As the Gospels tell it, Jesus went into the final evening of his life aware that he would die soon. How could anyone in his circumstances have expected anything else? His recent words and deeds gave the ruling authorities little choice.
Assassination or execution certainly awaited him. The only unknowns were when, and by what means.
As the Gospels also remember it, on this night -- "Maundy Thursday" in Christian tradition -- Jesus prepared his followers for life without him. The biblical accounts make important contributions to how Christians have understood both the death of Jesus and his living, continuing relevance.
The Last Supper
In three of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the centerpiece of the story is a meal Jesus shares with his followers. Remembered as "The Last Supper," it provides the basis for a meal Christians share as part of worship (known, variously, as The Lord's Supper, Communion, or the Eucharist). Several elements of this event stand out on Maundy Thursday:
- Jesus' instructions to his disciples concerning the meal's location and preparation have a mysterious quality. The clandestine arrangements fit the volatility of the situation. Jesus is a wanted man. The meal transpires with risk in the air.
- The Gospels describe it as a Passover meal. Jesus interprets parts of the supper (shared bread and a shared cup of wine) in light of himself, as elements of his own body. He does not declare Passover observations obsolete. Rather, he suggests that the Passover setting contributes additional significance to his coming death. Is God about to accomplish a new kind of deliverance?
- "This is my body," he tells them, passing a loaf of bread around the table. Then the cup circulates; "This is my blood." He interprets the cup as a sign of a "covenant" -- a promise to his followers. The words recall an earlier covenant's ratification in Exodus 24:8. Somehow a new promise is being forged, and the blood Jesus will shed at the hands of the state confirms it. When Christians partake in bread and wine during communion services, they express their participation in this divinely-made promise. They express Jesus' ultimate solidarity with his people, a solidarity enunciated by his tortured, demolished body.
- As many Christian liturgies remind us, all this happens "on the night he was betrayed." As symbolized in the meal, Jesus gives himself to his followers even though one of them will soon ensure his downfall. Someone, he announces, will hand him over to the authorities. Yet that person, Judas Iscariot, remains welcome at the meal. Jesus hosts his betrayer.
- Jesus hosts his deserters, too. Sometime after the meal he informs Peter, the most prominent disciple, that he will publicly deny Jesus three times before dawn. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus tells the group, "You will all become deserters."
- After the meal, under cover of darkness, they depart together for the Mount of Olives, just outside of Jerusalem proper. Jesus' arrest followed soon after. Within just a few hours he was on his way to crucifixion, as Friday morning dawned.
The Foot-Washing And The New Commandment
The Gospel according to John offers a much longer, and much different account of Jesus' last night. It includes no extended description of the meal. And, oh, is Jesus talkative. The end of chapter 13 and the four subsequent chapters include a long speech in which he gives final instructions to his followers and offers a prayer. But it's the activity described just before this speech gets rolling that gains notice in Christians' observations of Maundy Thursday.
First, in a gesture of hospitality, Jesus washes his disciples' (including Judas's) feet. Such a chore was usually a servant's responsibility, but here Jesus performs it as the host. The point goes beyond tenderness and selflessness. Jesus says foot-washing indicates a person's "share" with him. In washing their feet, Jesus welcomes his followers into intimate fellowship with him. He expresses their belonging.
When Christians include foot-washings in their Maundy Thursday observances, they express the same thing. Through the rite they declare they belong to God in a relationship of profound intimacy. As a result, they belong also to one another.
When Jesus washes his followers' feet, he shapes their outlook on his impending death, his resurrection, and his return to God. He prompts them to see these events as an expression of love and a gift. Why a gift? Because all of it results in people's (renewed) intimacy with God and in their ongoing connection to Jesus.
Second, after dismissing Judas, Jesus begins his speech: "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another." Maundy Thursday gets its name from this utterance, as the Latin term for "commandment" is mandatum.
The commandment isn't exactly "new" as in "original." It's not as though no one else had previously thought that loving one another might be a good thing for people to try. Rather, Jesus asserts that love now becomes a way for people to experience the intimacy Jesus shares with God and promises to others. Jesus sees his destiny as itself rooted in a "commandment" from God (John 10:18) and as a concrete expression of God's love for the world (John 3:16). Loving the other -- committing oneself wholly to serve the other -- thus forms the appropriate way of life for those who have been brought near to God.
Strong emotions swirl through these scenes in the Gospels and in Maundy Thursday worship services. For many Christians, the evening calls for serious introspection. Yet maybe the most dominant emotion is a sorrowful gratitude. It flows from Jesus' interactions with his followers; as death looms, he gives himself to them. He gives himself still.
In the Gospels, all this occurs "on the night he was betrayed." Jesus offers deep solidarity with his followers, precisely in the face of their disappointing fallibilities, which get laid bare just hours after the supper.
All this still occurs on that night. Although his followers' fallibilities have continued throughout every generation, nevertheless Maundy Thursday offers a chance to know that Jesus still commits himself wholeheartedly to us.