The recent translation of the Gospel of Judas has created quite a stir. Even in the Andes Mountains of Peru, where I am writing this homily, people have heard about this Gnostic text. The media have touted it as a new revelation which "shakes the foundations of Christianity." That is hardly the case.* As Christians we have nothing to fear from this newly discovered "gospel." On the contrary, we should welcome media events which get people interested in early Christian history. They provide us with opportunities to explain the roots of our faith. The Gospel of Judas offers us a unique opportunity because it dramatically highlights the difference between Christianity and false religion.
The thesis of the The Gospel of Judas will come as no surprise to anyone who has studied early Church history with its great struggle against Gnosticism. For example, a second century bishop named Irenaeus wrote a lengthy book combatting Gnostic heresies and even discusses a text called The Gospel of Judas. The Gnostics taught that matter is evil and that one could escape from its trap though the special knowledge (gnosis) which they offered. For them Judas was not a traitor, but a hero because he hastened Jesus´ death. The Gospel of Judas portrays Jesus saying to Judas, "But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me." In this version the Passion is no big deal because Jesus in his spirit stands above it and watches it unfold like a movie. This approach has obvious appeal because it latches onto a few elements in the canonical Gospels and eliminates the more difficult parts.
A conversation I had with a person from the New Age movement illustrates the difference between the canonical and Gnostic Gospels. She asked why the Catholic Church opposes abortion. Since our purpose is to save souls, she argued that we should consider abortion a good act because those little souls would thus go straight to heaven without having to suffer this life - and possibly take a very wrong course. It was not easy to respond to this woman. Like the early Gnostics, she had taken a few elements from traditional Christianity and had hideously perverted them.
I did not respond by calling her an advocate of murder. What I said was this: While the soul of an aborted baby might go directly to bliss, that I could not say for sure. What I do know is that this life - even with all its dangers and suffering - is a good thing. Although I admit that I have not had to suffer in comparison to others, still, I have known people who bore terrible physical difficulties and that they consider life worth living. But beyond the balance of good and bad fortune, there is something else of incalculable worth: the possibility of participating in the sacramental life in which physical matter (water, bread, oil, etc.) conveys divine life.
In today´s Gospel Jesus underscores the goodness of matter - its sacramental potential. He makes himself known through the breaking of the bread. He reassures his disciples that he is not a disembodied spirit (a "ghost"). He invites them to touch him and even eats a piece of fish in front of them.
One could argue that this glorious life came about as consequence of Judas´ betrayal. Yes, but the act of betrayal was itself a great evil. Once a friend of mine used inside knowledge to get an assignment I was hoping to obtain. It turned out for the good in the long run and we did reconcile. Still, his betrayal was shameful. Now in my case, the stab in the back was not a mortal wound. In the case of Jesus, however, it was the most traitorous act in human history. Dante got it right when he placed Judas in the very heart of hell, eternally gnawed by Satan, the great prevaricator. God can - and does - bring good out of even the most heinous human acts. But that does not make evil good. The fact of evil remains. Judas did not want to face that fact and so took his life. There is only one way to avoid a similar trap: to acknowledge our sins and repent of them. Then embrace the natural and sacramental good God wishes to pour out upon us. For us, life is worth living.
*In their reports on the The Gospel of Judas, the media interview professors who solemnly inform us that the Gnostic gospels prove that "early Christianity was not a monolith," that it contained "competing versions." Hello. A century before the appearance of the Gnostic gospels, St. Paul observed that factions must arise, but he also proposed a way of settling differences. Early Christian teachers distinguished between Catholic (universal) faith and idiosyncratic local versions. The Catholic faith is maintained by unity with ones bishop and the bishop of Rome. For example, Irenaeus, who was bishop of Lyons, provides a list of the bishops of Rome as a touchstone of correct teaching. After describing how the Church in Rome was founded by the apostles Peter and Paul, Irenaeus states: "it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre-eminent authority." (Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 3,2)
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin (Easter in Peru, ACA parish project, Ron Belgau on same-sex "marriage," DaVinci movie, Gospel of Judas)
Pictures from Peru 2006: