Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Holy Thursday: Feasting in the Shadow of Death


           There are certain disadvantages to knowing how a story ends.  This is true in the case of our Gospel story:  we know that the story ends in triumph, and joy, and Resurrection.  This knowledge tends to blunt our sensitivities as we read along, and cause us to miss certain things in the flow of the narrative before it comes to its end.  In particular, we miss the main element of the story of the first Holy Thursday, which is fear.
            As we read the Gospels two thousand years later and many miles away from its original time and place, we tend to imagine that Galilee was more or less the same as Judea.  Both regions are just names to us—names of Biblical Places, which because they are Biblical have a certain holy feel to them.  We therefore miss the fact that for the Lord and His Twelve, they were not alike at all.  Galilee in the north was a place of safety, while Judea in the south was a place of danger, and for this reason they were reluctant to enter Judea at all.  Thus, when Christ suggested to the Twelve that they leave Galilee to visit Lazarus in Bethany in the heart of Judea, they were less than enthusiastic.  In fact, they were incredulous:  “Rabbi,” they protested, “the Jews were but now seeking to stone You, and are You going there again?” (Jn. 11:8)  It seemed stupid and suicidal.  When Christ said that He was determined to visit Lazarus because he had fallen asleep, they assumed that by this He meant normal slumbering sleep, and concluded that there was therefore no need to visit him—“Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover” (Jn. 11:12).  In other words, “no need go south to Bethany”.  When the Lord explained that Lazarus had died and that He was still determined to go to him (v.15), they naturally concluded that He was speaking of joining him in death.  Thomas displayed courage when he roused the others to risk death to accompany their Lord, saying, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him” (v.16).  In all these exchanges we see how dangerous Judea was for Christ—and Jerusalem was the epicenter of that danger.
            Our Lord’s foes down there were actively seeking to kill Him (see Jn. 8:40), so that His entry into the city of Jerusalem had to be secretly pre-arranged with passwords.  (That was the whole point of the mysterious exchanges mentioned in Mk. 11:2-6).  Other signs and passwords guarding secrecy were later required to pre-arrange a place in the city where the Passover meal could be eaten (Mk. 14:13-16).  Our Lord’s foes, humiliated time and again by Christ as He taught that week in the Temple, could not risk arresting Him openly in the midst of the festal crowd (Mk. 14:1-2).  They were desperate to find Him alone, far from the safety and protection of the public eye, for only then could they safely arrest Him without being stoned by His crowd of supporters.  And that was why they rejoiced when Judas secretly offered to supply them with the information of His whereabouts, and even act as a guide for them, for that was the only way they could get Him alone and defenseless.
            We must fully appreciate this atmosphere of danger as we read the story of the Last Supper on that Holy Thursday.  The place upstairs in someone’s home had been secretly secured and made ready, and the Lord went there with His disciples without being seen.  Everyone at that supper knew that our Lord’s enemies were scouring the city to find Him, and that they would arrest and kill Him if they did.  The excitement generated in the city which began when our Lord entered in triumph had reached its fever pitch now that everyone was keeping the Passover, for everyone was expecting the coming of “the kingdom of our father David” (Mk.11:10), and Passover was the perfect time for that kingdom to come.  Surely something had to give—it was time for either Christ or His enemies to triumph.
            This atmosphere of almost unbearable danger and impending crisis was further deepened by he events of the Supper itself.  It was, as the Synoptics make plain, a Passover meal (Mk. 14:12, Lk. 22:13-16), with cups of wine, and bread, and the Passover lamb itself.  Certain prayers and blessings, such as the blessing over the bread and the cup, would have been said, as at every Passover meal.  But Christ added other words to these customary blessings:  as He broke the bread at the beginning of the meal, He said, “Take; this is My body”.  And after the meal, during the third cup, the “cup of blessing”, He added the words, “This is the blood of the covenant which is poured out for many”.  The words were dark and cryptic and alarming.  As the bread was between their teeth, as the wine flowed over their lips, the disciples heard words identifying the bread and wine with His body and blood, broken and poured out.  The Passover feast of life and joy and freedom was becoming a feast of darkness and death.  They of course could not understand all that the words meant, but they understood well enough that it spoke of His death.
            Other words were less cryptic, and even less encouraging.  During the meal, He said that one of them would betray Him—one whose hand was even then eating with them at the festal table.  And He said that He would not drink another cup of wine until the Kingdom had come (Mk. 14:18, 25).  St. John’s Gospel draws the veil aside even further, and tells us that He openly spoke of leaving them (Jn. 13:33), of weeping and lamentation, and of His enemies’ rejoicing (Jn. 16:20), of them all being scattered and leaving Him alone and defenseless (Jn. 16:32).  The Passover meal was meant to be a time of light and hope for every Jew, a time when they gloried in God’s love for His people, and looked to His deliverance.  The disciples ate that meal in shadow and fear, darkened by a coming doom.  We know how the story ends, and how Holy Thursday was followed by Great and Holy Friday, and then again by Pascha.  But we must not import our hope prematurely into the narrative lest we misread the atmosphere of that first holy supper.
            And that is just the point:  in the midst of darkness and fear, grace took root and blossomed, and has since filled the world with its saving fruit.  The supper of death (like the Cross of death) has become the supper of life.  The Last Supper has become for us the Mystic Supper, and the place where the disciples cowered has become a place of joy and exultation.  For us the Supper is a place of light, of triumph, a place where all fear is banished, and where life chases away every trace of death.
            This is the abiding lesson of that night.  We are sometimes tempted to imagine that God saves us from fear and from danger, that He rescues us by not leading us into places where we are afraid to go.  We desperately want Him to exempt us from being in such dark places, and from experiencing terrible things.  We do not want to go to Judea, we do not want to enter Jerusalem which always kills the prophets (Mt. 23:37).  We do not want to have to endure the tragedies of life, and would at all costs avoid the valley of the shadow of death.  But God leads us there nonetheless, and there He is with us and prepares a table, even though we eat in the presence of our enemies (Ps. 23:4-5).  God does not exempt us from suffering.  He does something better and more wonderful:  He meets us there, and reveals His grace.
            Maybe it’s not so bad after all knowing how the story ends.  For if we know that Holy Thursday gives us the Eucharist and ends with Pascha, maybe we can better face the suffering we have to endure.  This dark and dangerous world need not steal our hope or diminish our joy.  In the midst of the darkness, we lay hold of bread and cup, and give thanks, and find Christ and His Kingdom.
           

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