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Angela Tilby: Haunting phrase in a collect

12 March 2021

The Picture Art Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

Christ before Caiaphas by Matthias Stom (early 1630s)

Christ before Caiaphas by Matthias Stom (early 1630s)

THERE is a phrase in the Good Friday collect which always haunts me as we come nearer to Holy Week. It is where Christ is described as being “given up into the hands of wicked men”. “Wicked”, of course, has various different resonances. It is the catchy title of a successful West End musical. It can describe something admirably clever (“That’s wicked!”). A wicked sense of humour is sharp-pointed, but naughtily amusing. So, we quite like “wicked”, even though its original sense describes a corrupt will, an intention to harm. Those wicked men with their wicked hands knew what they were doing. Or did they?

There is a tendency these days to question whether people can really be wicked. Surely, people are the product of their circumstances, we argue; wickedness may be acquired, but people are not simply born that way. Perhaps wickedness is a quality that does not reside in individuals at all, but is a kind of systemic error, a cultural virus, that affects those vulnerable to it and can be mitigated by proper legislation and right thinking.

Wickedness is good at playing innocent. We often hear those who have done wicked things explaining them away — any unfortunate outcome of their actions was not intended. Or they take to the pulpit to claim that, in this case, untruth and violence actually serve the greater good — the argument used by those who persecuted Jesus. The truth is that individuals and institutions quite regularly plot and plan to do wicked things, and nearly always seek to justify them, claiming expedience, convenience, or personal or institutional advantage.

Depressing though this is, it sometimes helps to remember that what wickedness achieves is often of small account in the very long run. We remember Jesus, Pilate, and Caiaphas, but the names of those who must have been involved in the plot to destroy him are long forgotten. For all the whispered rumours, attempts to manipulate opinion, and all the gulling of the innocent, the reign of terror initiated by Jesus’s enemies simply ran its course, while the triumph of the resurrection resonates through history.

The achievements of wickedness are often pitifully unimportant, because the ambitions of the wicked are so often small and selfish: protecting insider privilege, never being seen to be wrong, gaining wealth and influence.

Where wickedness reveals its true malevolence is when it picks on a victim to suffer for its own petty and malicious sins. Wicked people regularly project their unacknowledged vices on those they condemn: it protects their belief in their own innocence.

As we come up to Holy Week, we might reflect on how often we have been here. Wickedness is self-defeating, we say. But the innocent are still sacrificed, while the wicked preach away at us, as though they do not know what they do.

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