Early this morning, as on every Maundy Thursday, I went into the kitchen and baked some unleavened bread. It will accompany our meals between now and Easter morning. It is the bread of affliction, the bread of suffering, a reminder of the reality of sin and redemption — something we taste, chew over, absorb into ourselves. Today it has a wonderful freshness and zest about it and will accompany our recalling of the Last Supper with joy and gladness. Tomorrow, when we fast the great fast of Good Friday, it will be stale, crumbly, eaten without relish. By Holy Saturday it will be rock hard, with all the bitterness of loss and death. It is a small way of making the huge events of the paschal Triduum approachable, knitted to the substance of our lives in a direct, uncomplicated way.
This morning, however, as I kneaded the dough, I was thinking about the interaction of Jesus and Judas at the Last Supper. Jesus washed the feet of his friend, as he washed the feet of the other disciples. We are so used to seeing the villainy of Judas that we forget or do not register the fact that Jesus loved him and washed his feet gladly, even though, according to John, he had a premonition that it was Judas who would betray him. There is, however, a dramatic pause. It is not until Jesus shares bread with him that the die is cast.
Scholars have long argued whether Judas received what we know as the Eucharist, with most deciding that he didn’t. A lot depends on the kind of festal meal we think Jesus was celebrating with his disciples (John, for example, does not call it a passover meal) and the sequence of rituals within that meal. As I pulled and thumped the dough I asked myself whether the problem is not whether Judas actually shared in the Eucharist but our unwillingness to accept that Jesus could be so vulnerable, so open to abuse, as to offer his very self to his betrayer. Put like that, I think we know the answer. He offers himself to us and to all, sinful though we are, every time the Mass is offered. It is how we live with the tension of being simultaneously sinful yet forgiven. We like the idea of God’s mercy extending to us, but to others? Not always so much!
Tonight, for most of us, there will be no Eucharist, no sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ. We shall experience loss and emptiness as never before. But rather than concentrating on our loss, our own sense of deprivation, perhaps we could move our focus elsewhere, to the Agony in the Garden and the suffering of Jesus as he struggled to come to terms with what lay ahead of him. The idea of Jesus needing help may seem odd to some, but I think it provides a point of contact. Jesus needed his friends. He wanted Peter, James and John to watch with him. He needed Judas, too, as his friend. He wanted him by his side, but Judas had gone outside into the darkness. Pray God we never follow.