As Christians move into these holy days before Easter, perhaps worshiping together as a community for the first celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection in two years, my hope is that they enter fully into the story, this truth at the heart of the Christian tradition.
They are tired from the events of the week: first their teacher riding through the adoring crowds on a donkey, and then storming through the Temple, knocking over tables, lashing a whip at the moneychangers. And everywhere they went confrontations with religious authorities intent on shutting Jesus up.
But Jesus won’t be silenced, and he is confident that even the stones would cry out should he be quiet. Now Passover comes and the friends still wonder what Jesus means, often so cryptic. Will they finally witness their teacher seize power?
They gather in this upper room, in the house of a stranger, sitting on cushions around the low table, their teacher kneeling before them, a towel tucked at his waist. Moving from one friend to the next, Jesus rolls the dusty folds of their robes up over their knees, sets first one foot, then another, in a basin of cool water, rinsing grime from between their toes, massaging their soles, then toweling them dry.
Looking down at Jesus’ bowed head, they are reminded of that woman with her extravagant hair, tears, perfume, ministering to his feet, and they understand now, finally, that she had done the right thing. It is what they should’ve done, what they should do.
And so they protest, and Peter, his feet in the water, attempts to stand, kicks the basin, and stammers an apology. The master presses a palm against his friend’s ankle, settling him back down.
Jesus never does what they expect. The teacher has forgiven their squabbling over who will get to sit at his right and left hands in the kingdom yet to come. He has explained the folly in their eagerness to build monuments on mountains that honor the idea of the vision, rather than following him into the valley and carrying out the vision itself. The last must become first. The lowly, lifted up.
So, this Passover night they sit chastened, humbled by this man they love as he washes their filthy feet and blots them dry.
But they can do better, they tell themselves, given time. They’ll be smarter, kinder, more inclusive, more servant-like tomorrow. They begin to relax. They pour the wine, pass the unleavened bread, and have just bitten into the floured discs when the meal goes awry as Jesus says, “Soon I am leaving. Soon I am going to do my father’s will. And where I am going you can’t follow.”
“Don’t say that,” they demand. “You can’t leave us after everything that’s happened. We don’t understand.”
Jesus shakes his head, sadly. It is too difficult. It is impossible for them to understand. There’s so much more he could try to explain, but there is no more time for that.
Instead, as they eat he tells them, “This is me—body and blood. Everything I have and am, I’m giving to you now. Every time you eat, every time you drink, it’s me on your lips; it’s me you consume. Remember that I love you. Remember this meal. Remember me.”
His voice is thick with emotion. The air is sticky with sweat, sweet with stringy lamb that sticks in their throats, and their breath grows sour with dread. He says more, but their eyes water, their ears begin to buzz, their hearts thud loudly, and they are no longer themselves. It is as though they’re hovering above their own heads, looking down, watching strangers choke back tears.
This long day, this last meal together, this Passover night will soon become something that will repeat in slow motion in their minds time and time again.
In Gethsemane’s garden in the waning dark, they sit against the cool trunks of olive trees, inhaling fragrant narcissus, and give in to the drowning pull of sleep. As they doze, a tumbler of the day’s events swirls in their dreams. Jesus’ hands washing their filthy feet; torn bread dipped in a bowl handed to one who will betray them; Judas running from the room.
They become dimly aware of a weight on their shoulders, a voice, soft and muffled, as they try to swim toward consciousness. They hear it muted, a plea more than a request: “Keep watch with me. Can’t you wait one hour with me?”
“Yes teacher, yes master, yes friend, yes we will wait with you. Of course, we will wait with you. We will wait with you until the bitter end, they say,” but only silently and to themselves as they sleep on, trapped in crowds whose cheers turn to jeers, where waving palms turn to pounding fists.
It is only the harsh clatter of soldiers arriving that rouses them from sleep into panic and the horror of the day to come. But after a time, upon waking to a world without him in the flesh, the followers will gather together and remember all that he asked and promised. Promises still.