Thursday in Holy Week has taken an odd turn, but then Holy Week is a little odd all they way through. The reading from Mark recalls what we have come to know as “The Last Supper.”
It’s a scene begging for a place in the Godfather movies. In it, Jesus invited his twelve closest associates to dinner in a private room. He knew ahead of time that one of them was a rat who would turn him over to the authorities that very night. And he knew the other eleven would turn tail and run for their own lives. His most trusted lieutenant would even deny he ever heard of Jesus when he gets interrogated, not by the cops, but by a girl, a maid minding the rear entrance to the palace. If Francis Ford Coppola filmed it, there would be tommy guns blazing away.
He didn’t. There weren’t. Surrounded by untrustworthy friends, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them saying it was his body given for them. He might have added something like, “You’re going to need some of me in you to get through this, so eat.” Whether he said that or not, his friends had to wonder. It’s not something that could have made much sense to them. At the advent of their betrayal, he gave bread as his body for them. That’s worth some thoughtful reflection.
Then he took the cup of wine (I like to think it was Elijah’s cup, but that’s a story for another time). Anyway, he took the cup of wine, blessed it, gave it to them for each to take a sip, and said, “This is my blood of the (new) covenant which is poured out for many.” If the broken bread was a mystery, the cup wasn’t. Every one of them knew the prophecy in Jeremiah that promised a new covenant between God and creation, and every one of them knew the old covenant had been initiated by the deliverance of the Hebrews from death by the sign of lambs’ blood painted on their doors. Midway through their journey to the promised land, it was sealed with the blood of sacrificial animals splattered over the altar and the people (Exodus 24). Nothing was more holy than life giving blood coursing through all creatures, and nothing could seal a covenant with greater authority.
The cup of wine, now declared to be Jesus’ own blood, the holy blood of Christ himself, announced the new covenant, and they knew it, as much as anyone could at the moment of its happening. Curiously, it was a covenant for the forgiveness of sin and the promise of new life delivered from death. In this case, not only sins of the past, but also sins about to be committed. Whether they knew it or not, it was the holy food and drink of new life yet to be encountered.
Most of us know what happened next, but sometimes we have to be reminded that the disciples didn’t know, couldn’t know. Most of us go through our days with intentions about the near future, comfortable that probability is on our side. The disciples didn’t have even that. What might lay ahead was a total blank, every moment an unexpected one, dangerous, scary. They may not have fully understood the meaning of the bread and wine, but through it God was in them and for them, and they needed it.
What about that rat Judas? My friend Fr. Ernie says he thinks when Judas faces Jesus for judgement, Jesus will say, “Judas, I’m sorry you were the one who had to play that part. Come, take your rightful place with the others.” I doubt there is much rock solid theology behind that, but Fr. Ernie is not often wrong in matters of confession, compassion and forgiveness.
Thursday in Holy Week remembers, in the words of Winston Churchill, not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. So eat up. Drink up. You’ll need it for the journey ahead.