While they were at supper Jesus did what he had done with his disciples hundreds of times: he took bread and gave thanks to God.
On the face of it, there was nothing different about this. He simply took the bread. He lifted it up. He said the prayers of thanksgiving. This is what you do with bread. You cherish it. You eat it every day, but you don’t take it for granted.
Bread is precious. Its daily blessing is the labour of the year. First there is the seed: the precious seed that you harvested from last year’s crop and stored through the winter till the crocuses push through the earth and tell you it is spring and time for sowing. The ground is tilled and carefully prepared; prayers are offered and songs sung, and then the dead seed sown. Then, through the rains of spring and the hot months of summer, you labour and fret, clearing weeds and scaring birds till the grains are ripe for harvest. And the flour that you grind at the mill, or in a pestle in the kitchen, is bursting with the efforts of your labour and the memories of the harvest; and sprung by the miracle of yeast, and set aside for resurrection, or just mixed with water into the sticky paste that can also miraculously be bread, it is kneaded and pummelled into loaves. Above a lattice of flaming wood, also lovingly constructed, and deep in the womb of the oven, the marvel of daily bread is completed. Its warm fragrance rising through the house in the morning is the breath of life itself. Its texture torn open, burnt crust and soft white flesh, and its taste rolling round your mouth, is the quality and taste of home and of the satisfaction of belonging, of labour rewarded, of nature’s many miracles, fruit of the earth and work of human hands. Yes, they had eaten with him many times, and he had blessed bread with them many times. But this time felt different. There was an eerie, interior silence about him that night. It had started when he had washed their feet, and now it continued around the supper table as they kept Passover together.
Earlier in the day he had given Peter and John some very specific instructions. He had told them to go and prepare the Passover meal. ‘Where?’ they had replied. ‘And how?’ And he had told them to go into the city where a man carrying a stone jar of water would meet them. They were to follow this man and he would lead them to a house where they should say to the owner, ‘Where is the guest room, where our Master may eat the Passover with his friends?’ And this man would show them a large room, already furnished, and this was where the preparations were to be made. So they went and found everything as Jesus had said, but they didn’t understand how he had been able to make these arrangements, or why they needed to be quite so secretive. Though all his strange talk of suffering, and the way he had antagonized the authorities, did mean that they all felt marked out in some way; and in their different ways all of them were thinking, did it have to be like this? But they still got everything ready. A table set. A Passover lamb. Bread and wine.
The Passover; it was the meal that defined and sustained them, not just remembering what had happened that night in Egypt so long ago – the angel of death passing over the homes of the Hebrew slaves and striking the first born of Egypt; the beginning of an exodus through the wilderness to a promised land flowing with honey and milk; Pharaoh’s horses and chariots swallowed by the sea while they passed through the waters – but in the economy of a God for whom a thousand years is but a watch in the night, this remembering of what God had done for them in the past brought the same God’s salvation and saving love into the present. It was as if the Passover of Moses and their Passover on this night was one and the same. The past was not a thing of the past. It was the eternal now of the eternal God, breaking into their present. God would save them and liberate them as he had saved and liberated Moses. This is what they believed, and this was the meaning of the Passover for them: a sacred and holy meal in which God delivered them again.
Oh, how they needed this deliverance. How they longed for it. How they felt enslaved and diminished by the Roman occupation and by what seemed to be the gutless compromises of those who led them. And though they liked to convince themselves that their cause was noble and their agenda righteous (oh, yes, how they loved to be seen as righteous), deeper still, so many other enslavements also swilled around inside their muddled hearts: that all too obvious and common desire for power, riches and rank that had already raised its ugly head that week; and baser desires for the easy gratifications of lust and violence. It was all there; all boiling inside them as they prayed for deliverance. Even the bitter treachery of wanting to destroy, to annihilate and to possess; and that very human condition: to desire that which will kill you. It raged in them. All the things they longed for, and at the same time longed to be released from.
And the hopes they had in Jesus? None of them seemed sure any more. None of them knew what he was doing. They could see the things he did, but it no longer made any sense. And Jesus himself looked round at their confused faces, and it was as if he could see right inside their despair and their hope to be free from despairing.
He held the bread aloft, the bread that was fruit of the earth, that was work of human hands, that was the very stuff of life, and he gave thanks to God for all God’s provision and bounty, for all God’s goodness and power. This was the God they loved, the God they saw in Jesus, but the God they still couldn’t understand. This was the God who would bring destruction to the earth – but not as the fanatics and fundamentalists had it, the earth itself being destroyed, or the people upon it who didn’t quite fit, or who believed different things, or who belonged to another tribe, or whose skin was pale– but the God who would destroy war itself, who would shatter the bow and snap the spear and burn the chariots of fire; the God who would judge between nations, and arbitrate for many people, and beat swords into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks, so that nations will no longer lift up swords against each other and they would stop investing in war.
Then he broke the bread. He tore the loaf in two, and his arms were stretched wide as he held out the bread to them. It looked as if he was going to embrace them as well as feed them. At the same time he looked suddenly very vulnerable, like he was being stretched out on a rack. ‘Take, eat,’ he said. ‘This is my body which is given for you.’
Then he took the cup of wine. Again he held it aloft and gave thanks to God. He said that Israel was a vine, and that God was a vine dresser, and that God would prune and perfect, that things that were cut down grew again, and that seeds buried in dry ground blossomed. He then passed the cup around; and as he did this he said, ‘Drink this, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’
And they remembered. Not just what Moses had done and what God had done in Moses, but they remembered what Jesus had said and done. They remembered how he had said that he was a vine like Israel, and they branches, and that cut off from him they could do nothing. They remembered how he had said that he was bread, bread of life; that he was food and drink; that his flesh eaten and his blood drunk, was life; that Moses on that journey to deliverance had been given manna from heaven, but he and all those who had eaten that bread were dead, but that those who ate the bread that was his body would live for ever, that he was the living bread come down from heaven.
They remembered this; and at the same time they recoiled from it, for he was also speaking of a new covenant that was somehow made by his bloodshed and his body broken, and that in some curious way that they could not comprehend he was offering it to them now, in this broken bread and this cup shared. Somehow their eating and drinking, the things they did with him this night, were making something new, were preparing for something tumultuous that was somehow tied up with all that other talk of suffering and death.
Who was he? What was he about to do? There was joy in his presence around that table. But there was also fear.
Before the meal Jesus had said quite openly that one of them would betray him and that all of them would desert him. They had looked at him incredulously. ‘Is it I?’ they had said, one after the other, each one asserting their innocence. But they had looked at each other accusingly, only too pleased to believe the worst about their neighbour.
Peter had promised that whatever anyone else did he could be relied on, that he would never betray or desert him. As usual, he was carried away by his own rhetoric. It wasn’t only Jesus who knew that, like so many orators, he was only really trying to persuade himself. He wanted to be brave and true. But he wasn’t. Therefore his words had to be brave and true instead.
One of them – Judas Iscariot– slipped out into the night. Jesus had washed his feet too. Jesus had shared bread with him. But Judas’ mind was made up, his path mapped out. He had lost all confidence in what Jesus was doing. He believed that Jesus, too, had been overtaken by his own rhetoric.
Judas no longer believed that Jesus was the Messiah. He had believed this. But not any more. After all, messiahs didn’t walk second miles or turn other cheeks, or give bandits two cloaks when they asked for one. Messiahs didn’t say that the kingdom belonged to children. They didn’t produce ridiculous amounts of wine for already half-drunk wedding guests, or let expensive ointment be wasted. They didn’t let dubious women wash their feet with their hair, and they didn’t wash other people’s feet in return. They didn’t demean themselves. They didn’t get in the way of justice, by letting adulterers walk free; and they didn’t shame those who were simply carrying out what the law so clearly required. And they certainly didn’t speak of themselves as if they were God, rather than just the one God sent. To speak of his own body as if it was bread from heaven: this was blasphemy, and Judas couldn’t understand why he had not seen it clearly before. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more he burned with righteous anger, knowing that his actions, and the things he was now going to do, would save his people from the threat that Jesus posed. All this talk of love, and of a new commandment and a new covenant, achieved nothing other than the disintegration of all that the old covenant held together. And even if he had got it wrong, even if Jesus was the Messiah, even if all this meekness was a cover, and if he was about to do what really needed to be done and deal with apostasy, the anathema of foreign occupation, and the invidious infection of disbelief and evil – and actually this was still something Judas secretly hoped for – then it was only right to bring things to a head, to allow things to be unconcealed. So he had brokered a deal with the chief priests and the religious authorities. For a modest fee, he would now show them where to find Jesus.
The other disciples watched him go. They didn’t really know why he was going, though one or two suspected something. Jesus also watched him. He just looked at him steadily and loved him.
Silence fell upon the room. One or two of the candles guttered and went out. The dying of the light, like the death of a man, is rarely a dramatic thing. It just stops. Those lights that were left cast looming shadows across the table, so that some of them sat in darkness, and where there was light it flickered upon their faces as if it was about to die as well. Which it was. All over the city, lights were going out. The day was ending. And though they hoped for a new covenant, like the one God had made with Moses, they just couldn’t see it. And all this talk of suffering and death, of bodies broken and blood shed, it just frightened them, and they felt further away from God than ever; and with Jesus slipping before their eyes into the shadows of what seemed to be an all-consuming night, their faith in him was stretched to breaking point. How ironic! Not just the bread broken. Not just him broken, but their faith in him. How could he deliver Israel? How could he deliver them? How could he even save himself? Forces even darker than the dark night seemed to be lining up against him, moving into position, preparing for a kill. How could he stop them? He no longer seemed to them to be a prophet, or even a visionary, still less a Messiah. There was strength in him, in his silence, in that inexhaustible goodness and compassion that still held them to him around that table – but could love ever be enough? They doubted it. He was a dreamer, a child, a table-turner and a foot-washer, a weaver of beautiful dreams, a storyteller and a lover, a wonderful fountain of goodness and love, but not a liberator or a God. And these dark forces would crush him.
The bread was eaten. The wine was drunk. The meal was finished. Jesus led them out into the night. They didn’t know where they were going.
‘Do this to remember me,’ he had said. They didn’t know what this meant. But they would remember. For the things he did that night would unlock the meaning of what he did next.