Jesus was celebrating the Passover feast with his close disciples on Maundy Thursday and it’s worth just pondering for a moment what the Passover feast was.
It took its name from the time when Moses and the people passed out of slavery into the desert journey to the promised land. But there is a lot of evidence that the feast itself goes way back beyond that and probably to the time of Abraham, as far the other side of Jesus as we are this side, about 2000 BC. And we think that because a lot of elements of the feast, as I’ll explain in a moment, belong to a nomadic people with sheep and goats and cattle, on the move, and of course the people when they were in Egypt were not a nomadic people in that sense. They were agricultural and lived non-nomadic lifestyles, under bondage. If you are a nomadic people you don’t celebrate feasts during the day because it’s too hot and if you keep them in the evening it’s worth choosing a day that’s got a good full moon. So they chose the first full moon of springtime, of the spring equinox, for this annual feast. It was a sacrifice feast.
For you and me the word sacrifice has negative connotations. It means offering things up. But that’s not what the word means, it means sacri-fice, to make something holy. You took something that was valuable to you, you handed it over to God and then received it back, it having been made holy, sacri-ficed. (It’s what we do in the sacri-fice of the Mass). So the people were invited to find a lamb or a kid from their newborn flocks, about the most precious thing a nomadic people had, because it was the promise of their future economy. It had to be perfect, not a bone to be broken, because the temptation was to take a slightly limp lamb or a sick kid and get away with that. A lot of those details you’ll pick up when we read the Passion narratives during Holy Week.
Do you remember when the soldiers come and find Jesus on the cross and realise that he is already dead? They broke the legs of the two either side of him, which means they die almost instantly because they can’t support themselves. But in Jesus’ case they realise he is already dead so they don’t break a bone, and for the author of the fourth gospel who is present, all those memories became so vivid.
The next day after the sacrifice they would strike their tents and move on to new pastures. It had a spring time feeling of new pastures and new beginnings.
You’ll find it makes much more sense of the Last Supper, when you celebrate that in Holy Week if you remember some of the history behind the feast.
Now the people when they were in Egypt, in captivity, as you know they were making bricks and doing servile work for the Pharaoh regime and they’d become very numerous. You’ll remember those stories about how Moses says: ‘you’ve got to let them go’ and Pharaoh says: ‘no I won’t’. So they have the plagues until Pharaoh agrees and the night before they were finally released the Jewish families were told to smear the doorposts with the blood of the Passover lamb in order that the slaying one would not slay their first born sons when he was slaying all the other first born. Now that smearing the doorpost also went much further back. They used to smear the tent posts of their tents when they were a nomadic people and it had a fairly pagan connotation about warding off the evil spirits. But the blood of the Passover lamb came to have a deep meaning as a sign of God liberating his people.
These feasts have a history and they shift in their meaning and their connotations like our feasts do. In our church consciousness, Christmas starts on Christmas day and we celebrate twelve days of Christmas through to Epiphany and before that we are meant to be keeping Advent. But the shops have decided that they don’t like that, so they start Christmas at the beginning of Advent and let’s face it most of us do too, and it’s all over on Christmas day, finito, (and you’ll find hot cross buns being sold in the shops on Boxing Day!) Any parish that tries to hold back and start Christmas on Christmas day through to Epiphany has got an uphill struggle. It’s why in our little chapel we decided some years ago to move from purple to white a week before Christmas, because the whole liturgy changes then. We have a pre-Christmas octave, put up the cards and so on. I am delighted to hear that various other parishes have followed suit. Feasts often need to adapt themselves to new social cultures.
Now Passover was an essentially nomadic feast of people on the move with flocks. But there’s another feast, the feast of Unleavened Bread, which is essentially an agricultural feast, people who grow crops and make bread from crops and things they are growing. Leaven goes off if you keep it too long. So the idea is that once a year, before the new harvest, you’d have a week in which you clear out any remnants of yeast from the previous year. It had hygienic connotations, but it also carried symbolic meaning of clearing out the old to bring in the new. A new beginning, a new year and new gifts from God. It’s worth remembering that when we celebrate the Last Supper and, of course, it is the origin of the unleavened bread we use at the Eucharist.
Another element of the meal that’s worth remembering is that when eventually the people came out of Egypt, they wanted a memorial of their slavery and hard toil making bricks for the Egyptians. So they introduced another item to the feast, a brick-size container with bitter herbs in it. You’ll remember again in the account of the Last Supper when Jesus takes the bread and dips it into the dish. That’s the dish of the bitter herbs reminding them of the slavery from which God has called them out into newness.
So those two feasts tended to be in springtime and of course very often they coincided. In the year of Jesus’ death, the week of unleavened bread, and the feast of Passover coincided and that year Passover landed on the Sabbath. It’s all rather special in that last year of Jesus’ life.
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Now when the people had come into the promised land they continued celebrating these feasts but on a family basis. But when the Temple was built after the time of David, it drew to itself what had been celebrated in families. People came up to Jerusalem with their lambs or their kids or for the poorer people they were allowed to use a pigeon, and these were all slain in the Temple. Try to picture for a moment half a million, a million, people camped round the city, coming into the city with their lambs or kids, these being slain in the Temple and then going back to their tents. It would have been going on all through Jesus’ last Friday and probably started on the Thursday.
It’s worth understanding some of these details because it gives you a picture for instance of the crucifixion. Jesus on the cross and the two thieves either side and people coming back and forth and back and forth carrying their lambs in preparation for the feast that night. In the fourth gospel it is crucial to the author that Jesus is the Lamb of God. He’s taken over all the tradition associated with the paschal lamb and hence the not breaking a bone of his body and you may remember that the soldier pierces his side and the author says and we saw blood and water flowing out from the side. That’s his coded way, which his contemporaries would have understood, referring to Jesus being the new Temple, the dwelling place of God. In the Temple the central altar, where they slew the animals, had drainage channels to collect the quantities of blood. It flowed down through an underground channel into the river Kedron at the side. In fact in one of the prophets there’s a vivid picture of the blood of sacrifice flowing out of the side of the temple, followed by the water of cleansing and the whole river, the valley filling up and bringing life to everything all down the valley. It was vivid in the memory of the gospel writers, the blood from the side of Christ flows and brings life to all. You and I can’t pick up a lot of these nuances but for the contemporaries of the gospel writers they were so vivid. It’s all part of them saying that what belonged to the Temple now belongs in Christ, like the image of the Veil of the Temple being torn when Christ dies. It is powerful stuff once you get a feel for it.
It is worth remembering too that the feast of Passover had become a sort of independence day feast. The occupying powers, Pilate, used to move up to the city for the feast because they knew that being an independence day event if there was going to be trouble it was going to be then. Trouble makers love independence day feasts and you might remember that strange reference in the gospels to the twelve Galileans being slain while they were making their sacrifice. That would have been a year before Jesus’ death. Galileans had strong scouse accents – I beg your pardon, strong northern accents from Galilee – so they were marked men. (Do you remember Peter in the house during the trial, a marked man because of his accent. They were simply marked men and the authorities in Jerusalem got edgy and nervous about these bloody Galileans who don’t know how to behave properly and have ideas of independence and getting rid of the Romans. Just think that Jesus had a Galilean accent, he was a marked man in that sense, of being somebody from the north, doesn’t understand the things of the capital and is going to disturb everything, he’s a troublemaker. It gives you a different feeling doesn’t it of what was going on. I think for many nations, independence day celebrations are when things are most lively and edgy because it reminds them of their history and their occupation and the gathered crowds ‘realise’ themselves as a people.
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Let me recap on the story which I outlined before. Jesus had probably come into the city on what we think of as the Sunday, Palm Sunday. He’s preaching on the Monday and the Tuesday as we call them, in the Temple and slipping away out of sight at night, either across the valley to Gethsemane or to the house where the Last Supper was going to be. This was a secret hideout and even his closest disciples didn’t know where it was. So the whole thing is very clandestine.
Then on the Wednesday, Jesus knows that Judas has gone to the authorities and offered them to let them know when would be a good time for the arrest. The authorities were terrified that if they mishandled the timing the crowds would prevent Jesus being tried and condemned. It’s all very tightly timed. So on the Wednesday Jesus knows that Judas has gone and decides, this is my guess, that they are going to celebrate the Passover supper a day early, instead of on the Friday night on the Thursday night. So on the Thursday morning, he sends Peter and John into the city and tells them to keep an eye out for a young man carrying a water jar, which young men don’t normally do, so it’s a special sign. They’re not to make contact with him but that he will lead them to the house where they would celebrate that evening. It is very clandestine and it’s probable that Judas didn’t know where the supper would be until he was actually at the supper. So Peter and John prepare for the meal and that evening Jesus and the twelve gather there and, my guess, also that young teenager from the household.
Now I invite you to totally clear your mind of any picture you have of the Last Supper starting with that of Leonardo da Vinci. If you don’t you’ll carry a picture of Jesus scrabbling around under those chairs trying to wash their feet. In fact the table they used would be a low table, about the height of a chair. Then out from the table were benches. You reclined on the benches, resting on your left elbow and eating with your right hand. Details worth remembering. For instance, picture Jesus at the centre and on his right not Peter but, squeezed in as an extra, the lad of the host family. Then Peter on his right. (Was Jesus gently teasing Peter? He was and is good at teasing us out of being important). You can picture Peter later on in the meal, leaning back on his left elbow, whispering to Johnny boy ‘ask him who it’s going to be’ and Johnny boy leans back on his left elbow and says to Jesus, sotto voce ‘who’s it going to be?’ and Jesus says ‘it’s the one I’m going to offer the bread to’. Johnny boy then leans back to Peter ‘it’s the one he’s going to offer the bread to’. It gives you a vivid picture doesn’t it of how they were the only two who knew the sign that Judas was going to betray him. One who had shared the bread.
We won’t go into other details of the Last Supper but do you know that in the gospel accounts there is no mention of the paschal lamb at all in any of the accounts. The bread yes and the wine yes. I think it’s a way of the early church saying that the whole role that the paschal lamb had in celebrating their liberation by God has now been taken over by the person of Christ. He is the new lamb of God and you get that very strongly in the Book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament – this is the Lamb of God. Powerful imagery which spoke so deeply to the Jews and early Christians.
Let me just add one detail. About a year before the final week, was when Jesus fed the five thousand, he obviously hadn’t gone up for the feast that year but it was a Passover paschal moment and Chapter 6 of John’s gospel is very significant for both the gospel writer and for us. He feeds the five thousand, or possibly shows them that if they let go of and share what they have there is plenty for everyone. (If the whole of our world learnt that today we wouldn’t have poverty in the world).
Then they cross over the lake and in the synagogue at Capernaum is that intense dialogue which follows. Jesus says I am going to give you my flesh to eat and my blood to drink. And people say: how on earth can you do that, don’t be so absurd and they drift away or they challenge him to explain more clearly. And Jesus as he normally does when challenged, just puts things stronger and harder. In my case I’d make it easier to understand and any teacher I think would, please sir I don’t get it. So you put it another way more easy to understand. Jesus doesn’t do that, he just lays it on harder. And slowly, you see in John this is such a vivid picture, not just on that occasion, but for the whole dynamic of Jesus’ life. People drift away, they drift away because they can’t take the intensity of what he is offering them. All that are left are the twelve and he turns to them and says in that pathetic moment: are you going to go too? And Peter says, we ain’t got nowhere to go and so we might as well hang on. It’s a lovely little phrase. That was a year before and I think when Jesus comes to the Last Supper and says you know I’ve longed and longed to share this meal with you, this meal has been in his mind all that last year, from the memory of that incident at Capernaum. I’ve longed and longed and longed to share this meal with you, as he longs and longs to share it with you and all of us. And I think that’s one reason why the moment of the supper was so carefully timed and planned and placed, it was thoughtfully worked out. So that’s the Last Supper.
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At the end of the supper Jesus led his companions out of the city, round the valley to the south-east and up to the Garden of Gethsemane. He enters in with his inner trio Peter, John and James. Then Mark describes Jesus as totally flattened and utterly alone.
But Luke is kindly, Jesus is on his knees, comforted by angels in his agony and in spite of their sleepiness not deserted by his friends. For Luke “they are the ones who have stood by me.”
In his deep agony Jesus prays "Father if only this hour can possibly pass me by...” That is a prayer of profound faith and trust. God’s deep spirit at his core struggling in agony with his conscious experiences. (You may have had times which are a little similar.)
Meanwhile, Judas has gone to the authorities, probably first the Jewish authorities, and said: this is the ideal moment to take him, he’s in the supper room and nobody knows where it is, its secret and I can show you where it is. You can arrest him completely undercover. This causes a crisis for the Jewish authorities because they’ve got to then go to Pilate and try and get this stroppy guy, to muster some Roman soldiers late at night, to form an arrest party. It must have been a pretty frazzled hour trying to get all things organised. Judas then leads them back to the supper room, discovers he’s scarpered, knows where he’s gone to, because Jesus had been to Gethsemane the previous nights, and leads them down through the valley up to the garden. So they arrive outside the garden as Jesus comes out. A very dramatic moment.
Now if I ask you to guess how Mark describes what then happens and how John describes what then happens you could probably guess. For Mark all the disciples simply desert Jesus and Jesus is taken away as the victim, full stop. For John Jesus comes out of the garden in total control of the moment. He says to the arrest party, “you let these, my followers, go over the hill to Bethany”. He’s in charge and he is keen to get his followers away from the scene for the next twenty four hours, because they’re marked men. Peter, of course, won’t have any of that. I think Peter was feeling so stung at Jesus’ remark during the supper that he was going to betray him, that he was now quite determined not to scarper with the others.
Jesus then says to the arrest party: whom are you seeking? And you can be certain in the fourth gospel, that little question, which at first reading seems a simple question, has come out of a deep prayer meditation of the author. It has a first meaning and then a second and a third deeper meaning. ‘Whom are you seeking?’ is addressed to each of us in our lives. It appears a number of times in the gospels, (to the first disciples, to the woman by the well...) The answer in each case is: if I am the one you are seeking, ‘Ego Eimi’ often translated ‘I am the one’ or ‘I’m him’. But it points us much deeper than that, because it is a reference to the answer given to Moses when he wants to know the name of God in the burning bush. God is really saying: you are not going to know my name, I Am is the one who is with you. So now outside the garden Jesus uses this profound phrase to the arrest party ‘Ego Eimi,’ ‘I Am He’. ‘Whom are you seeking?’ ‘I Am He’. That question and reply is deep in our prayer dialogue as we mature in our Catholic and Christian faith.
They take Jesus down through the valley and, as you know, my theory is that the lad with the nightshirt who got it pinched from him, was the lad at the Last Supper and he and Peter followed in the shadows, probably back to the house where the supper was, and Peter insists that he wants to go and see what they are doing to Jesus. So they get an entrée into the High Priests’ palace where we will leave them until the next Chapter.