We have just had the Orthodox Easter and year by year the same ceremonies occur across the island. When I first came to Cyprus I was already aware of the huge impact that religion has on the island. It is a part of daily life, not just something that is practiced on Sundays or on special occasions. The devoted take their religion seriously and even though the Christ story has little to do with Greek mythology, the iconic images of the Christian story are Greek in their interpretation, portraying Christ as a Greek figure. Of course this is the artistic licence of the Church, to portray Christ in this way as with all nationalities who also claim Christ in their own image. Otherwise cultures and societies worldwide would worship an iconic image of a Nazarene, dressed as a Rabbi with distinctive Jewish characteristics rather than these more classic features.
This is also true of all other Christian interpretations that show Christ as fair haired and blue eyed with a golden beard. But in Cyprus, the Greek iconic image is used in all religious depictions of the New Testament story with the Saints and Apostles also deified in the same manner, all that is except one: Judas Iscariot.
I first realised that poor old Judas didn’t have the same classification as his other compatriots when I saw one of the many depictions of the Last Supper portrait, most of which are copies based on Da Vinci’s Last Supper masterpiece. In these portraits Judas is seen to be smaller than the others in the room and is holding what appears to be a small purse in his hand, the possible payment for treachery. In other pictures he is shown dipping his bread into the bowl of the Lord, another signal of his forthcoming betrayal.
In many interpretations of the same scene Judas is cast as a dark, shadowy figure, a demonic disciple, a man with no morals and thus a man who has no godliness about him and certainly no halo. The missing halo immediately registers Judas as the instigator of the plot of betrayal and propels him towards the fires of Hell and the pages of infamy.
There has been no act in the history of mankind that has had such a profound outcome than that of Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Christ. It was as if he had not just bitten, but chewed on the hand that fed him; and his ultimate insult to kiss his master as the signal for betrayal, condemns him to infinite oblivion in the eyes of the Church.
His subsequent remorse and apology by suicide in the Potter’s Field does little if anything to appease the anger of the devoted followers of Christ. Perhaps this is why in Cyprus the Orthodox Church performs an act that is almost Pagan in its delivery: burning an effigy of Judas on the eve of The Orthodox Easter.
When I first saw this I was horrified. Why you may ask?
Surely this act only symbolizes what every Christian worth his salt would have done to the betrayer of Christ. The man who ultimately was responsible for the downfall of the Lord, who became the instrument by which the authorities, both Jewish and Roman could act against the self proclaimed Messiah. Burning Judas symbolically Isn’t it?
Or could our interpretation of the very act of betrayal, be in itself, wrong?
Scholars and theologians have debated the impact that Judas has had upon the Christian faith for centuries. Seemingly he could have been the right hand man to the Lord, and not Peter. Judas was after all more of a scholar than the fisherman and he had dealings within the political background of the Jewish sects. Otherwise how did he get so close to the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem?
At no time during the ministry of Christ does Judas ever deny his Master’s claim of being the Messiah, nor does he try to disturb his Ministry. Moreover, some people suggest that his triumphant procession through Jerusalem on Palm Sunday was a way to showcase the coming of the Messiah and furthermore give Judas the opportunity to prove to the hierarchy of the Jewish faith, that he was indeed the true Messiah.
It is really only at this juncture where Judas pushes for Christ to confirm his deity, that he finally comes into the story in his own right.
For at The Last Supper, Judas becomes the ultimate catalyst in the act of betrayal. Christ even tells him that “What ever you must do, do quickly.”
Is this deliberate action purely selfish? Or is there something deeper behind it? After all, Judas’s reward for an act of such magnitude was just thirty pieces of silver, which seems a small amount when compared to the immense wealth of the Sanhedrin.
Why not ask more for such an act of pure treachery? He was never going to get rich with such a small amount was he? And remember Judas was no stranger to the value of money since many of the references to him in the Gospels relate to him being the treasurer within the group.
Or was this small amount just a token, to symbolise the contempt that he now had for the man who would not confirm his request to prove his authenticity to the people?
Or, alternatively, was this purely a gesture on behalf of a man, compelled to do the bidding of his Master. Was Judas the real power behind the betrayal? Or was it Christ himself that instigated it as some scholars have suggested?
In The Garden of Gethsemane, with Christ’s confession that he wanted the “Cup to pass over him” could this be Jesus’s own admission that he had in fact made a misjudgement and that he didn’t want to sacrifice himself? That actually, Judas was only doing what he himself had wanted him too, and now wished to change that fateful decision?
The very fact that Judas actually kisses him in recognition, is more a statement of acknowledgement than the prophesised denial by Peter, who is never admonished for the fact that he actually denies ever knowing the man, not once, but three times.
Surely this is an act equally worthy of contempt, but it appears that Peter’s remorse and shame is glossed over in the Scriptures, leaving many questions unanswered.
For is this not the man who the Lord chose “to build his Church upon”. Yet, at this most significant moment, when he needs him more than ever, Peter does nothing to defend him?
The Gospels tell of a soldier whose ear is cut off by Peter’s sword, and is then replaced by the Messiah; a minor miracle in anyone’s language, but not sufficient to stop the proceedings against the Christ.
In Jesus’ trial, Caiaphas, High Priest of the Temple, questions and tests Christ, and ultimately sanctions his death via Herod and Pilate. Yet the Orthodox Church does not give Caiaphas or even Pilate anything like the criticism they bestow on Judas. Or for that matter Peter. In all the icons on display even today, Peter is still beatified with a halo.
Christ’s agonising death becomes the focal point of Judas’s actions, with his resurrection the redeeming factor. But had Judas procrastinated and not made his fateful decision, the iconic images portrayed in today’s churches would all need to be changed and the ceremony of burning Judas unnecessary.
Changing a person’s opinion on what is right is never easy. Changing a country’s outlook or a church’s belief is impossibility! The doctrine is cut in stone and in the faith of the masses that have indulged in its practices since BC became AD. But an act such as the defamation of Judas in this way is one that consciously perhaps, we should reconsider, if for no other reason than it is not the Christian thing to do. Next Easter it would be good to see that the celebration of the Lord’s resurrection has nothing to taint it. Christos Anesti.