G. Connor Salter
Depending on what denomination you grew up in, Holy Week may be very important to you or it may be confusing. Even if you grew up in a liturgical church that observed Holy Week, you may not be familiar with the term “Spy Wednesday.” The term is an alternate name for a particularly dark day in Holy Week, one that centers on Judas Iscariot. Let’s take a look at what this day means in the context of Holy Week, as well as what part Judas plays in the bittersweet story of Easter.
What Is the Meaning of Spy Wednesday?
In the calendar of Holy Week (or if you’re Catholic, Passion Week), we observe eight days. Each day corresponds to a day in Jesus’ life leading up to his death and resurrection, and has a particular spiritual significance:
Palm Sunday (Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey, clears the temple)
Holy Monday and Tuesday (Jesus spends time with disciples, feet anointed by a woman)
Holy Wednesday (Judas agrees to betray Jesus)
Maundy Thursday (Jesus holds the last supper, arrested in Gethsemane)
Good Friday (Jesus tried and crucified)
Holy Saturday (Jesus in the tomb)
Easter Sunday (Jesus leaves the tomb)
Many of these days have different names depending on the denomination or country you worship in. For example, Palm Sunday is sometimes called “Passion Sunday” since it starts the Passion Week, and Holy Saturday is sometimes called “Black Saturday” since it represents a black day where Jesus is still in the tomb. Holy Wednesday, the day when Judas met with the Jewish leaders and was paid 30 pieces of silver to betray Jesus, is sometimes called “Spy Wednesday.”
When Was Spy Wednesday First Celebrated?
Christianity was often forbidden and generally an underground movement for its first three centuries. As a result, we don’t have full details about everything the early church did or exact dates for when they started observing some holidays and ceremonies. A lot of what we know comes from people’s journals, ancient Roman court documents, and various indirect sources. We have a description of Palm Sunday celebrations from a woman’s third-century travel diaries, and also the bishops Athanasius of Alexandria and Epiphanius of Constantia referencing “Holy Week” in the fourth century. Based on this and other information, some scholars have suggested that Christians began observing the different days of Holy Week during the third century, with some of them only celebrating the Easter weekend at first and eventually adding on the other days.
So, the short answer is we don’t know exactly when Spy Wednesday was first celebrated, although we assume it was sometime between the first and fourth century. The word “spy” comes from medieval French and English words, so Christians wouldn’t have started calling it “Spy Wednesday” until the medieval period.
Why is it Called Spy Wednesday?
Spy Wednesday commemorates events described in Matthew 26:12-14, Mark 14:10-12, and Luke 22:3-6, where Judas agrees to betray Jesus.
Before these events though, something happens which sets them off: a woman anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and her tears. According to John 12, Judas (possibly joined by other disciples) rebuked her for doing this, arguing the perfume could have been sold to provide money for the poor. The Gospel of John follows this action by observing, “He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it” (John 12:6).
Jesus responds by telling Judas, “Leave her alone… It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me” (John 12:7-8).
The Gospels describe what Judas did next in several different ways. Mark and Matthew go directly from this event to Judas speaking to the chief priests, while Luke 22:3 says after this event, “then Satan entered Judas…” Regardless, after this rebuke from Jesus, Judas met with the chief priests and they gave him 30 pieces of silver to betray his master. After that, he “watched for an opportunity to hand Jesus over to them when no crowd was present” (Luke 22:6). In other words, Judas agreed to spy on Jesus for the priests.
Later (on the day traditionally called Maundy Thursday), Judas left the Last Supper and led a group of people to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He identified Jesus by kissing him, and after some trouble where one of the disciples resisted, Jesus was arrested.
Jesus had an interesting reaction to this betrayal. Matthew 26:50 says that when Judas approached Jesus, Jesus’ only response was, “Do what you came for, friend.” Luke 22:48 records Jesus saying, “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?” Given that Jesus knew he was going to be killed, his refusal to fight back is not surprising. It is a little interesting that in Luke’s version he seems to be prodding Judas to consider what he’s doing. The fact Jesus uses the term “Son of Man,” which in Daniel 7:13 describes a Messiah figure who gains everlasting control of God’s kingdom, may emphasize how serious this betrayal is. Earlier in the Last Supper, Jesus told all the disciples that it would be better if his betrayer had never been born (Mark 14:20).
Why Is Judas so Important in the Easter Story?
Judas plays a crucial role in the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. By choosing to betray Jesus to the Jewish authorities, Judas helped set the plot in motion for Jesus to be crucified. The moment where Judas agreed to betray Jesus is one of the key dramatic moments in the Passion story, setting the stage for the Last Supper and the Garden of Gethsemane.
If we think about the themes that come up in the Easter story, Judas is important because he highlights the tragic element in the Easter story. Holy Week is full of sad moments, particularly Good Friday with all the bloody details of Jesus’ death. However, Judas’s actions are equally sad without being so graphic. His betrayal has a personal weight to it because he was considered a good friend. Like the rest of the disciples, Judas had traveled with Jesus for some time (possibly as much as three years). He was part of the group that Jesus selected in Matthew 10, giving them authority to perform miracles and a message to preach. Judas wasn’t just a straggler along for the ride, he was part of the core group and did everything that the other disciples did. He was even given spiritual power to heal sickness and exorcise demons (Matthew 10:2).
Even after Jesus rebuked Judas for his callous behavior, Judas apparently didn’t do anything to show he was spying on Jesus. When Jesus announced at the Last Supper that one of the disciples would betray him, none of the disciples knew he was talking about Judas. In fact, they questioned whether any of them would dare to betray Jesus (Luke 22:23). Each of them wondered if Jesus was talking about them (Mark 14:19), thinking “could it be me?” instead of “I have my suspicions…” Even when Jesus singled out Judas and Judas left to do his work, the other disciples didn’t realize that Judas had admitted his guilt. They assumed that Jesus was telling Judas to go buy some supplies or do some charity work (John 13:26-30).
To a certain extent, this sense of personal betrayal applies to all of the disciples. They all fell away in the Garden of Gethsemane, falling asleep when Jesus needed company. Peter betrayed Jesus in his own way by denying him three times. However, Judas went beyond these actions and was directly part of the plot to have Jesus arrested and killed. Jesus wasn’t just let down and betrayed. He was let down and betrayed by his close friends, and his death was made possible by a friend who seemed above reproach.
In discussions about Easter, it’s tempting to downplay the dark elements entirely and just focus on Easter Sunday, or to highlight the gory sacrifice that Jesus did on Good Friday. Spy Wednesday provides an opportunity to consider the personal pain in Easter, the reality that Jesus suffered emotional as well as physical blows on his road to the resurrection.