Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Maundy Thursday: a secret meal, prayer, betrayal and arrest



Mark 14.12-72

Mark's story of Jesus' last week moves towards its climax. On Wednesday Jesus had been anointed for burial by a woman disciple and betrayed to the authorities by one of the twelve men closest to him. On Thursday, the events set in motion by Wednesday unfold.

Holy Thursday is full of drama. In the evening Jesus eats a final meal with his followers and prays for deliverance in Gethsemane; he is betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter and deserted by the rest. Arrested in the darkness he is interrogated and condemned to death by the High Priest and his council, the local collaborators with imperial authority. All of this happens before dawn on Friday.

Details of this passage recall the preparations for Jesus' entry into the city on Palm Sunday. In both cases Jesus sends two of his disciples, tells them what to look for and instructs them what to say. In this case the preplanning has to do with secrecy: Mark has Jesus withhold from Judas the precise location of the meal so that Judas can not tell the authorities where Jesus is during this meal. This meal matters and Judas must not be allowed to interfere with its completion.

As Mark tells the story, Jesus knows what will happen. How could he not? He must have known that the noose was tightening, that the cross was approaching. He was not oblivious to the hostility of the authorities and no doubt saw his arrest and execution as inevitable.

With the arrival of evening Jesus and the disciples come to the upstairs room where the arrangements have been made. This final meal has multiple resonances of meaning: it projects backwards to the public activity of Jesus and forward into his death and the post Easter life of Christianity. Jesus' Last Supper will be the First Supper of the future.

We need to remember that Jesus had been repeatedly criticised for eating with tax collectors and sinners. The issue is that Jesus eats with undesirables: with the marginalised and outcast in a society which had sharp social boundaries. It had both religious and political significance: religious because it was done in the name of the Kingdom of God and political because it affirmed a very different vision of society.

As Mark narrates what Jesus did at the meal, he uses four verbs: took, blessed, broke and gave. These four words take us back to an earlier scene concerning food in which Jesus feeds five thousand people with two loaves and three fish. Mark's emphasis on a just distribution of what does not belong to us links that event to the emphasis on the loaf of bread and the cup of wine that are shared amongst all in the New Passover meal. Once again Jesus distributes food already present to all who are there and we might even assume a wider group of followers than the inner twelve.

As a Passover meal, Jesus' Last Supper resonates with the story of the Exodus from Egypt, his people's story of their birth as a nation. A story of bondage, deliverance and liberation, it was their primordial narrative, the most important story they knew because it was, and remains, the celebration of God's greatest act of deliverance.

Mark's version of the Last Supper leaves the connection to Passover implicit. What makes it explicit is the connection to Jesus' impending death and it does so with the "words of institution", familiar to us through their use in the Eucharist. The language of body and blood points to a violent death and without that it would not have been possible to talk of Jesus' death as a blood sacrifice. A correlation between Jesus as the new Paschal Lamb and this final meal as the New Passover becomes possible. The point is neither suffering nor substitution but participation with God through gift or meal.

Earlier in Mark (10.45) Jesus had said The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. That liberation, redemption or salvation is echoed here in Jesus' statement This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. What is not immediately clear is how that is accomplished for many until we recall the challenge (8.34-35) If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel will save it. In other words it was by participation with Jesus and, even more, in Jesus that his followers were to pass through death to resurrection. It is to be noted then that all of the twelve, including Judas partake of the meal: participation in Christ not substitution by Christ.

Turning to Jesus' arrest: again we have the theme of failed discipleship as the disciples, seemingly untouched by Jesus' agitation and distress, are unable to support him through that night. Of course Jesus does not want to go through with it. Who would? Yet he gives himself over to God - Not what I want but what you want.

I think we need to be clear that Jesus' death was not the will of God: it is never God's will that the righteous suffer. The prayer reflects not a fatalistic resignation to the will of God, but a trusting in God in the midst of the most dire of circumstances as a forerunner to Peter, Paul, Thecla and Perpetua and to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the nuns of El Salvador.

Judas now knows the plans for the rest of the evening. He has already left the meal and now Jesus can be arrested in the darkness away from the crowd. He leads the crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes and the elders, the limited paramilitary force allowed to the temple authorities by the Romans. This is not the group Jesus has spent the week in conflict with, merely their enforcers so Judas has to identify Jesus for them to be able to effect an arrest. Why would they know which one Jesus is? He does this with a kiss of greeting and betrayal. There is a scuffle and one of Jesus' followers uses a sword against the temple police. Is this another example of the failure of the disciples in Mark's eyes? In any event Jesus isn't standing for it in his name. Put your sword back; for all who take the sword will perish by it. In the general mele the disciples flee the scene anxious not to share their leader's fate, not to be heard of again until after Easter with the exception of Peter who at least follows the arresting group, presumably at some distance. We hear of Peter next after the trial in his famous denial I do not know this man you are talking about! We shouldn't be too hard on Peter. In our own ways and with our own words and actions or, indeed, in our silences, we too have denied Jesus or played down our association out of expedience. But we jump ahead of ourselves.

Neither do we hear of Judas again: it is left to the other gospels to explain that Judas has an attack of conscience and tries to return the blood money the religious authorities had paid him to betray Jesus. It is left to Matthew to introduce Judas' suicide.

So we reach the trial. We need to remember that according to Mark there were no overt followers of Jesus there. Is the account of the trial a Markan construct or can we surmise a sympathiser at the trial who later reported back? We also need to remember that the Sanhedrin, made up of collaborators as it was, didn't represent the view of the people who so far had been on Jesus' side.

It is not a good start to the trial from the perspective of the authorities: the witnesses lie and disagree amongst themselves. It says something about the Sanhedrin's "commitment to justice" that the trial went ahead from this point. However, in the absence of the three adult male witnesses who needed to agree for a charge to progress, the High Priest goes for a direct confession and challenges Jesus one to one. In response to the question Are you the Messiah, the son of the blessed one? Jesus responds, we are told, quoting Daniel with I am. And you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power. On this basis Jesus is found guilty and the High Priest tears his robe as a sign that blasphemy has taken place. Jesus is condemned to death and the emotional and physical abuse begins. He will now be handed over to Pilate. It is not yet daybreak. The end - and the beginning - are near.