April 13, 2023

Judas in Orthodox Hymnography (Fr. George Metallinos) - 1 of 3

By Protopresbyter Fr. George Metallinos

The figure of Judas is a protagonist in the hymnography of Holy Week. His treacherous attitude is contrasted with the repentant attitude of the “sinful woman" and the confession of love from the thief. The passion of avarice is the main motive for his betrayal of his teacher. A "painful death" becomes the real reward of Judas.

1. Judas in the Hymns of Holy Week

The figure of Judas has occupied Art in all its forms. The same goes for Orthodox hymnography,1 which dissects the Gospel narrative around his person in a vivid and penetrating way. Hymnography constitutes the heart of Orthodox-ecclesiastical worship,2 and was the most important poetic creation of Byzantium/Romania.3 In fact, the possibilities offered by poetic discourse make Hymnography the most suitable means for the continuous mystagogy of the ecclesiastical pleroma, with a discourse that is delightful, wrapped in the modest and attractive garment of the ecclesiastical melody.4 The pleroma, listening to or even participating in the chanting of the hymns, experiences and confesses the faith by "weaving from words a melody to the Word."5 Through the poetry of hymns, the worship of Orthodoxy becomes its enduring mouth. The hagiographic and patristic discourse thus becomes the daily song of God's people, who sing their faith and confess it.

The holy Fathers and Mothers, who compose the hymns, offer through them the theology and theognosis of their hearts purified and illuminated by the Holy Spirit, dipping their pen in the stream of their faith and the tears of their repentance. A mention of the works attributed to Saint Dionysius the Areopagite is important. The poetry and music of Orthodox worship - we read - constitute an "echo" of the heavenly hymnody, which the holy hymnographer (and not just a "poet") hears with his spiritual ears and conveys with the created means available to him in earthly worship. The hymns of the Church are thus understood as a copy of the heavenly "archetype."6 It is not surprising, therefore, that the poetic creations of proven Saints, who are also authentic theologians of the Church, enter Orthodox worship.7

This also applies to the hymnography of Holy Week. Our holy Fathers in the hymns of Holy Week deal with Judas and his tragic position in the course of the Divine Passion. With the Gospel narrative as a point of departure and context, they delve spiritually into the elements handed down about Judas and his betrayal, interpreting the hagiographic discourse and making the Gospel story attractive and instructive at the same time.

In the hymns two themes are intertwined: The betrayal of Judas, in all its spectrum and the breadth of its reflection, and the juxtaposition of Judas' attitude with that of the "sinful woman" (harlot) and the "grateful thief" and his confession on the cross.

The relevant references to this theme begin with the Matins of Holy Tuesday, which is chanted on the evening of Holy Monday, and conclude with the "Lamentations" of the Epitaphion, which are chanted on the evening of Great Friday. It stands to reason that Judas, as one of the main figures of the divine Passion, belongs to the basic building blocks of the Services of each day.

In the Matins of Holy Tuesday (the evening of Holy Monday) Judas joins and colludes with the "Priests and Scribes" of Judaism, who, breathing malice against Jesus Christ, plan His execution. Besides, the related Gospel reading of the Service refers to the defeat of the Pharisees and Sadducees in their dialogical confrontation with Christ, and the horrible "woes" are heard for the Pharisees, who represented illegitimate authority (Matthew 22:15-23, 39). Thus, with the festal theme of the day, which is "the message of the Parable of the Ten Virgins" (Matthew 25:1-13), the event of betrayal in two troparia ("kathismata") is intertwined, as a foreshadowing. The first refers to Judas' collaboration with the Jewish leadership against Christ:

"The priests and scribes with wicked envy gathered a lawless council against You, and persuaded Judas to betray You. Shamelessly he went and spoke against You to the transgressing people: 'What will you give me, and I will betray Him into your hands?’ Deliver our souls, O Lord, from the condemnation that was his."

The second troparion summarizes the act of betrayal and its consequences:

"Impious Judas plots against the Master with avaricious thoughts, and ponders how he will betray Him. He falls away from the light and accepts the darkness; he agrees upon the payment and sells Him that is above all price; and as the reward for his actions, in his misery he receives a hangman’s nose and death in agony. O Christ our God, deliver us from such a fate as his, and grant remission of sins to those who celebrate Your most pure Passion with longing."

However, the reference to Judas is found mainly in the Services of Holy Wednesday and Holy Thursday. On Holy Wednesday, according to the typikon (i.e. the ecclesiastical order): "The most divine Fathers instituted the commemoration of the harlot woman who anointed the Lord with myrrh." The Gospel of Matthew (26:6-13) and Mark (14:3-9) mention the act of an unknown woman, who full of respectful love anointed the head of Christ with precious myrrh, causing the "indignation" of the disciples, who considered the expense of buying myrrh to be wasted. In the evangelist John (12:1-18) the woman is identified with the sister of Lazarus, Mary, who with this action wanted to express the gratitude of her and her sister, Martha, for the resurrection of their brother Lazarus. Luke (7:36-47) is the one who probably speaks of another case and speaks of a "sinful woman" ("καί ἰδού γυνή ἐν τῇ πόλει, ἣτις ἦν ἁμαρτωλός"), who brought the very valuable myrrh and weeping she anointed and kissed Christ's feet, wetting them with her tears and wiping them with her hair. Judas, according to the text of John, was indignant because the expensive price of the myrrh was not given to the poor. Judas, pretending that he exuded love for the poor, offers a very instructive subject to the sensitivity of the hymnographers, so that with their poetic power and art they can use it in a literary and pastoral way for the "edification" of the faithful who attended the services. This is most vividly illustrated by the following troparion:

"O the wretchedness of Judas! He saw the harlot kiss the feet of Christ, but deceitfully he contemplated the kiss of betrayal. She loosed her hair while he bound himself with wrath. He offered the stench of wickedness instead of myrrh, for envy cannot distinguish value. O the wretchedness of Judas! Deliver our souls from it, O God!"

However, the subject of the betrayal of Christ by Judas belongs mainly to the festal theme of Holy Thursday. On this day, Orthodoxy "celebrates" "four things: the Holy Basin, the Secret Supper, the Supreme Prayer and the Betrayal of Judas." Judas also participates in the events, with a dark and repulsive role, that of the traitor of his Master and Lord. Characteristic is a troparion, distinguished for its expressiveness that literally transforms history into poetry:

"Servant and deceiver, disciple and betrayer, friend and devil, Judas has been revealed by his deeds. While following the Master, he plotted His betrayal. He said to himself: 'I shall betray Him and gain the
purse.' He sought to have the myrrh sold and by deceit to have Jesus seized. He gave the kiss and gave up the Christ. But like a sheep led to the slaughter, so went the only compassionate Lover of mankind."

But also in this Service of Matins of Great Friday (Holy Thursday night) the betrayal of Judas returns to the "Antiphons" of the day. Thus, in the 3rd Antiphon, the troparia end with that characteristic refrain: "The lawless Judas did not want to come to his senses." Even in the "Lamentations" of Matins of Holy Saturday, on the evening of Great Friday, at the climax and completion of the divine drama with the Crucifixion, Death and Burial of Christ, in two "Megalynaria" the betrayal of Judas emerges, which is characterized as the "murder" of Christ. In the First Stasis the "pleroma" of the faithful chants:

"Come, O foul disciple, filled with murder and gall, show unto me the cause of your wickedness, whereby you proved to be a traitor to my Christ."

And in the Third Stasis we chant:

"Taught the inner mysteries, he, the mindless servant, betrayed the Depth of Wisdom."

The question could, of course, be raised in this connection: Are the poets of the ecclesiastical hymns known, especially those that refer to Judas? In the book of the Triodion in use during the period of Holy Week, some names of poets (hymnographers) are mentioned, such as Saint Andrew, Archbishop of Crete, Kosmas the Monk (Maiouma, 7-8th century), Mark, Bishop of Otranto (9th century), Kassiani or Cassia the Nun (9th century). However, most troparia (hymns) are composed anonymously, as is the case in all our worship.

It must be said here that there is an essential commonality between ecclesiastical poetry and so-called folk poetry (folk songs). Both, born of the sensitive heart and imaginative intellect of our people, meet in their way of creation. The creator of both is one, who expresses through them his personal experience, while also sharing the experiences of the rest of the population. That is why both of them resonate in the soul of the other members of the Synaxis or Community, because through them their own feelings and anxieties are also expressed. In both cases, however, the personal poet is forgotten and the hymn or song becomes anonymous and therefore "ecclesiastical" or "folk", i.e. the property of the Church, as a gathering of the body, and of the community of people.9

Therefore, it is important that the hymns of our worship are the fruit of the theological heart and poetic intellect of our Saints. What characterizes all Saints is the unity of their mind, because with their spiritual-ascetic struggle they acquire "the mind of Christ" (1 Cor. 2:16). The hymns become the confession and praise of the entire ecclesiastical body, with the certainty that, since they are creations-poems of Saints, they express with doctrinal precision and theological purity the ecclesiastical - that is, collective - faith.

But let us proceed to a systematic approach to the texts:


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