Leonardo has a lot to answer for. It’s his painting of the Last Supper; you know, the famous one with Jesus in the middle and all the disciples lined up along the table on each side. It’s just so wrong in so many ways. All the characters of course look as if they would be more at home in Italy than Israel, but that was standard. What you might notice next, remembering the arrangements at the supper at Bethany and Mary and the feet, is that all the party are sitting at table, despite the text once again making it clear that they were reclining. And at a formal reclining dinner like this the tables were always in a special U-shape (rooms were specially designed to accommodate them), not one long line, and the host usually sat towards the end of one of the sides, not right in the middle.
The host’s principal friend (we’re talking men here of course) would be on his right, right at the end and presumably in a place from which he could easily get out if needed – the only guest without someone else’s head lying against him. Perhaps that was where Jesus was at that wedding feast in Cana when his ministry began, when he could get up to go and sort out the wine. And that’s where John is now, his head in Jesus’ lap as it were. To the host’s left was the place of honour, the place for the guest to whom the sop of bread would be offered first, the place for – Judas. Leonardo I’m afraid has the seating, or should that be reclining, all wrong too, though he does invent a nice piece of theatre as Judas is shown spilling the salt, a traditional indication of treachery.
So now we’ve put Leonardo to one side, what are we left with? It’s Thursday night. We are half-way through the Last Supper. (We’ve jumped ahead of ourselves again so that the foot-washing, which has just happened, can be read tomorrow.) Jesus is back in Jerusalem. John doesn’t tell us just where, but the other gospels supply a narrative of something of a secret mission, with special signs and coded words, leading to a borrowed upper-room. Upper perhaps because the flat roof of a Middle Eastern house was used as a sort of patio, and people would dine out there, though other arrangements could have been possible too.
And Judas is in the place of honour, and John is the best friend. Peter is probably opposite John at the other end of the U, and so is able to catch his attention to ask Jesus what he means. It was the lowest place, and the last Jesus will come to at the footwashing. Was Jesus deliberately making a point about the first and the last? Was it the first time that John, the youngest, had found himself the highest? As I was writing these talks, I would lie awake at night wondering what it must have been like for him, growing up now so quickly, and what the chatter between the other disciples was like. Not I think about any sort of attraction. No, Luke tells us that yet again the were squabbling about who was the greatest, perhaps provoked by the seating plan. Then. Of all times. No wonder Jesus acted so prophetically and washed their feet.
But that is tomorrow’s story. Tonight, we just note the effect it must have had on John, and how the tension is rising for them all. Jesus, John says, is troubled in Spirit. This, if you like, is John’s version of Gethsemane, when he is confronted by the working out of His Father’s will, and the slowness of the disciples to grasp what is going on. “Very truly,” he almost blurts out, “one of you will betray me.” The shock factor must have been immense. Leonardo certainly goes to town with it with an extraordinary array of wonderfully painted poses.
I wonder what your, what my reaction would have been? It’s so very hard to strip away our hindsight. Would there have been a bit of Judas in us: frustration at all the verbiage, itching for a showdown, a clean break, a new start? Perhaps despite the bad press John gives him he wasn’t such a villain after all. And interestingly although we have the word “betrayed” in our English texts, the actual Greek is not the word usually used for that, but one that has the more neutral meaning of “handed over” – the handing over perhaps into God’s ineffable will, the drinking of his cup, of which poor Judas is just the inevitable agent.
Perhaps you can remember a time when you felt trapped into a dynamic over which you had no real control, heading for a train crash you didn’t really understand. Brexit has certainly been doing that for me. And if that is how people are speaking and feeling now, then perhaps we are not so far away from the feelings of the disciples after all, albeit in a very different context. (I now hereby promise, though, not to talk about Brexit again: enough is enough).
The story is not really even as kind as this to the disciples though. As so often most of them sinmply seem to be at a loss as to what was going on. Peter is different. A man of action as always, he motions across the U-shaped end of the table to John to try and find out what is going on. Jesus’ reply and action would seem to identify the betrayer, but actually no – the enigma is left open and none of the disciples, Peter included, seem to have really appreciated that the trap was now sprung.
But Jesus himself does. “Do quickly what you are going to do,” he says. The words must have been in Shakespeare’s mind when he has Macbeth say that, “if were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly,” in a similar scene of deep darkness; for then as here it was night. All waiting can be awkward, but waiting for the unwanted brings a special horror to it. We don’t want the awful thing to happen, but if it must happen then let us at least be spared the anticipation of it as well, we may well pray.
A rather good book on the Passion of Christ called The Stature of Waitingdrew on this to suggest that in submitting himself to the agony not just of the Cross but the whole Passion that preceded it, Jesus dignified one of the darkest of our experiences, and as Good Friday approaches my prayers and yours too I am sure will be with all who face such darkness today. We with them and with Christ are one body, one bread, just as the bread was passed around the table that night; even to the betrayer.
And hard though it is to imagine, when darkness is having its day, the bread is not just that of the emergency evacuation of Passover night, it is the bread of the new freedom and new kingdom which is to come; the great feast of the Messiah, pre-echoed in every Mass. So as Judas leaves, we can sense also a sort of relief for our Lord: NowGod will glorify him. Cue Isaiah again and cue Handel: And the glory, the glory of the Lord, shall be revealed. Easter is coming soon.
Thanks be to Thee, my Lord Jesus Christ,
For all the benefits
Which Thou hast won for me;
For all the pains and insults
Which Thou hast borne for me.
O Most Merciful Redeemer,
Friend and Brother;
May I know Thee more clearly,
Love Thee more dearly,
And follow Thee more nearly,
Day by day.