Weakness and strength
Readings: Isaiah 49:1-6; Psalm 70; John 13:21-33,36-38
All four 'servant songs' are read in Holy Week, the first three on Monday (Isaiah 42:1-7), Tuesday (today's first reading) and Wednesday (Isaiah 50:4-9), and the fourth on Good Friday (Isaiah 52:13-53:12).
The servant is a paradoxical figure. On one side he is weak and vulnerable: not crying out, not lifting up his voice, giving his back to the smiters, a lamb led to the slaughter, a sheep dumb before its shearers. On the other side he is strong and powerful: a sharp sword, a polished arrow, his face set like flint, challenging his adversary to come forward for the struggle, given a portion with the great and dividing the spoil with the strong. It is God's strength that sees him through, enabling him to embrace weakness, and so to become the source of a salvation reaching to the ends of the earth.
We might then be sympathetic as we see Jesus' closest disciples struggling with this paradox. What were they to make of what was happening in the last days of Jesus' life? At times the reactions of Peter and Judas are very close - get behind me Satan; Satan had put it into the heart of Judas to betray him - but the demand on their faith and understanding must have been enormous. The difference between them in the end is between two forms of betrayal, a passive, cowardly one and an active, calculating one. Except that Peter was always ready to repent, to learn again. The beloved disciple seems calmer. Perhaps, like Mary in yesterday's gospel, his love for Jesus is sufficient to carry him through what is to come. And (at least according to John's Gospel) we do find him, alone of the men, remaining at Calvary.
The human characters in the drama are dwarfed by something bigger going on within but also beyond them. The glory of God is to be revealed in the heart of Satan's night. To a certain extent we are participants in this drama and its outcome is certainly crucial for us. But at a certain point we are spectators rather than participants, looking on from a distance, filled with wonder and fear. We pray for encouragement and perseverance in engaging with the paradoxes of love and faith, particularly when we see how prone we are to betrayal, whether it is from cowardice or from calculation. But there is time to repent, and to learn again. More than ever in this week of salvation.