Lent is a burden and a blessing. It calls Catholics to crawl beneath the weight of themselves to the Cross of Christ and come face to face with who they are. No one will be content with that vision. Most would rather hide from themselves, burying their being deep beneath distractions and denials. Lent is a summons, and as such, Lent is a burden—it is the burden of self and sin. But it is different than the burden of the damned. Christ did not promise to free His followers of burdens. He did say that their burdens would be light. Lent is a time of burdens and a time of light, a toiling towards the dawn of new life as every man bears the dead-weight burden of himself along the world’s dusty road—a road that begins in dust and ends in dust. There is a poem by Scottish poet Robert Williams Buchanan (1841-1901) that brings a Lenten meditation to ghastly and glorious life as it meditates on one whose existence is commonly held as hopeless: Judas Iscariot. The Ballad of Judas Iscariot challenges Christians to fend off despair in the face of failure, and to fall upon the mercy of God when falls occur to win the victory of final perseverance.
The Ballad of Judas Iscariot is not a great poem, but it is a gripping poem, and one that puzzles over the paradox of divine justice and divine mercy in a gothic wasteland not unlike a Lenten desert of demons and desolation. It tells a phantasmic tale depicting the soul of Judas Iscariot bearing the dead body of Judas Iscariot away from the Field of Blood over the wilds of a haunted and hunted afterlife to find a fitting burial place for it—a hiding place. The elements of creation spurn the remains of the man who betrayed the Creator, and the anguished spirit of Judas staggers through horrors beneath his corpse and his crimes—and away from the Cross. On and on he steals, rejected and reeling and repulsed, until Judas comes to a house in a snowy wood where a wedding feast is toward. Laying his shameful body in the snow before the door, Judas flits feverishly to and fro amid the fierce denunciations of the wedding guests: “Scourge the soul of Judas Iscariot away into the night!” When the Bridegroom himself stands forth to address the disturbance, the body of Judas is suddenly taken to its rest and the soul of Judas is taken in by the Bridegroom with astonishing words:
“The Holy Supper is spread within,
And the many candles shine,
And I have waited long for thee
Before I poured the wine!”
Can it be? Can even Judas, who sold his God for less than the ointment he begrudged Him, find a place at the Lord’s feet with Mary Magdalene? Even he? Dante placed Judas in the maw of Satan; dare Buchanan place him at the celestial feast? Keeping in mind that to love the sinner the sin must be hated, The Ballad of Judas Iscariot draws out a peculiar paradox surrounding the character of Judas, where the immediate or even accepted meaning of his history (or his fate) bears out more than meets the eye. The poem wrestles with a Lenten mystery and a Lenten hope that the limit of God’s mercy is beyond man’s logic. It struggles with the difficult balance of justice and mercy famously meditated upon in C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, pursuing the thought that every man is the author of his damnation while God always stands ready to receive the penitent into His bosom. Such traditions hold out some hope for Judas (which include legends of his being released from the deepest fires of hell to cool himself in the Northern Sea once a year) and find voice in the mystery of Jesus’ words to Judas.
“And when he had dipped the bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon. And after the morsel, Satan entered into him. And Jesus said to him: That which thou dost, do quickly.” Were these words spoken out of antipathy for what Judas was to do? Or out of sympathy for the sorrow Judas would feel when he did what he was to do? “Woe to that man by whom the Son of man shall be betrayed: it were better for him, if that man had not been born.” Were these words spoken out of condemnation for Judas’ malice? Or out of compassion for the pain he would soon be burdened under? No man knows. “Now no man at the table knew to what purpose he said this unto him… He therefore having received the morsel, went out immediately. And it was night. When he therefore was gone out, Jesus said: Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him.”
Even Judas played a part in bringing about the glory of God—though his was a terrible part to play. Buchanan’s poem brings out the idea that there is never so much room for grace than in a hopeless case. Though Judas committed grave evil, it is never right to assume his damnation. Neither is it ever right to presume upon God’s mercy. Men must trust and persevere, and that is the secret of Lent. All must toil to the bitter end without capitulating in the hope that the end will not be bitter. That is the point of Lent and it is a point that Judas missed. As Pope John Paul I said: “What a mistake those who do not hope make! Judas made a huge blunder the day in which he sold Christ for 30 denarii, but he made an even bigger one when he thought that his sin was too great to be forgiven. No sin is too big: any wretchedness, however great, can always be enclosed in infinite mercy.”
Though there is something of Judas in every man, and something intensely pitiful about Judas, no man should suffer to bring himself to Judas’ end. All can see themselves in Judas Iscariot—which is terrifying—and all can find themselves burdened with the wild wretchedness of The Ballad of Judas Iscariot. It is the burden of guilty nature and innocent blood. It is the burden of Lent, which calls upon all to look upon the burden of their mortality and to win relief doggedly by bringing restless souls and broken bodies before the Bridegroom with a hope that no sin can strangle. All the while, it behooves those who seek mercy to keep clear of the modern attitude of tolerance which forgives in a way that God does not forgive. In the words of Venerable Fulton J. Sheen:
We must be tolerant to persons because they are human; we must be intolerant about principles because they are divine. We must be tolerant to the erring, because ignorance may have led them astray; but we must be intolerant to the error, because Truth is not our making, but God’s. And hence the Church in her history, due reparation made, has always welcomed the heretic back into the treasury of her souls, but never his heresy into the treasury of her wisdom.
While The Ballad of Judas Iscariot is suggestive of a morality that is perhaps incompatible with the Catholic Church, it is also suggestive of a mercy that is absolutely incomprehensible within the Catholic Faith. Though the poem errs when it hints that sin is not necessarily a final impediment to salvation, it also shines as it suggests that there is no sin too great to be forgiven. Though the poem seems to hope that those who despair can go to heaven, it also beams with a hope that despair might be dodged along the way to heaven. It cannot be denied that, at the end of his life, Judas despaired of God’s forgiveness, but, Buchanan puts forth the reminder that it is not for man to judge the quick and the dead. Lent is the season to renew the faith and hope that even the spiritually dead can be made to live again in the Resurrection and, relinquishing their burdens, join the Bridegroom at the Holy Supper.