On the first day of unleavened bread, when the Passover lambs were sacrificed, Jesus’ disciples said to him, ‘Where would you like us to go and get things ready for you to eat the Passover?’ He sent off two of his disciples, with these instructions. ‘Go into the city, and you will be met by a man carrying a water-pot. Follow him. When he goes indoors, say to the master of the house, “The teacher says, where is the guest room for me, where I can eat the Passover with my disciples?” He will show you a large upstairs room, set out and ready. Make preparations for us there.’ The disciples went out, entered the city, and found it exactly as he had said. They prepared the Passover. When it was evening, Jesus came with the Twelve. As they were reclining at table and eating, Jesus said, ‘I’m telling you the truth: one of you is going to betray me – one of you that’s eating with me.’ They began to be very upset, and they said to him, one after another, ‘It isn’t me, is it?’ ‘It’s one of the Twelve,’ said Jesus, ‘one who has dipped his bread in the dish with me. Yes: the son of man is completing his journey, as scripture said he would; but it’s bad news for the man who betrays him! It would have been better for that man never to have been born.’ While they were eating, he took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them. ‘Take it,’ he said. ‘This is my body.’ Then he took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. ‘This is my blood of the covenant,’ he said, ‘which is poured out for many. I’m telling you the truth: I won’t ever drink from the fruit of the vine again, until that day – the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’ They sang a hymn, and went out to the Mount of Olives.
When I taught in Oxford University, I used repeatedly to ask the Theology Faculty for funds to take students to the Holy Land. Having been there myself, I knew that you could learn things in a few days on site that would take you several weeks in the library and classroom.
My superiors disagreed. There are plenty of books in the library, they said, with maps and pictures and full descriptions. You don’t need to go there yourself.
Only a library-bound academic, of course, could think like that. Most people find that, when they go to the Holy Land, scales fall from their eyes. The sights. The sounds. The smells. The people. The meals.
The meals! Yes, indeed. Sharing a meal is one of the most ordinary and at the same time one of the most profound things we humans ever do. As I write this I am expecting to have lunch by myself, and I feel that as a deprivation, a loss. Meals bind us together. They say something about who we are, and why. Though fewer people in my country now enjoy the traditional family Sunday lunch, those who do are dimly aware that such an event is just as much about ‘family’ and ‘Sunday’ as it is about ‘lunch’. Events, particularly the event of a meal, convey meaning far more powerfully than any words, any books, any theories.
And Jesus chose a meal, a particular meal, to convey the deepest meaning of all. The reason why he was going to die.
It was a Passover meal – of a sort. Clearly it was a Passover meal; Mark is quite explicit. And Jesus, having chosen to come to Jerusalem on this Passover to make his dramatic move in the Temple and take the consequences, was likely (knowing all we know of him) to choose, as well, to focus the dense, multi-layered meaning of his final hours on an event like this. It was to be an event that his followers would be able to repeat, and, in so doing, find again and again his meaning, his life, his presence.
But it was a Passover meal with a difference. Passover meals look back to the Exodus from Egypt, and celebrate the fact that God rescued his people from slavery and constituted them as his free people – even though, for much of their history, the Jewish people have continued to suffer slavery, exile and oppression. Jesus’ special meal looked back like that, but it also looked on to a further event: the coming of God’s kingdom. Jesus was looking forward to the next time he would drink wine with his followers: by then, the kingdom would have come (verse 25). As we have seen several times already, this can only mean, as Mark draws out, that Jesus saw his approaching death as the means by which that kingdom would be established.
In particular, of course, Jesus, playing host for the meal, makes a startling alteration in some of the basic words that the host has to speak. No longer is the bread they share a reminder of the bread of affliction in Egypt. It is his body. No longer is the wine the celebration of God’s ancient rescue operation. It is his blood: ‘the blood of the covenant’ (another echo of the Exodus story), ‘poured out for many’ (an ancient Jewish way of saying ‘for the whole people’). This meal declares, from that first Maundy Thursday onwards, that those who share it are God’s new-covenant people, the restored and renewed Israel, and that they are this because, and only because, of Jesus’ forthcoming death. There are things that you can learn from sharing in this meal, wherever and however you do it, which you couldn’t learn no matter how long you sat in the library or how many books you read.
In particular, we learn from Mark’s description of this meal that we can never take part in it lightly or casually. It is fatally easy for Christians, as St Paul already found out in Corinth, to come to the family meal in an easy-going fashion, without really thinking out what’s going on and hence what sort of people we should be. When Jesus himself led that Passover celebration, he was aware of a snake in the grass. A betrayer, at the table with him. Mark, as so often, folds the story together in such a way that the middle bit, in this case the prediction of the betrayal, is held in tension between the outer bits, the preparation of the meal and then the meal itself. Somehow, Mark is saying, the forthcoming betrayal is itself part of the meaning.
When we break bread together ourselves, in other words – whether we call it ‘the Eucharist’ or ‘the Mass’, or ‘the Lord’s Supper’ or ‘Holy Communion’, or simply ‘the bread-breaking’, it’s all the same – we do so in the knowledge that at the heart of every Christian community, and at the heart of every Christian individual, there lies the capacity for betrayal. We keep this festival solemnly, humbly, seeking for mercy and courage and strength, not with a casual cheerfulness that thinks of the meal as a piece of magic which gets round the need for serious spiritual and moral self-examination. Sharing a meal with any friend is a good and powerful thing to do. Sharing a meal – sharing this meal of meals – with Jesus, the meal in which he gives himself to his people and enables them to eat and drink all the meaning of his forthcoming death, is an event so full of meaning that the words run out long before it’s done. Beware the rationalism that takes the Word made Flesh and insists on turning it back again into mere words.
Teach us, good Lord, so to share your table that we may be loyal to you for ever, come what may.