Spy Wednesday: Fear

When Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said to his disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.”

Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and plotted together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar among the people.” . . .

Then one of the twelve, whose name was Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray him.

—Matthew 26:1–5, 14–16

It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest [Jesus] by stealth and kill him, for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.” . . .

Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. And when they heard it, they were glad and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him.

—Mark 14:1–2, 10–11

Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to put [Jesus] to death, for they feared the people.

Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve. He went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers how he might betray him to them. And they were glad, and agreed to give him money. So he consented and sought an opportunity to betray him to them in the absence of a crowd.

—Luke 22:1–5

Holy Wednesday is commonly referred to as Spy Wednesday, as it’s the day Judas negotiated with the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling council) to betray Jesus. The religious leaders had been had been plotting to get rid of Jesus since the beginning of his ministry, really; for example, Mark the Evangelist notes that after Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, “the Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (Mark 3:6). They didn’t like Jesus’s interpretations of God’s law. And they certainly didn’t like his claiming to be the Son of God—blasphemy.

Their plotting kicks into high gear this week, when they get an insider from Jesus’s traveling band to surreptitiously report on his activity and whereabouts, which will enable them to swoop in for an arrest.

LOOK: Maynard Dixon (American, 1875–1946), Shapes of Fear, 1930–32. Oil on canvas, 40 × 501⁄8 in. (101.5 × 127.3 cm). Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. [object record]

Dixon, Maynard_Shapes of Fear

In this painting by Maynard Dixon, four shadowy figures, cloaked and hooded, stand on a mound of earth. They move clandestinely, at dusk, it appears. One of them faces us directly, but his face is missing, evoking a sense of menace.   

I first encountered Shapes of Fear at one of my local museums a few years ago and was transfixed by it. There was no description to contextualize the scene.

I am reminded of the chief priests, scribes, and elders, who acted stealthily to see that this Jesus fellow, so-called Son of God, was done away with. Fear was a big motivator for them. Fear of losing their power, of God’s truth being corrupted, of a changing status quo, of confronting their own hypocrisy. Mark 11:18 states it outright: “And the chief priests and the scribes heard it [Jesus’s rebuke of the money-changers in the temple] and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching” (emphasis added).

Some churches hold a Tenebrae (Latin for “shadows” or “darkness”) service on Spy Wednesday, which involves a gradual extinguishing of candles along with readings from the passion narratives.

LISTEN: “The Hour” by Joseph Tawadros, on The Hour of Separation (2010)

Egyptian Australian musician Joseph Tawadros [previously] is one of the world’s leading oud (fretless lute) players and is credited with expanding the instrument’s notoriety in mainstream Western culture. In this piece he performs alongside his percussionist brother, James Tawadros; drummer Jack DeJohnette; guitarist John Abercrombie; and bassist John Patitucci. The latter three are jazz heavyweights from New York.

Several times in the Gospels, Jesus refers forebodingly to “the hour” in which he will be captured, tortured, and killed. After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem he tells the crowds that followed him that “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23), and he goes on to talk parabolically about his death. In his Farewell Discourse, he tells his disciples that “behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone” (John 16:32). And a few beats later, in John 17:1, Jesus “lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you . . .’”

In the parallel account of Gethsemane in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus prays that “the hour might pass from him” (Mark 14:35), and when God declines the request, Jesus concedes that “the hour has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners” (Mark 14:41).

For more songs for Holy Week, see the Art & Theology Holy Week Playlist.

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