So I did sit and eat.
A reflection for Maundy Thursday
Sharing a significant experience can turn strangers almost instantly into, what feels like, intimate friends. Many of us will have had such an experience in some way or other. A very trivial example, but imagine yourself in a train carriage that is stopped and searched. You may not quite know the reason, but it’s an unsettling experience. Almost certainly, the passengers in the carriage will start talking to each other in a way they wouldn’t have done if the train had kept moving. Suddenly there seems to be something in common that wasn’t there before.
Or think of wedding receptions and funeral wakes, where often you find yourself sharing your thoughts with people who were strangers to you the day before. And then there are the events that for some of us have shaped our lives: a tragic accident or the painful experience of losing a loved one. They often bring people closer together. However, as we all know too well too, these experiences can also drive people apart. Good friendships or relationships may be formed, but also be lost, in the wake of trauma.
All this will have certainly applied to the disciples who were present at Jesus’ last supper. Imagine ourselves to be one of them. The three years or so that they shared will have been full of highs and lows. They have seen people being healed, even brought back to life, but also they have already seen the hatred of so many against the person they have regarded as not just their leader, but also their saviour. So this night of all nights, the disciples will have had mixed feelings, one could maybe even say confusion about what has been and about what is to come.
Grateful for what has been, maybe, but certainly anxious for what is to come. Thankful, maybe, for the difference they have already made to people’s lives, but also guilty about the times they got it wrong, the times when they did not understand. Regret, at this point possibly, for the things they had left: home and family, livelihood and status?
Apart from what lies behind them, the disciples are surely also thinking about what is to come. Although none of them know what will happen in the next few days, they know something momentous is about to take place. Jesus has already announced that one of them is going to betray him, so they speculate about who this may be. Does this mean that some of them are anxious it maybe him? In Luke’s version of the last supper, the disciples then start quarrelling about who among them is the greatest, as if they want to establish an order, find some security in the face of the future yet unknown.
Jesus doesn’t leave his disciples with a hierarchy or a handbook. No written will or testament for them to know what to do. Yet, he leaves him with all that they need, a new commandment. The new commandment, Jesus tells them, is this, ‘that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.’ It’s as simple as that, nothing more, nothing less. By this everyone will know that they are Jesus’ disciples, that they have love for one another.
What this love looks like, Jesus has just shown them, in the washing of the feet. It is a love that seeks to serve others, a love whose object is different from its subject. A love that is not to make my life better, but to seek the well-being, the flourishing of others.
It is the love that Paul later describes in his letter to the Corinthians, often read at weddings: love that is patient, kind, not arrogant nor rude. A love that bears all things, hopes all things and endures all things. A love that never ends. That love, that commandment to love is all they get, and indeed it is all they need. In the same way, it is all we get and all we need too. It is by no means an easy commandment to love one another. I am sure that we all know times when we have felt unable to love. When we feel hurt or broken, when we feel that we have nothing left to give, it is hard if not impossible to love.
However, although there may be or will be times when we are unable to love, we will never stop being loved. Although this is Jesus’ last supper with his disciples in his earthly life, he then goes on to explain that His Spirit will never leave them, and hence, never stop loving them. The explanation of Jesus’ presence in His impending absence in John’s Gospel is paralleled by the institution of the last supper in the synoptic Gospels.
As we break the bread and drink the wine, we remember Christ’s presence with us. When we are unable to love, unable to give, that is precisely when we need to come to this table and be fed. Be reminded of God’s love for us, so that we will be able to love again too. With Christ nothing is broken beyond redemption. That is what we are about to remember once more in these next few days. What seemed the end, was a new beginning. Can this be true for us as well?
Based on one of my favourite George Herbert poems: Love (III)
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.