Easter has never been my favorite church service. Shouting “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” requires an emotional crescendo my melancholy temperament can’t easily manage.
I’m much more comfortable on Maundy Thursday, the beginning of the Triduum, the holiest three days in the Christian calendar. Maundy Thursday remembers Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. That night ends with Judas’s betraying Jesus and the other disciples’ abandoning him, fleeing into the darkness. I have always felt closest to God on this night in the silence, surrounded by the story of failure.
I have never been a big fan of hope. It’s a demanding emotion that insists on changing you. Hope pulls you out of yourself and into the world, forcing you to believe more is possible. Hate is a much less insistent master; it asks you only to loathe. It is quite happy to have you to itself and doesn’t ask you to go anywhere.
Growing up poor provided me with plenty of opportunities to wallow in that much less complex feeling. I hated drug dealers because I had addicts in my family. I knew they could afford Air Jordans, and I could not because my father visited the dealers on payday before he came home to us. When we wound up on government assistance, I detested the people I heard on talk radio who spoke about families like mine as the epitome of what was wrong with America. I abhorred the pastors I saw on television telling broke Black folks like me that a blessing was on the way if we just sent in $99.95. They treated faith like a spiritual lottery, and the chances of winning were about as likely as hitting the million-dollar jackpot. I was a person of few years and many resentments.
But it wasn’t just the ugly things that I rejected; I despised beautiful ones as well. At school when teachers tried to help us with inspirational speeches about the power of our minds and our potential to be more than athletes or criminals, we often mocked them. How dare they interrupt our despair with hope?
This tendency to reject beautiful things might explain why I have always felt sympathy for Judas. As a teenager, during Bible study class when other people spoke glowingly about mighty David or Moses, I pondered the tragedy of Judas. Known to history as the paradigmatic betrayer, Judas was the disciple who, for 30 pieces of silver, sold out Jesus by leading soldiers to where he was the night before he was crucified.
But what if Judas grew up on the rough-and-tumble side of Judea, where boots of Roman soldiers marching through his neighborhood filled him with rage and fear? What if he experienced the violent anti-Judaism the occupying force consistently inflicted upon his people? As a child of the South, from Northwest Huntsville, Ala., I know ways in which constant oppression can make pragmatism and self-preservation seem like the only realistic options.
For someone like Judas, Jesus offered the dangerous kind of hope that might have challenged him to relinquish his hostilities and reawaken that thing he had long since given up, the belief in the possibility that things might be different. That could explain why he agreed to betray Jesus. Betrayal was his chance to return to the safety and dependability of hopelessness.
Among the many times I rejected beauty in my teenage years, one day sticks out. My friends and I were sitting in a class with one of the instructors who didn’t transfer out of our district when things got hard and violence surged. That day we were in rare form, cracking more than the usual amount of jokes about her, interrupting her lecture. We also began a particularly intense game of trash can basketball with paper balls flying from all over the classroom. The more she tried to ignore us and continue, the more we wanted to break her.
After class, I saw her out in the hall, visibly troubled, steadying herself for the next group of kids. I remember walking away with my classmates, pretending to celebrate our victory — but a part of me knew that we had lost much more than we had gained. We had risked driving away someone whose only flaw was to care.
Isn’t it easier to believe that everyone who loves us has some secret agenda? That racism will forever block the creation of what Martin Luther King Jr. called the beloved community? That the gun lobby will always overwhelm every attempt at reform? That poverty is a fact of human existence? Despair allows us to give up our resistance and rest awhile.
The tragedy of Judas’s story is that his despair never let him go. The gospel accounts tell us that after betraying Jesus, he killed himself. I do not know many people who have committed suicide, but lots of people from my neighborhood quit on life. Convinced by our shared traumas that their story was over, they let drugs or the streets take them. I have never thought of myself as better than them. I simply was lucky that the vices I turned to in my wandering years did not ruin me.
In the gospel stories, Jesus overflows with forgiveness. On the cross, one of the last things he said was a plea that God forgive those who crucified him. After the resurrection, he forgives Peter and the other disciples.
His generosity has been a great cheer to all of us misfits who have faltered in our time of testing. The only better story of redemption I can imagine would have been the reconciliation of Judas the Betrayer and Jesus. I am confident Jesus would have forgiven Judas. But in the narrative Judas dies before Jesus rises from the dead. If only Judas had lived a little longer to find that the beautiful thing he tried to destroy was not so easily vanquished.
That indestructibility of hope might be the central and most radical claim of Easter — that three days after Jesus was killed, he returned to his disciples physically and that made all the difference. Easter, then, is a not metaphor for new beginnings; it is about encountering the person who, despite every disappointment we experience with ourselves and with the world, gives us a reason to carry on.
So this Easter I will make my way with my family to the South Side of Chicago, to that congregation that serves as our church home. I will do my best to join in the songs of celebration, not because I no longer feel the darkness that has marked so much of my journey, but because sometimes I still do.
Esau McCaulley (@esaumccaulley) is a contributing Opinion writer and an associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois. He is theologian in residence at Progressive Baptist Church, a historically Black congregation in Chicago, and the author of the forthcoming memoir “How Far to the Promised Land: One Black Family’s Story of Hope and Survival in the American South.” He lives in Wheaton, Ill., with his wife and four children.
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