Can we truly imagine a death sentence, even of our own choosing? What goes through one’s heart and mind when the narrow path forward leads to pain, anguish, violence, humiliation and destruction? What sources provide the internal fortitude to face such an overwhelming crisis? When such a terrible fate awaits mere hours in the future, how might one choose to spend those last few hours? Second guessing, doubts, recrimination, things left undone and unresolved, concerns about legacy, lack of confidence in his followers, impending conflict and pain — a veritable miasma of negative energy swirling through Jesus’ head. What a scary, isolated, lonely place to be? I would imagine Jesus wanted to find a port in the storm, a place to rest and prepare, a space to gather with friends to say good-bye and share parting words. Jesus, leaving nothing to chance, had arranged for a secluded, private room, and asked his friends to prepare the space for gathering — for the Passover or not, depending on your gospel source; for a Seder or a Maundy. Jesus sought a calm before the tempest.
All the gospels give the same impression that the closest followers and friends of Jesus could not, did not, comprehend what was about to happen. The urgency and turmoil were experienced by Jesus alone (though Judas may have had a few moments all his own…). What could it possibly have been like for Jesus to gather in the “Upper Room” with his friends for a commemoration of God grace in saving all the Hebrew children when he himself would not be spared. I imagine that Jesus sat at table looking from face to face, remembering all the time spent traveling, teaching, healing, preaching. Memories in a flood caused the surreal feeling of having been together forever and everything happening in a flash. No matter how much time the twelve spent with Jesus, it could not have been enough — not with their separation looming. What could possibly be done to consecrate their time together? What could possibly happen to immortalize the relationship. How could Jesus guarantee that all he worked for, all he did, all he prepared would not simply crumble when he died? I envision Jesus sitting at the Passover table, the remnants of the ritual foods surrounded by the scraps of the evening meal. The main portions were long gone leaving only the crusts of bread and the dregs of wine — the leftovers of the most common elements of every meal. Meat and fresh produce might be rare treats, but bread was consumed morning, noon, midday, and evening. In a land where potable water might be scarce and wine and juices were not always available, wine was carried in skins and always close at hand — especially for tradesmen and fishermen.
In a stroke of brilliance — intentional or otherwise — Jesus took up some bread, and told his friends to think of it as his very body. He captured their attention and made an indelible association: from this time forward, every time you take up bread to eat, think of me. Remember our time together. Remember what we did. Remember what we said. Remember how people treated us — both the good and the bad. Remember me. Don’t ever forget, no matter what happens, no matter where you are. Jesus gave them a permanent reminder of their relationship, one they would encounter multiple times every day. Then, he sealed the connection by taking up a cup filled with wine. Perhaps these men might skip a meal from time to time, fast for extended periods, but they were unlikely to set aside their drink as well. Jesus made a shocking and memorable connection — the wine in the cup is my blood, blood that I shed for you and for many others. In a short time you won’t be with me any more, but my blood will remain. Whenever you take up a cup of wine — any cup of wine — think of me and remember what I am doing and why I have to do it. Could anyone possibly believe — given what was to come in the next few days — that the disciples would ever share a meal and not remember Jesus?
We have turned the reenactment of this meal into a church ritual. We read a text, and follow an order, and dress the whole experience in a pageantry and pomp that I don’t think was ever intended. This is not to say that we should not celebrate communion together as a formal ritual, but we should not rob it of the heartfelt intensity of a desperate gesture of one man for his immediate friends. I truly believe Jesus’ heart was breaking that he was soon to be separated from the very people who had come to be blood brothers. Perhaps Jesus words about betrayal and renunciation were expressed as much from fear and pain as cool prophecy. Is it possible that the tone and inflection pleaded, “How can you do this to me?” when he referred to Judas and Peter, and his expectation that everyone would run away and hide?
Mark has Jesus and the twelve sing a hymn before they went out to the garden to pray. The prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane echoes with desperation and fear, but also great faith. Jesus knows he must do God’s will, but he does not have to like it. Yet, as much as Jesus would like to be saved, he does not waver in any way from his sense of purpose and duty. Does a truly frightened man, hunted by authorities and soldiers, expose himself in a secluded place, with very little defense? Does a man who knows the weakness of some of his own followers openly share with them all where he will be and what he will be doing?
What must it have been like to receive the kiss from Judas? Jesus had to know that some of his followers disagreed with his methods and approach. I do not believe it was mystic prophecy that allowed Jesus to know Judas’ heart. No, Jesus KNEW Judas, and he knew that Judas would push him in ways that the other disciples would not. It is very likely that Jesus used Judas to ignite the spark that spread the conflagration. Judas played his part, but did that make it any less painful for Jesus? As much as Jesus needed the disciples to act in the confused, cowardly and unfaithful ways they did, I feel certain he held out hope against hope that they might surprise him and stand strong beside him. If indeed Peter defended him with the sword, I imagine a swell or pride swept through Jesus before he stayed Peter’s hand to go with the soldiers.
Do martyr’s ever feel sorry for themselves? Do they shrink from the duty they face? Is there a part of even the most noble soul that screams at the injustice and indignity of their fate? I believe they do, and that’s what I will contemplate tomorrow…