21 After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ 22The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. 23One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; 24Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. 25So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, ‘Lord, who is it?’ 26Jesus answered, ‘It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’ So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. 27After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, ‘Do quickly what you are going to do.’ 28Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. 29Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, ‘Buy what we need for the festival’; or, that he should give something to the poor. 30So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.
‘And it was night.’
Four haunting words. They are words we can so easily overlook, and yet, not only are they buried deep in the heart of John’s narrative, but in a way, they are the heart of John’s gospel.
Read carefully, and you will see that John’s gospel is filled with references to nighttime, darkness and blindness — both physical and spiritual.
The night gradually fades into day. Darkness is pierced by light. Eyes are opened. But the shadows and shades do not disappear entirely — indeed, until the very end, when dawn rises and the disciples see their risen Lord on the shore of the sea, the spectre of evil is always hovering in dark corners nearby.
Throughout his gospel, John reminds us of the contrast between the light of the Word made flesh and the darkness of the world into which he has come to dwell:
‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ (1.5).
‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life’ (8.12).
‘The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going’ (12.35-36).
Darkness, John seems to say, represents evil. It is distraction. It contains doubt and disbelief. Darkness is death.
Darkness holds a power over us. A power we cannot seem to shake. We don’t fully understand it. We even fear it, or that which it conceals. We use artificial light to push the horrors it might hold further and further away from us.
Nighttime for some is far from peaceful. Instead, they find themselves haunted by anxiety or regret or anger or hurt. Those thoughts that we can suppress during the day loom large in the dark. As American Episcopal priest and writer Barbara Brown Taylor observes:
A bed, in short, is where you face your nearness to or farness from God. Whether you are in pain or not, whether you are an anxious person or not — even, I think, whether you are a religious person or not — a bed is where you come face-to-face with what really matters because it is too dark for most of your usual, shallowing distractions to work. You can turn on the lights if you want, but they are all artificial. The most they can do is postpone your encounter with what really matters. They cannot save you from that reckoning forever.
But darkness has also been understood to be the dwelling place of something much more sinister: ’Tis dead night round about: horror doth creep / And move on with the shades …’ the poet Henry Vaughan writes. The Elizabethan writer Thomas Nashe says the night belongs to the devil in ‘The Terrors of the Night’:
As touching the terrors of the night, they are as many as our sins. The night is the devil’s Black Book, wherein he recordeth all our transgressions. … The table of our heart is turned into an index of iniquities, and all our thoughts are nothing but texts to condemn us. …
The rest we take in our beds is such another kind of rest as the weary traveller taketh in the cool soft grass in summer, who thinking there to lie at ease and refresh his tired limbs, layeth his fainting head unawares on a loathsome nest of snakes.
In these series of reflections, I will look at different people in John’s gospel who act in the darkness. I will look at what the darkness holds for them, and, consequently, what it may hold for us.
Let us start with Judas. What led him to betray his Lord? Was it greed? Or power? Was it envy or hatred or anger? Or was it fear? John’s gospel says that when he took the piece of bread from Jesus, Satan entered him. But his motives will always remain a mystery. ‘Do quickly what you are going to do’, Jesus says to him.
And so Judas immediately goes out. And with those four words — ‘And it was night’ — an unstoppable sequence of events begins.
Jesus had said to his disciples earlier, ‘We must work the work of the one who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ When Judas leaves, that time has come. The activity of Jesus’ ministry ceases. And in the night, a dark force gathers which will threaten to overcome the Light of the world.
Stepping into the night, Judas turns his back on the light and love of Christ, choosing instead to dwell in the darkness of betrayal. How must he have felt, still to have the taste of bread in his mouth? Still to feel the gentle touch of Christ’s hands on his freshly washed feet? As the door closed behind him, did he catch the words Jesus spoke: ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him’?
Each step he takes deeper into the shadows of the narrow streets leads him further away from the Light sheltering in the upper room, further away from the words of truth and encouragement and peace embracing the confused disciples, further away from love.
We often shake our heads in sadness and bewilderment at Judas’ actions. As I said, his motives will remain a mystery. But as the Apostle Paul later said, ‘I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.’
Sometimes there seems to be no motivation for the choices we make, for the things we do. We can name it greed or shame or temptation or fear or even ignorance, but in a way, this is simply part of who we are as deeply flawed human beings. Without knowing why, without wanting to, we find ourselves loving the darkness more than light — or choosing the darkness over the light — because we think it conceals the truth of our nature.
But while we may feel at times we are in the night with Judas, the Light still shines in that upper room. While darkness covers us, the Word speaks ‘love one another as I have loved you’. While shadows hold unimaginable terrors, and forces beyond our control threaten to consume all that is good, Jesus prays for protection for his followers.
Does this include Judas? Does it include us? Does it include all who walk shivering through the deepening night?
The light shines in the darkness, John writes at the beginning of his gospel. And the darkness does not overcome it.