“The one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table.”
“For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves?”
Isobel and I have been fortunate to obtain tickets to see Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper in the church of St. Maria delle Grazie in Milan in two weeks time. We have only been given 15 minutes to contemplate the masterpiece, so in preparation we have read the account of another visitor, H.V. Morton, a travel writer from our parents’ generation, which he describes in his book In Search of Italy. One of his comments especially struck me:
No notebook or technical achievement can explain that moment when Leonardo rejected as the theme of his painting the institution of the Eucharist but selected instead the terrible moment when Jesus said: “But, behold, the hand of him that betrays me is with me on the table.”
The painting takes up the whole of one wall in what used to be the dining room of a Franciscan monastery. Every day the friars would enter the room to sit at table and have their meals. In doing so they would they undoubtedly at times felt they were part of the Last Supper. They were at table with Jesus and his disciples. And they would not have been able to escape the dramatic moment Leonardo wanted them see: the one who shall betray me is right here with us at table.
The message is unnerving, for while the focus of attention is on Judas, everyone at the table asks “is it me, Lord?” It could be any of them; it could be any of the friars, and given the state of the church at that time, it could have been the church as a whole that had betrayed Jesus. The friars might well have thought that because their movement, started by St. Francis of Assisi, was an attempt to revive a moribund and corrupt church. And over the years even they had sometimes betrayed St. Francis’ vision. They had lost sight of the fact that before the Last Supper began Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, including those of Judas, and said to them that the greatest are not those who sit at table with him but those who serve.
While many people go to Milan to see Leonardo’s Last Supper not many will know about the Edict of Milan which changed the course of history and especially of Christianity. It was a decree issued by emperor Constantine in 313 which prepared the way for Christianity to become the established imperial religion, binding church and state together. As a result, by the end of the fourth century Christianity had become the only legitimate religion of the Empire. The full might of the state was now used to protect and further the church’s interests, and the church gave its support to the state. Not all Christians thought this a good idea, and some went into the desert to establish small communities of disciples which, later became the first monasteries. But for the main, the way was prepared for crusades and inquisitions and much else that has brought Christianity into disrepute over the centuries, and well into our own time. Still today Christianity is identified by many with the interests of Western nations who claim to embody Christian civilization, but continually betray that inheritance by their actions and attitudes. Instead of Christianity being a religion of peace and justice. of compassion, service and love, it has too often been used to justify war and injustice, slavery, imperialism, racism and apartheid, patriarchy and homophobia. Too often the church has betrayed Jesus. Yes, we have to ask ourselves as the rest of the disciples did that sombre night: “Is it us Lord?” Surely not us?
So on this Maundy Thursday as we commemorate the institution of the Eucharist we gather at table to share this meal mindful of what took place that fateful evening in an upper room in Jerusalem. But we might well be too familiar with what we are hearing or seeing that we miss what Leonardo wants us to see — for him this was not just religious ceremony, the beginning of a ritual that would be repeated through the centuries. No, this was a tragic moment when Jesus was betrayed by one whose hand was on the table , and when those who had been closest to him missed the whole point of his life and ministry. For even while they were still at table, even after Judas had left, Luke tells us: “a dispute arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.” Can you believe it? On that holy night after Jesus had washed their feet and had shared his last supper with them, the disciples argued about who was the greatest! So Jesus had to rebuke them all: “who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves?” They had still not got the message. Peter was about to deny Jesus and the next day they would all run away.
No, not all, for Mary and her women companions who were not at the table that night stayed with Jesus to the end. They stood beneath the cross and wept as they watched, and in doing so entered into the mystery of Jesus’ suffering. Is that not a sobering fact? They had not sat with the disciples at the table the night before because women were excluded from such meals, just as gay people or strangers or people of other cultures are excluded even in our own day. But they were always there in the background, watching, serving, and caring for Jesus. We also recall, as Mark’s gospel tells us, that a day or two before, an unknown woman had washed Jesus’ feet and anointed him with costly ointment as he and the disciples sat at table in Bethany, only to be scolded for doing so by Judas and the other disciples. But Jesus rebuked them: “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” Yes, indeed, as we break bread today in remembrance of Christ, we also remember this unknown woman as Jesus said we should. For she is a sign of the true church, the servant church..
The true church through the ages has served Jesus, has stood with the women beneath the cross, and remained faithful to him. This is the church we are called to be and become. It is the church that has understood that before Jesus shared his last supper with them he washed their feet, even the feet of Judas knowing full well that he was the one who would betray him! (John 13) The moment the church stops serving Jesus through serving the needs of of those in need, or excludes from the table those it deems unworthy, it starts to betray him. That is why each time we share this meal in remembrance of Jesus death, we should remember that he washed his betrayer’s feet, and also remember the woman who washed his feet in love and gratitude but whom Judas and the others rebuked. For the greatest in God’s kingdom are not those who sit at table with Jesus but those who serve him by serving those in need.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 25 March 2016