The Last Supper: Jesus and Judas at Table

The Angel of the Agony by Nicholas Mynheer
The Angel of the Agony by Nicholas Mynheer. Image copyright. All rights reserved.

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.

Audio Version

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Lesson from a Failed Banker and Ex-Jailbird

Today is the feast of St Callistus — failed banker, ex-jailbird, ex-slave, probably something of an invalid — oh, and pope. And not only pope, but the man who, despite much opposition from such luminaries as Tertullian and Hippolytus (who did not think him strict enough and spread what most historians consider false rumours about him), grasped the importance of reconciling sinners to the Church. He argued that the power of binding and loosing was given not just to Peter himself but to every successor of Peter and that mercy should be shown to the repentant. In the days of the Donatist schism that was a matter of great urgency. I think it is still a matter of great urgency for us today. We are so often inclined not to show mercy, being rather more rigorous than God who seems to tolerate those we disagree with or believe to be seriously wrong about anything or everything (usually the latter).

I am certainly not arguing that nothing matters, that all beliefs are equally valid and that we can endorse anything we please, expecting God to follow suit. Of course not! But today’s feast and Callistus’s decree remind us powerfully of the importance of charity and mercy in our interactions with one another and the way in which they echo God’s own mercy towards us. We are often tempted to assume that we know what others think or mean and judge accordingly, and that can make us unduly harsh or self-confident when a little more reflection and a little more willingness to listen might transform the situation and our understanding of it.

It isn’t just the successor of Peter who has the power of binding and loosing. In a non-sacramental sense, all of us do. We can set others free from the chains of hatred and unforgiveness, if we choose. In so doing, we unbind ourselves. How that works out in particular situations, I can’t say; but I have a hunch that trying to be more forgiving, charitable and merciful will make the world a bit friendlier, a bit more peaceful and, dare I say it, more godly, too. Isn’t that worth trying? And in case you think that we can keep all this delightfully abstract, may I suggest we all examine our consciences. Is there someone against whom we hold a grudge or who we think has done us harm or behaved badly whom we need to forgive? To whom, in short, we must show mercy, as a brother or sister equally flawed, equally living by the mercy of God?

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