This Good Friday in 2019 finds me in a strange sort of reflection. Even as most of the readings in the Liturgy of the Hours point to our suffering Savior, and the Good Friday liturgy this afternoon will focus on the Passion story, my thoughts are turning to all of the people around Jesus and how the events of this day affected them (not so much how they dealt with what was happening, because as soon as I considered this aspect, I realized that the disciples really didn’t deal with it at all, not then and not for some time after).
What must the disciples have thought during the Last Supper? And I realize, considering it, that they didn’t even know it was the Last Supper. We’ve named it that from the perspective of history, but I imagine that some, if not all, of the disciples still thought that Jesus would come out victorious by their world’s standards – that they heard His statement that His hour had come as a prediction of triumph. I feel like even His promise that the Son of Man would suffer and be handed over to death might have gone over their heads.
So I imagine them around the table, having no idea that this was the last time they would be together with Jesus in exactly this way, listening as He taught them. I am reminded that the 12 who sat with Him that evening were truly disciples – followers who devoted their entire waking lives to learning from Him and literally following Him everywhere; they had been immersed in His teachings for three years, and with the exception of Judas, they had turned their hearts and minds completely over to Him. John’s gospel tells the story of the Last Supper as a sort of extension and compilation of Jesus’ teachings, culminating in Jesus giving His Body and His Blood to the disciples as their food and drink. He gave Himself to them in this lasting way before He gave Himself up to death for the sins of all the world.
Again, from the perspective of history and the teachings of the Church, we understand that in those moments, Jesus instituted the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. What if we didn’t have that perspective? As the disciples, gathered around the table with the remains of the Passover meal before them, heard Jesus’ words, then received the bread and drank the wine that He had made His Body and Blood, what did they think was happening?
When I try to put myself in their place, I imagine them being utterly mystified, with perhaps a slight dawning of understanding. They would have recalled, I think, Jesus telling them earlier that unless they ate His flesh and drank His blood, they would have no life in them (John 6:53). If they wondered at His meaning then, what must they have thought at the Last Supper? When Jesus made His statement originally, many of His followers walked away, and Jesus asked His closes followers – these same 12 – if they, too, would leave Him. Peter spoke for all, saying, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). This could be considered Peter’s first act as the Rock upon which the Church would be built, but as he listened to Jesus that last evening, I think he was as mystified as the rest of them.
What can he possibly mean? they think. I wasn’t sure about it when he talked about this awhile back, and now here he is telling us that this bread is his body and this wine is his blood. Are we to be guilty of his death? What is he doing?
The juxtaposition of Jesus’ earlier admonition in John 6:53 and His actions at the Last Supper might have brought the disciples a glimmering of understanding about the real mission of Jesus. Having already confessed Him as the “Holy One of God” (John 6:69), this may have been a moment when they began to see more clearly that Jesus, as the promised Messiah, was indeed bringing a kingdom of heavenly, rather than earthly, power and glory.
I find myself wondering if they might have hesitated, at least in their hearts, before receiving the bread and the chalice He offered as His Body and Blood. What am I getting myself into? I’m doing this, and I don’t even understand why. Maybe everything will sort itself out tomorrow. This Teacher has always kept His promises to us. I don’t understand this, but maybe He will explain it as He often explained the stories He told us.
And so the Last Supper culminates in this moment of sacred communion, Jesus giving Himself in a new way to His disciples – a most intimate way that they do not yet understand. To say that nothing after that moment went as they expected would be an understatement. Nothing about the trip to Gethsemane, Jesus’ prayer of abandonment and agony, and the betrayal by Judas which ended in the arrest of Jesus, lined up with the disciples’ expectations and hopeful anticipation.
The moment of communion, with all that word suggests, is shattered by the understanding that Jesus – their Rabbi, their Master, their Lord, the one they understood to be “the Holy One of God” – has been delivered into the hands of His enemies. He is now – in the disciples’ eyes – under the control of those enemies and at their mercy. He is now – in the disciples’ eyes – an utter failure. They still love Him, but they do not understand how things could be ending so badly. They do not yet understand that God, the God Who created all things and Who has been seeking the reconciliation of His sinful creatures to Himself, the very God of heaven and earth is in complete control of what happens next. From their human perspective, all is shambles and chaos. They do not yet have the perspective of the Holy Spirit. And so, with Jesus taken captive, they make themselves scarce. In their human minds, not yet fully enlightened by the Spirit, not yet fully taken up with grace, everything they thought was good and right these past months has disappeared before their eyes.
And so it goes, into Good Friday. From a distance, they watch as Jesus is mistreated and tortured, mocked and beaten. Any attempt to help or defend Him comes to nothing; Peter goes from staunch protector to denier to bitter grief, and John literally runs out of his clothing to escape those who arrest Jesus. As the hours pass, events that seem to be as bad as things could be lead to even worse things. The word spreads among them that Jesus is to be crucified. Can it possibly be that only the awful things he talked about are the ones that will happen? How can he possibly come back from this to the glorious kingdom, to the places in heaven he promised us? How can this be happening to the Holy One of God?
And finally, the crucifixion. The ultimate and most humiliating punishment for those regarded as the worst kind of criminals. The disciples and other followers of Jesus, in the midst of their horror at what was being done to this man that they loved and followed, must have felt utterly crushed by what seemed like the loss of everything they had hoped for. Their minds must have been unable to process what was happening in the light of the prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and others. For three years we have believed He was the Messiah, and now it’s over. Their defeat comes from their choice – perhaps natural, perhaps inadvertent in its way – to accept the prophecies of the Messiah’s glory and ignore those of the Messiah’s suffering. Again, they do not yet have the perspective of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus breathes His last tortured breath, as the sky darkens and the heavens rumble and the earth quakes and the veil of the temple is torn, as the dream they dreamed with Him ends (or so they think), they drift off, perhaps hoping that they can just blend in and not suffer the same fate…and yet the spark still burns in their hearts. He did, after all, make promises. He changed them, changed their hearts, with His teachings. They drift off, but they still cling to each other. They don’t know what will happen next, but there must be something….and there is still His Mother. They, with John, will look out for her.
We are, I think, most particularly blessed as we celebrate the events of our Holy Week, that we do so with the perspective of history and with the perspective of the Holy Spirit. Because Jesus gave His life for us in this most horrific and somehow, in the eyes of His disciples, unexpected and unexplainable way, we receive the Holy Spirit in Baptism and are showered with more of His gifts in Confirmation. We live our whole lives, really, with what the disciples received on Pentecost, that is, the enlightenment of faith so that we can understand the awful, terrifying events of Good Friday in the context of the glory of Easter.
We celebrate Holy Thursday, not with the nostalgia of remembrance of time spent with loved ones now dead and gone from us, but with the joyous sense of reunion and communion in the heart of our faith.
We celebrate Good Friday, not with the sadness and grim resolve of our observation of the anniversaries of terrible events like Pearl Harbor or 9/11, but rather with a heart that, even in the quiet solemnity of our worship, sees the coming glory.
We celebrate Holy Saturday, not in the dread and anxiety of those who don’t know what is going to happen next, but rather with hearts full of hope, knowing that with dawn comes the Resurrection and with the Resurrection, all the joy and glory of promises fulfilled.
We celebrate Easter, not with a fleeting sense of relief that the worst is behind us, but with a stunning and glorious joy that the best is ahead of us. We celebrate because when we, with the women of Easter morning, peer into the empty tomb and learn that He is risen, we know that we are the children of a Father Who keeps His promises. Now, in the light of Easter, we remember that there is yet one promise, and we look forward to it joyfully. He will send His Spirit, and His Spirit will fill our lives with His gifts.
That’s a promise. It’s personal.
And I can live with that.
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