- Ex 12:1-14
- Psalm 116:1-2
- Psalm 116:12-19
- 1 Cor 11:23-26
- John 13:1-17
- John 13:31-35
Maundy Thursday, Year A
Main Text (Hover for Text)
At this point in Holy Week, Year B shifts to the Fourth Gospel on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. This juxtaposition of Mark and the Fourth Gospel is made its most acute in and around the events of the last day of Jesus’ earthly life. Our anthropological reading will thus examine both the Markan and Johannine Last Supper stories as a way into a most interesting conundrum.The questions raised for us by the traditions around Holy Thursday are all about bread. At your Holy Thursday service:
a) Do you use leavened bread?
b) Do you use unleavened bread?
c) It doesn’t matter
It was a huge problem in the early church. During the second century, controversies concerning different chronologies of the events of the Triduum led to the excommunication (temporarily) of the Asiatic Christians. These differences can still be seen in the weekly fact that the Orthodox church uses leavened bread and the Roman Catholic and many Protestants use unleavened bread.
At no other time in the Christian year are we given such an opportunity to explore such an intimate occasion. A last meal. Before dying. And Jesus knows it. Whether in the Synoptics or John, there is an awareness on the part of Jesus that certain death is at hand. And they share in common that Jesus went to an isolated spot among the olive groves and prayed. But that’s about it. The dating of the event is the problem. The Synoptic tradition has Jesus die on Nisan 15 (Friday), the Fourth Gospel on Nisan 14 (Thursday). In the Johannine chronology, Jesus is dead before the sundown that would begin the Passover night and feast. We shall examine this in more detail in the Historical/Cultural section.
For our purposes, the Fourth Gospel offers us a window of opportunity, in its tradition which differs from the Markan tradition. We are invited to see that the sacrifice that is desired by the Father is the sacrifice of diakonia. In the Johannnine tradition, the emphasis of the passion focuses on Jesus’ death as the consummation of the Father’s will and the revealing of God’s glory. The Markan narrative tells how Jesus’ death is the sacrifice, par excellence, the sacrifice that ends sacrifice. In the tradition represented by the communities behind the Fourth Gospel, Jesus death was an anaphora, a gift, for the Jamesian/Petrine tradition (reflected in the Synoptics) Jesus’ death was a thusia, a sacrifice.
This is pretty much the situation described early in Acts, one group close to the Temple, one group not so close. Both groups draw attention to the mimetic sacrificial crisis in their preaching. So whether we ultimately end up accepting the Synoptic dating or we prefer the Johannine one, either way elements of the sacrificial crisis are exposed.
The Johannine story of the humble service of Jesus in washing the feet of his disciples, the allusions to baptism, the command to repeat all deserve attention. A new non-sacrificial because self-sacrificial ritual is taking shape. But it is more than a ritual, it is a calling, a vocation as far as the Fourth Gospel is concerned. It is an enacted parable and goes far to ‘exegete’, as it were, the Last Supper sayings of the Synoptics.
It is important to show that a non-sacrificial reading can be done for the Markan gospel too, even though our reading is from the Fourth Gospel. (There are no other times of the year where we can deal with this thorny issue.) Reading the narrative through the lens of mimetic theory does not negate the historical problem but it can render a satisfactory non-sacrificial interpretation. For example, while Schwager acknowledges that the sayings of the Paschal narrative go back to Jesus (following Jeremias) he is still able to read the text non-sacrificially. Arguing that the concept of vicarious atonement can be traced to Jesus, Schwager says with regard to our text, “Why should his condemnation and violent death have been only his private affair and have had at the most the character of a moral example for his disciples? If one wishes to hold this view, one must at the very least also show when Jesus disassociated his person and his fate from the kingdom of God. But it is precisely the eschatological prediction in the framework of the Last Supper tradition (“I will no longer drink of the fruit of the vine until…[Mark 14:25]), attributed by scholars with unusual unanimity to Jesus himself, which clearly indicates that, even when faced with certain imminent death, he saw his fate and the matter of the kingdom of God together. Therefore his behavior toward his enemies was at the same time the answer of the kingdom of God to those who rejected it. (Jesus in the Drama of Salvation).
Robert Hamerton-Kelly also successfully articulates a non-sacrificial reading of the text. He points out that, “the institution of the Eucharist is an inversion of the temple sacrifices. The usual direction of the sacrificial offering is reversed; instead of the worshipper giving to the god, the god is giving to the worshipper…Normally the worshipper brings the offering into sacred space; here, the upper room is the nonsacred counterpart of the holy of holies, and so the offering is made outside of sacred space. Thus, the sacrificial system is subverted by the reversal of the direction of its ritual logic.” (The Gospel & The Sacred)
Even if one insisted upon the historical character of the Synoptic Paschal narrative that does not obligate one to a sacrificial interpretation.
We started with the problem of bread. Actually it is the problem of yeast or absence of it. Two very different traditions developed around the last meal of Jesus. But both bear witness to the breakdown of the violent scapegoating mechanism. This is the good news of this text. Jesus feeds us, uncomprehending as we are, just as he fed his disciples and their virtually unanimous lack of awareness. Most significantly, even if Jesus celebrated a Paschal meal, there is no mention of the lamb nor does Jesus compare himself to the lamb. To have done so would have been sacrificial for Jesus would then be saying that God must be appeased. Since God does not need to be appeased, there is no link to the lamb.
Indeed, it is the common element and libation of the meal, bread and wine which is interpreted. It is fairly commonplace in eucharistic studies to observe that there are two other connections that must be made with regard to the Last Supper. The first is Jesus’ table fellowship with sinners, the second, the eschatological meal, the marriage supper of the Lamb. Both of these roots feed the meaning of the Last Supper. And both of these are grounded in the forgiveness and mercy of God apart from sacrifice.
Jurgen Moltmann laments the apathy that pervades the modern eucharistic practice in A Passion for Life. The key to the recovery of our celebration of the eucharist will come as we desacralize it. Our joy will be commensurate with our refusing to hear or celebrate sacrificially. Our God will no longer be double minded, and we shall know with certainty that the table set before us is indeed, the table of the Messiah. Then we will know the joy of which Jesus speaks in the Fourth Gospel.
Moltmann: “The messianic feast is dependent on a community which understands itself as a messianic community. A religious church which simply takes care of the people will always understand its worship services as church events and stylize them as fixed ceremonies; as such they will generally be viewed as rituals with social functions, adapted to the present need of human beings in particular social situations. But a communal church which is of the people will see itself as the subject of it
s own gatherings and will form its worship into feasts of its own history with God.”
2. As we have previously mentioned, Gert Theissen (The Gospels in Context) has demonstrated the origins of the Passion narrative and the little apocalypse in the Jerusalem community in the early 40’s. He is able to show that the Markan narrative presupposes a Johannnine chronology.
3. Bruce Chilton (The Brother of Jesus) has recently put forth an excellent case that the hand of James, the brother of Jesus can be seen in the shaping of the Paschal narrative.
4. Some scholars, like Marcus Borg, have been able to articulate a credible Jesus not centered in apocalyptic.
5. Some, like C.H. Dodd (Tradition in the Fourth Gospel) and Bishop John Robinson (The Priority of John) have pointed us to the deep historical character of the Fourth Gospel.Here is our point: It is not that Jesus is non-apocalyptic, it is that he is not apocalyptically centered. His use of apocalyptic is very different from that of any of his contemporaries. He often subverts it or shifts its focus in discussion. It is possible to suggest that the Johannine chronology is correct and a satisfactory understanding of the Pashal narrative’s development has been achieved. It makes sense that Jesus’ brother had such an influence on the development of “Jesus tradition.” After all he grew up around him, even if he was not part of Jesus’ group of disciples. Add Peter, Jesus’ number one guy during the years of the ministry, and you have one half of the early church, the community gathered around Peter and James in Jerusalem. Both are Galileans, both were with Jesus in Galilee, both heard the Galilean preaching. They would both have had a powerful influence on the development of the story of Jesus and the ‘authoritative’ rights to publish (proclaim) it. They had apostolic and familial pedigree.Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians says he received what he then in turn passed on the Corinthians regarding eucharistic practice (using technical rabbinic language concerning the passing on of the tradition). Paul may have received this version of the Last Supper from Peter. If we date Paul’s conversion to between 33-36 (depending on whether you date Jesus death in 30 or 33), Paul will visit Peter three years after his vision according to Galatians. This means that already there is a fixed ‘synoptic’ form to the Last Supper that explicitly connects it to the Passover between 36-39. It would make sense that important fixed liturgical ‘oral texts’ came into existence prior to any standardizing of the oral tradition.This early connection of the Last Supper with a Passover meal takes part of its cue from the predominance of the Temple in the thought of James, as Chilton shows (The Brother of Jesus). It is also a move that may eventually play a part in the problems at Antioch, for Passover can only be celebrated within the confines of Jerusalem. It limits those attending to the circumcised. This effectively limits the mission and work of one early community. Matthew’s gospel reflects these debates.
The Fourth Gospel speaks of ‘other sheep.’ Jesus has friends already, friends before his disciples and evidently, apart from his family. These friends live in or near Jerusalem. The storyteller of the Fourth Gospel was one of them. Any teacher knows you relate differently to intimate friends than students. We believe that that friendship is evident in the Fourth Gospel. This lends a certain credibility to the historicity of the narrative. We think it is possible to speak of two groups of Jesus disciples during the time of his ministry; those who were from Galilee, some of whom formed the inner Galilean leadership, and those who were Jesus’ intimates who lived in or near Jerusalem.
Interestingly, the author of the Fourth Gospel never takes advantage of his intimacy with Jesus, cloaking himself (herself) in the guise of the beloved disciple. But this author, who has also known Jesus before his crucifixion, draws on both memory and the presence of Jesus by the Spirit. He (She) is one who looks back on Jesus’ ministry and ‘sees.’ Unlike the uncomprehending disciples, evidently there were a few of Jesus’ friends who did see and understand what God was doing through his life.
Historically speaking, it is probably best to remain in the realm of ‘perhaps’ and ‘possibly’ when it comes to discussing our narrative. But it is a rich narrative and repays study time every time.
There were an awful lot of directions we could have gone with our approach to the Last Supper. Our goal was to show that an anthropological reading of both the Johannine narrative and the Markan story is both invited and possible. This reading again begins with an implicit theology of the cross.The historical question of the date of Jesus’ death and its significance for our understanding of the Lord’s Supper is important for our ecumenical discussions but it is HOW we read the text that counts. And we believe it is possible to read the biblical text non-sacrificially.
Who knows how many have died in this war that as we write is less than 24 hours old? There is blood on all of our hands, there is enough guilt to pass around and still have leftovers. Every time we pick up that cup and that bread we are reminded that we have blood on our hands. We crucified Jesus. Humans killed Jesus, not a pack of wild dogs or a winter storm or disease, and certainly not the Father. We did. Until we understand that as we lift the tokens of this corpse in the air, as we bear witness to both our sin and our forgiveness, we will not believe that we are forgiven in them until by sharing in them we forgive all others. The eschatological promise in the Eucharist is that God will not retaliate against us. The existential horizon of the Eucharist calls us to stop our mimesis and scapegoating, so that one day we may lift up clean hands before God.
As you break bread tonight ask yourself this: whom have you hurt? Ever. Make a list. That list is your bread. Go ahead. Break the bread, kill them all. Or forgive them all.
We wish to conclude with a poem from one of our favorite writers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It can be found in his Letters and Papers from Prison. An interesting alternate translation can be found in Geffrey B. Kelly and Burton Nelson, A Testament of Freedom. This is the older translation. The English is older but it preserves the internal rhymes of the original.
Christians and Pagans
Men go to God when they are bestead,
Pray to him for succour, for his peace, for bread,
For mercy for them sick, sinning, or dead;
All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.
Men go to God when he is sore bestead,
Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread,
Whelmed under weight of the wicked, weak, the dead;
Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.
God goes to every man when sore bestead,
Feeds body and spirit with his bread,
For Christians, pagans alike he hangs dead;
And both alike forgiving.