Augustine in the Tenebræ of Holy Thursday

As we approach our annual remembrance of Our Lord’s Passion, we might read these passages of Augustine’s exposition of Psalm 54 and find it a fitting reflection on its own merits:

Graciously hear my prayer, O God, and do not disdain my pleading; look upon me, and graciously hear me.  These are the words of one who is hard pressed, who is anxious, who has been placed amid tribulation.  He endures much as he prays, wanting to be freed from evil.  It remains for us to see what kind of evil he is in – and, when he begins to say it, to recognize that we are there too, so that we might join our prayer with his as we share in his tribulation.

I am deeply saddened in my trial, he says, and I am greatly distressed.  Where is he deeply saddened?  Where is he greatly distressed?  In my trial, he says.  He has recalled the evil people whom he endures, and he calls this very endurance of evil people his trial.  Do not think that evil people are in this world for nothing, and that God can bring nothing good about from them.  Every evil person either lives so that he may be corrected, or lives so that a good person may be tried through him.

If only those who try us now would be converted and tried alongside us; yet, as long as they remain the kind of people who try us, let us not hate them, since we do not know whether one of them will persist in being evil to the end.  And frequently, when it seems to you that you have been hating an enemy, you have been hating a brother without realizing it.  We have been shown the devil and his angels in the sacred Scriptures, that they are destined for eternal fire.  Of them only should we despair of their correction, against whom we have a hidden battle.  The Apostle arms us for this battle, saying: Our conflict is not against flesh and blood (that is, not against people, whom you can see) but against principalities, and powers, and rulers of the world, of this darkness.  Perhaps when he said of the world, you understood demons to be the rulers of heaven and earth.  What he said was, of the world, of this darkness; what he said was, of the world of lovers of the world; what he said was, of the world of impious and unrighteous people; what he said was, of the world of which the Evangelist says, And the world did not know him.

Since I have seen unrighteousness and opposition in the city.  Pay attention to the glory of his cross.  That cross for which his enemies insulted him is now drawn on the foreheads of kings.  Its effect has proven its power: it made the whole world its home not by steel, but by wood.  The wood of the cross seemed deserving of ridicule to his enemies, and as they stood before that wood they kept shaking their heads and saying, If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.  He kept stretching out his hands to an unbelieving and oppositional people.  For if the one who lives by faith is the righteous one, then the one who has no faith is the unrighteous one.  So when he says unrighteousness, understand faithlessness.  So the Lord kept seeing unrighteousness and opposition in the city, and he kept stretching out his hands to an unbelieving and oppositional people; and yet he kept waiting for them and saying, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

But the now-anonymous compilers of the liturgical tradition that now gives us the matchless Tenebræ Matins and Lauds for the Triduum perceived a particular usefulness for this passage on Holy Thursday.  Consider the responsory verse they paired with it:

My friend betrayed me with the sign of a kiss: The man I shall kiss is the one; arrest him: he made this evil sign, he committed murder through a kiss.  The wretch threw away his price of blood, and in the end he hanged himself on a tree.  It would have been good for that man if he had not been born.

Now, revisit the parallel passage from Augustine – indeed, the passages that directly precede and follow this responsory:

Do not think that evil people are in this world for nothing, and that God can bring nothing good about from them.  Every evil person either lives so that he may be corrected, or lives so that a good person may be tried through him.

If only those who try us now would be converted and tried alongside us; yet, as long as they remain the kind of people who try us, let us not hate them, since we do not know whether one of them will persist in being evil to the end.  And frequently, when it seems to you that you have been hating an enemy, you have been hating a brother without realizing it.

And now, if you can, take a few minutes to reflect on just how the Catholic tradition – indeed, the public prayer of the Church, a theological statement in its own right and the supreme expression of Catholic piety – holds in perfect paradoxical balance the legacy of Judas Iscariot.

betrayal-by-judas-2

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