On his last evening, Jesus sat down with his closest friends and told them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” The Passover meal is rife with symbolism. Did it bring strength to Jesus to consider the symbols as the Passover celebration went along? Did his mind wander during the haggadah?
The afikoman was a matzoh that had been hidden until the end of the meal. It was customary for the children to find it and ransom it to the adults — it would then be broken and distributed to everyone at the table, and would be the last thing eaten on that day. The familiar events and sayings of the evening were broken when Jesus said, “This is my body, broken for you.” Something is different. Whether the disciples had realized the significance of the evening before or not, they should have known something different was going on… this Passover was unlike any other. They must have quizzed him.
Four cups of wine were taken during the Seder, corresponding to the four promises in the Mosaic covenant, and everyone was obliged to drink them. The first two represented bringing Israel out of Egypt and deliver them, both accomplished. The last two were consumed following the meal, after the afikoman, both representing promises then unfulfilled. The third cup signified redemption… but when Jesus lifted this cup, instead of the words and symbols the disciples expected as a part of the Seder, they again heard a departure as Jesus announced, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” I’m sure they quizzed him further.
I wonder if he told them he was not going to drink the fourth cup — the cup of consummation — until he drank it at the conclusion of this feast which finds its fulfillment in the Kingdom of God? The fourth cup recalls the promise to Moses, “You will be my people, and I will be your God.” It’s the language of marriage… and fit for a wedding feast yet to come. For this reason, we remember the redemption of his death, ’till he comes again. I wonder if the disciples quizzed him this far, and if he answered in this way, or perhaps in another.
I’ve written before on the theme of the first Eucharist, and I struggle to push past the things I’ve seen before. But I see in a simple meal instituted by Jesus himself a vital ritual proscribed for generations. Eucharist. More than ritual. I think about John 6:
[T]hey said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'” Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.'” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”
And after a bit of back-and-forth, Jesus says,
“I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
This would be one of Jesus’ most classic “hard sayings,” and yet it leads to one of my favorite sayings, from the lips of Peter.
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe…. This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
To whom, indeed? It leaves us in a difficult situation… the thought offends us, but we’ve no alternative. It brings me back to a scene immediately prior to the Passover meal we’ve been considering, the Last Supper. Again, it is Peter who must choose.
Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean.
Peter understood one thing. Even if an idea presented to him goes against the grain, if it’s something Jesus requires to have a share in his work and in his life, it’s time to set aside the discomfort. But this dialogue about washing suggests another picture to me, one that has to do with the misconception that one ought to clean up to take a bath. In my evangelical days, it was common to be reminded that we ought not take communion “in an unworthy manner.” Since then though, I’ve come to see that a very big myth about communion has to do with misunderstanding this phrase of Paul’s.
When I last lead communion with our simple church group, I used a particular phrase which prompted an email inquiry this past week, something I said abut the communion table. Something that’s become my most precious insight into the Eucharist lately, and the words with which I’ll close this reflection. But in reply, before repeating the statement I gave some of the background thinking. That despite the urging to go and make everything right so we’re “clean” when we get to the table, I think the most unworthy approach we could possibly make is to think we’re worthy to be there. As though we deserve it, or could ever wash ourselves up enough to earn the right to be there. The symbolism inherent in the meal points to an act on our behalf, and though we are unworthy of it, we still reap the benefit. Jesus insists on washing his disciples’ feet, and tells them they must eat his flesh and drink his blood. There’s a lot of symbolism, but the biggest thing is that we don’t clean ourselves up to eat the meal, it’s the meal that makes us clean.
And so it turns out, the table is not for those who think they’re worthy, but for those who know that without it, they never will be.