room, is the turning point.
We don’t know what he thought would happen. We don’t know why he did what he did. Maybe he was disappointed in Jesus. Maybe he thought he’d be some other kind of Messiah than the one he turned out to be. Maybe he hoped for power and glory for himself and realised he wouldn’t be getting it. Maybe he just thought Jesus was heading for failure and wanted to leave the sinking ship, scuttling it as he did so. We don’t know, but the future was sealed at this point, and there was no going back, even if he had second thoughts.
Judas wasn’t the only one, though, whose actions on this night would reverberate in ways they didn’t anticipate. At this same supper, Peter pledged his support for Jesus – he would never leave him, he said – and yet before the cock had crowed three times in the morning, he had denied knowing him. And if it seems unfair that the focus should be so much on Peter, let’s not forget that the rest of the disciples ran away completely. At least Peter followed Jesus to the High Priest’s house and was there on the fringes. The rest of them were nowhere to be seen at all.
We can only imagine the sense of desolation and failure they must have felt at the time, and maybe crushing doubt too. How could they have thought Jesus was the Messiah? How stupid had they been to hope that the world could be different, that the kingdom of God could be coming, through the life of this carpenter, an ordinary man like them?
In time, after the resurrection, they learned to look again, to think again, but they still had their guilt to deal with, their own failure as friends and disciples.
They would have had every reason to want to suppress their part in the story of this night, and yet they don’t, and the reason for this has to be that they discovered lessons so precious in their failure, that they needed to pass them on to those who came after them. This devastating experience, and their own, lamentable part in it, shaped their faith in ways they could never have anticipated, and because of that, it shapes our faith too.
They learned, the hard way, but maybe the only way, that you could screw things up completely, fail utterly, and still be forgiven and used by God.
This night was a night which had all sorts of consequences, whether people had foreseen them or not. It was a night which would change the lives of all who were part of it. Whether it destroyed them, as it did Judas, or saved them, as it did the rest of the disciples, really depended on what they did as a result of it. But at the time, all that they could see was the darkness. It was night. They couldn’t see what lay ahead.
I guess we can all sympathise with that to some extent. We’ve all found ourselves in the dark at some point or other, and if we haven’t then we will. There comes a time in all of our lives when the wheels come off, the rug is pulled out from under our feet, the walls collapse on us, or whatever other image we want to use. We find ourselves in situations we have no control over. It might be our fault or the fault of others, or caused by something completely unknown, but we go, in the blink of an eye, from being capable people who knew where we were going, to being powerless even to help ourselves.
How can we live in those dark times? We may look for easy answers, but the truth is that there are none. People may try to cheer us up, or tell us that if only we did this or that, or prayed more or believed more, it would surely all come right, but we know better. What’s happened has happened. It is out of our hands.
But these our readings, I think, give us some hope, something to cling to, because on this night, as we retell the story of the events that led to Jesus’ death, we are reminded that, however alone we feel in our dark place, actually God has gone into the darkness with us. Christ doesn’t just enter his own darkness as he heads towards the shadows of Gethsemane and the cross. He also enters all our darknesses too.
He isn’t the light at the end of the tunnel – that’s no use to you when you are stuck in the middle of the tunnel and can’t move. He is the one who sits beside us in the inky blackness, who holds out a hand for us to cling to when we stumble, who waits with us in our stone cold tombs as we long for the dawn.
How do we know he is there? Well, sometimes we don’t – we just have to take it on trust. But Jesus also, on this night, told his followers to build up some things we can do which we might call “holy habits”, things which open our eyes to see his presence. Washing one another’s feet is important, he tells us – not necessarily literally, but in practical acts of service which make us look beyond ourselves. As we give – and receive – love we often find ourselves opening up to the possibility of goodness in the midst of evil. Sharing the bread and wine of the Eucharist matters too, the symbol of love which draws us closer to each other and closer to him.
These things have the advantage of needing no words, which is great when you find yourself speechless with grief or worry. You don’t need to explain acts of love and care - you just have to do them, or receive them. You don’t need to understand bread and wine – you just have to eat and to drink them.
I called them “holy habits” because they are things which we need to practice doing in the light, so that when we need them most, they are second nature to us.
“And it was night.”
Night falls not just when the sun goes down, but when the things which normally light up our lives are taken away. But God goes into the darkness with us, on this Maundy Thursday night and on every night. And there in the darkness, if we’ll reach out for him, he holds onto us until the morning dawns and the sun rises on a new day.