By Alfred McBride, O. Praem.
Lent is a time of repentance, and by repentance a time of renewal. It is a time to deepen both an understanding of, and sense of relationship with, the Lord. The wonder of the season is that God loves us with an immeasurable, eternal love, and that in this love is our strength and insight to repent and to live with Christ. This article was adapted from Norbertine Father McBride's book To Love and Be Loved by Jesus: Meditation and Commentary on the Gospel of Mark, published by Our Sunday Visitor.
The most solemn religious festival, the Passover, was about to begin. Christ's enemies planned to arrest and kill him. Jesus meanwhile attended a dinner in the home of Simon the leper at Bethany. Like the other dinner guests, Jesus reclined on a low couch. Customarily, someone would honor a guest by sprinkling the person with a few drops of perfume.
A woman came up to Jesus and broke the neck of a flask of perfume (the nard) that had been imported from India. Instead of spraying a few drops on him, she anointed him with the contents of the entire bottle, the cost of which was equal to a year's wages. This was an anointing fit for a king. It was also the kind of anointing used for a rich person during that person's burial rite at the tomb. It was a total gift. Neither the jar nor the perfume would be used again.
Several expressed dismay at the extravagance of the woman. They said it would have been more useful to have sold the nard and given the money to the poor. Jesus replied that they have a chance to help the poor every day, but the time is short and they have little opportunity left to do anything for him. He told them that she has anointed his body for burial, even before he has died. He declared that her story would be known all over the world wherever the Gospel is preached.
Mark's text then contrasts the love of the woman with the treachery of Judas. The woman demonstrated how to love Jesus absolutely and give all. Judas never learned how to love Jesus. Instead, he exploited the friendship offered him and betrayed it.
Passover remembered and celebrated two Israelite liberations, one from the avenging angel of the tenth plague and the other from slavery in Egypt. The two major rituals for Passover were adapted from nature festivals. In their shepherd society, the birth of new lambs was an occasion of joy. A lamb was offered to God in thanksgiving. Similarly, in their barley harvest, a way was found to thank God for the new crop. A sheaf of barley was waved before God as a sign of appreciation for the new grain. At home the old yeast (or leaven) was thrown away. New bread from the new grain was baked without use of leaven.
In the Exodus story, the Israelites had marked their doors with the blood of a lamb. This protected them from the avenging angel. They baked unleavened bread which could be done quickly, since the leavening process was skipped. They stood while eating their departure meal because they had to hurry out of Egypt.
In Jesus' time, a Passover lamb was purchased and taken to the temple for sacrifice. One of the apostles would have then killed the lamb and poured the blood into a container. A priest took the blood and poured it on an altar. Blood signified life. Hence this was the offering of the gift of life to God, the lamb substituting for that of the human giver. The fat and insides of the lamb were removed and burnt on the altar. The rising, sweet smoke rose to God as another form of a pleasing gift. The body of the lamb was then brought home, where it was roasted on a spit over an open fire of pomegranate wood.
Jesus had despatched two disciples to make all these arrangements, just as he had planned the Palm Sunday entry. They acquired an upper room for the celebration. While most homes were one-story dwellings, a fair number had a single room built on the roof and accessible from an outdoor stairway. Many families used the room as a rooftop attic for storage. Some reserved the room as a ''classroom'' where rabbis taught their disciples. Jesus, arranged for just such a room for his Last Supper.
Jesus and his disciples reclined on couches around a table built low to the ground. The consecrated lamb was the centerpiece on the table and prompted them to think of the divine love that had liberated their ancestors from slavery. It would also become in Christian memory a vivid symbol of Christ's sacrifice as lamb of God for the salvation of the world from the slavery of sin.
The fellowship of apostles would also have seen on the table three fresh baked loaves of unleavened bread, a bowl of salt water in memory of the tears that were shed in the flight from Egypt and dishes of horseradish and endive to recall the bitterness of dehumanizing slavery. Next they would have gazed at plates filled with sticks of cinnamon bordering a red colored paste made from apples, dates, and nuts which symbolized the straw and clay from which they made bricks in the forced labor pits in Egypt. Four cups of wine stood before each member of the feast.
In biblical times, a new day began at sundown, hence -- in our terms -- Friday began on Thursday evening. And that is when the Passover meal began. Normally this was a cheerful meal, even if its ritual stages were marked with solemn liturgical moments. However, Jesus introduced the meal with a troubling announcement that one of his apostles would betray him. It was a shocking beginning to the feast and it caused the fellowship of trusted friends to be full of sorrow.
None of them could imagine this was possible. Judas had been so successful in concealing his disenchantment with Christ that no apostle guessed it. Jesus alone could tell that Judas was not truly committed to him. A skilled judge of people, Jesus could read the insincerity of Judas in his eyes, his small betrayals of daily fraternity, his preoccupation with money, his habit of secrecy, his lack of enthusiasm for a peace-loving Messiah.
Jesus could feel tension between himself and Judas. His friend looked withdrawn and his face showed disapproval of what he thought was a Palm Sunday fiasco. What should have been a perfect occasion for messianic muscle flexing became a tame peace march. It infuriated Judas and led him to the conspirator's meeting with the religious leaders.
Jesus knew this was not an open and above-board man. To be let down and betrayed by someone you trust is always a bitter and disappointing discovery. Most people react with rage and fury, lashing out at the traitor. Jesus had saved his prophetic rage for religious leaders who oppressed simple people.
But Jesus had spent time offering Judas his love, concern, affection, and revelatory truth, just as he had to all the apostles. Jesus had placed his confidence in Judas, had never lied to him or hid from him exactly where he stood. Jesus still loved Judas and hoped that his warning signal would deter him from the self-destructive path that lay ahead.
Clearly, Jesus could have forced Judas out into the open, exposed his treachery, and thrown him to the tender mercies of the other apostles whose anger would have taught Judas a lesson he would never forget. Jesus had no intention of piling apostolic vengeance on top of apostolic betrayal. He did not want the see the Upper Room become a scene of passionate anger, recrimination, and brawling. He had come to create a community of love and forgiveness. He trusted in the power of love and believed that the response to this love must be free and not forced.
Each apostle asked Jesus, ''Is it I, Lord?'' Jesus responded by saying that whoever dipped bread into the same dish with him was the one. Since several might have done this, the problem was not solved. The traitor was protected by Jesus with an ambiguous statement. This was another form of love's last appeal to Judas to repent and change his behavior.
Thus the experience of betrayal prefaced the institution of the Sacrament of Love. Jesus did not let Judas' refusal of his love to stand in the way of his intention to bequeath to the world a feast of love and forgiveness. The betrayal only added a sense of urgency to make sure that such an inheritance of love be left to the apostles.
Before him were the newly baked loaves of unleavened bread. Jesus took the bread and blessed it. His blessing words were similar to those used in our Masses today. ''Blessed are you, O Lord God of all creation. You have given us this bread to eat, fruit of the earth and the work of human hands.'' In any other Passover meal, he would then have broken the bread and passed it around with words about the sufferings of their forefathers in Egypt. There would be an invitation to a hungry person to come and join them. Frequently, a poor stranger would be brought into the feast at that time.
That night, Jesus changed the rules and departed from the ritual that everyone present knew by heart from earliest childhood. He broke the bread saying, ''Take. This is my body.'' Not only did he introduce new words into the ceremony, but a word-action, mysterious and momentous for the participants. It was a word-action because the words he spoke transformed the bread and invited his apostles to commune with him. He also invited them to an action, namely, to participate in and identify with his saving deeds. Then he distributed the bread become his Body. The ritual continued with the narration of the story of the salvation from Egypt. At its conclusion, Jesus recited a meal prayer and the supper of the lamb began.
At the end of the meal, the remainder of the unleavened bread (now changed by Jesus into his body) was eaten. There were four cups of wine at each place setting. The first one was drunk at the beginning of the meal and the second one during the supper of the lamb. It was at the close of this part of the meal that Jesus took the third cup of wine and said words similar to these: ''Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, you have given us this wine to drink, fruit of the vine and the work of human hands.''
Normally, they would have drunk the wine and sung the praise psalms 115-118. Again Jesus changed the ritual by adding a new word-action before the singing of the psalms. After the blessing he added, ''This is my blood of the covenant.'' Called to pour out their lives as well in unity with him, they drank the third cup of Passover wine in a totally new and unique manner. The fourth cup of wine, like a toast, concluded the meal.
The depth of his words plus his change of what was considered the strictest of all religious patterns could only elicit silence as each apostle wrestled with this profound experience. New Testament history showed that the breaking of the bread -- or Christian Passover was celebrated immediately after Pentecost. Explanations of the Lord's command about the bread and wine as his body and blood took time to develop. This deepest of Christian mysteries was first absorbed in silence and faith. Only the contemplative uses of time would yield the words to describe the meaning of what happened on that holy night.
At a meal where they ate a sacrificial lamb that taught them about divine redemption, Jesus spoke about his body that would be eaten and his blood that would be poured out. He provided the lead concepts that would show the connection with his redemptive death on Good Friday. In a setting where love, forgiveness, and fellowship were experiences as prominent as the theme of sacrifice, Jesus taught that the Breaking of the Bread and the Drinking of the Cup were essentially bound with Christian love and community. Thus the Last Supper was inexorably tied to the building of Christian community and the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus. It was both a fellowship and sacrificial event.
After completing the singing of the thanksgiving psalms, the group went to the Mount of Olives. Jesus told them that they would abandon him. Enemies would strike the shepherd and the sheep would be scattered. Jesus understood that their purely human strength would not see them through the tragedy just ahead. They still did not have the spiritual depth that was needed. Only when the Holy Spirit took hold of them would they become the pillars of the church that was their destiny.
He did not leave them with that gloomy assessment. He would rise from the dead and meet them in Galilee where the ministry of salvation began so promisingly a few years before. Peter protested that he would never desert Jesus, even if all the others weakened. Jesus told him that his defection would be more dramatic than the others. He would deny him three times before the cock crowed at sunrise. Ever sure of himself, Peter loudly reaffirmed his loyalty even if it meant death. The others said the same.
So the Last Supper began with a story of an apostolic betrayal and concluded with a prediction of apostolic denial and abandonment. The Sacrament of Love stood like a shining jewel in the shadows of human failure and sinfulness.
Jesus walked to the cross with his sense of divine purpose. He also journeyed there with all the feelings of dread that any human being would have. He went to Gethsemane with the same three disciples who had witnessed the glory of his Transfiguration. Now he wanted them to share with him the struggle he must go through to fully accept the Father's will. He was not ashamed to express his need for their support when the greatest sorrow afflicted him.
All his human drives recoiled from the suffering and death that awaited him. It would take the full power of his spiritual resources to fight these survival instincts and put his body and whole self at the service of love's greatest demands. Like anybody at death's door he felt depression and fear. He wanted Peter, James and John to know that and to pray with him in this struggle. ''He began to be greatly depressed and sorrowful'' (verse 33). He had shared his inmost feelings with them.
He threw himself on the ground and begged his Father to take away the cup of suffering. But at the same time, he said that only the Father's will should be done, not his own. He arose and looked for his support group. They slept. He looked at the sleeping Peter, who had professed so much loyalty barely an hour ago. He woke Peter up and asked if he could not be with him for at least one hour when he needed a good friend the most.
He admonished Peter, whose eyes were heavy with sleep after their big meal, to watch and pray that he might not enter into temptation. Vigilance and prayer are the best safeguards against temptation. Jesus let Peter know that he understood how positive were his intentions. Peter's spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak. Three times Jesus prayed for deliverance from the pain. Three times he found his apostles asleep. He had surrendered to his Father's will. He woke the sleeping apostles and asked them to stand with him. His betrayal was at hand.
While Christ's dearest friends slept, his traitorous apostle, Judas, was wide awake. This will always be a problem in Christian history. The guardians of the people will slumber when they should be alert in calling people to virtue and training them in the acquisition of Gospel values. Those who wish to destroy the Christian dream and ideals will be active and energetic in their efforts to subvert and undermine the Gospel.
Judas arrived with a crowd carrying swords and clubs. He told them that the man he hugged and kissed was the one to be arrested. With no shame, he walked right up to Jesus, addressed him as ''Master'' and kissed him. Jesus offered no resistance. He did not try to escape. He did not call for defenders. He had given Judas every opportunity to repent and the weak apostle let his human calculations determine his behavior. Judas was not open to love. He never let Jesus really love him. Judas used Christ's trusting nature as a weapon to betray him.
One of the bystanders drew a sword and cut off the ear of a slave. John 18:10 says it was Peter who did this to a man named Malchus. Luke 22:50-51 reports that Jesus healed the servant's ear. Jesus asked the aggressors why they came with swords and clubs as though to capture a robber. Why did they not seize him when he was openly preaching in the temple? In other words that same group had been at the temple. They did in darkness what they failed to do in the light.
Just as Jesus predicted, all his apostles deserted him. One young man followed him, but when the captors tried to seize him, he ran away naked leaving his robe in their clutching hands. Many have tried to guess who this was, some believing it was Mark, the writer of this Gospel.
They brought Jesus to a hastily assembled meeting of the religious court. A night court was an exception to their usual procedure. The council sought testimony that would lead to Christ's death. They were having trouble doing this because the perjuring witnesses they enlisted contradicted each other's accusations. At least two witnesses had to agree on the existence of a crime.
The witnesses accused him of intending to destroy the temple and rebuild a new one ''not made with hands.'' It sounds like they took Christ's prediction of the destruction of the temple, which they may have heard about from Judas and combined it with his ''violent'' act of cleansing the temple and formed that into an accusation that he literally would gather a destructive force with that intention. Whatever they actually said, they presented sufficiently vague and confusing accounts, so that the judge could not indict Jesus for a crime.
The high priest asked Jesus if he had any response to these accusations. Jesus remained silent. This majestic silence of the passion recalls Isaiah's predictions of a Holy Martyr who would go to his death like a lamb, uncomplaining, and without defense.
Then the high priest asked Jesus if he was the Messiah. This time Jesus spoke and said that he was the Messiah. He went further and identified himself with the Son of Man described in Daniel 7:13. The high priest used this opportunity to declare that Jesus had blasphemed. He symbolized his accusation by theatrically tearing his robe.
Strictly speaking this was not blasphemy which would be reviling the holy name of God. Admitting he was the Messiah was not a blasphemy. What probably seemed to be blasphemy in this situation was Christ's claim he would sit at God's right hand and judge the nations. Whatever their reason, the court agreed that Jesus had committed a blasphemy and condemned him as deserving of death. Some began to spit on him, put a hood on his head and asked him to tell them who struck him. The guards took him over and beat him.
The only purpose Jesus ever had in life was to offer people the chance for love, justice, and mercy by means of his redemptive action. It is now clear that he would achieve this redemption by first suffering hatred, injustice, cruel mockery, and beating.
Peter followed Jesus to the scene of the trial and warmed himself by the fire outside the courtroom. Three times people said to Peter they recognized him as a follower of Jesus. Each time, Peter vigorously denied he even knew Jesus. The cock crowed and Peter remembered that Jesus had predicted this would happen. He broke down and wept. TP
FATHER MCBRIDE, O. Praem., has been a Norbertine priest for over 50 years. He is the author of OSV's best-selling catechisms, Essentials of the Faith, Teen Catechism, College Catechism,Family Catechism, Celebrating the Mass, the Holy Eucharist Prayer Book and Teen Guide to the Bible. He is well respected in religious education circles and was head of the religious education department of the NCEA. He is currently on the OSV Board of Directors. In his retirement, he is active with Relevant Radio.
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