Exodus 15:11-21+Psalm 136:1-16+Hebrews 11:23-38+Matthew 26:17-56
I think we have our image of what the Last Supper was like all wrong. You have to hand it to Leonardo da Vinci for at least one thing: a lot of people are convinced that the painting in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan is an actual historic rendering of the occasion. A dozen men seated on one side of a long table dressed in robes that were not even a thing in 1st century Palestine surrounded by Renaissance architecture that came, oh, 1,400 years after the time Jesus lived. And they’re all white rather than brown-skinned Palestinians.
Friends, Leonardo’s Last Supper is fake news, I’m afraid.
But there was a last supper – a final meal Jesus shared with his friends. The outlines are similar in all four gospels, although it happens on a different night in John, who also includes a foot washing rather than breaking bread and pouring wine.
I want to paint a slightly different picture for you than Leonardo’s, and for that, I have to go back to the Christmas story.
Anyone who has ever watched a Charlie Brown Christmas can tell you that Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem for the census but could not find a place to stay in the inn. Many an ambitious young actor has portrayed a heartless and callous innkeeper in pageants of Christmases past. And so, this exhausted couple, with Mary in labor, are forced to stay in a stable, or a cave for the livestock, depending on whom you listen to. And it’s all wrong!
There is a word for where they stayed. It is, in Greek, κατάλυμα. And while some translators will insist on calling it an inn, it was, in actuality, a guestroom, not a Motel 6 or AirBnB. People in the time of Jesus kept their livestock close to them. Their houses had an outer wall, and inside was a sort of open courtyard with a well and stalls for animals around the edges. Upstairs was where the people lived, and most would have had a kataluma – a guest room. Chances are that Joseph had planned for them to stay with relatives, but with all the people coming to town, and without a phone to call ahead, there simply wasn’t room in the kataluma, so they made their bed for the night on the lower level, near the animals.
If we imagine it this way, we will know right away that the loneliness we imagine of Mary giving birth is a myth. The women of the house would have been there. A midwife would have been found. The hubbub of a busy household would have swirled around this holy birth. When John’s Gospel says that “the Word became flesh and pitched its tent among us,” it means that the incarnation happened in the midst of life in all its business and mess. And that’s how Jesus came.
Fast forward to what we are about here this evening, and Jesus, unlike his parents, plans ahead. He makes a reservation for a guest room – a kataluma – for this meal with his friends. That Upper Room was simply where the guestroom was located in a house. And just as it was a living, breathing household in Bethlehem, so it is here in Jerusalem. It isn’t just Jesus and the twelve. You know those men did not prepare and serve dinner for twelve, right? No, their wives, sisters, and women disciples set about cooking and serving as all the children were running around underfoot. This was a celebration! It was the Passover – the great festival. The city was filled with pilgrims and there had been all kinds of excitement this week:
A raucous procession into Jerusalem, palms waving and voices lifted in song, the city thronged with people coming for the feast.
Jesus causing a ruckus by kicking the moneychangers out of the temple.
Dinner outside the city at Lazarus, Mary, and Martha’s house where Mary anointed Jesus with oil and tears.
And Jesus teaching – lots and lots of teaching, as if there was some sense of urgency about it all.
Those with Jesus – disciples, both male and female, and children – had no reason to suspect that this meal in the guestroom was anything other than a holiday dinner.
But Jesus knew. Jesus knew that Judas was going to do what Judas was going to do. He knew that Peter was going to do what Peter was going to do. Jesus knew that he did not have much time to say some final words to his followers. He gives them signs that they are to share when they are together to remind them of him and everything he taught. Bread and wine. Water and a towel. Feed and serve in remembrance of me. And most of all, love one another as I have loved you.
Over the course of this week, as we gather for Stations of the Cross early each evening, I open the doors to the church, and the sound of buses and cars and motorcycles and people chattering rush into the quiet of this space as those of us walking the Way of the Cross remember that last day in Jerusalem when Jesus was arrested and tried and hung from a cross. And the noisy world goes by as a reminder that the life did not stop in Jerusalem on that day, either. For most people, this was just another execution carried out by Rome. That dinner that happened the night before took place as the noise of the city wafted into the doors and windows. “In the midst of life, we are in death,” as the 10th c. chant goes.
The world keeps spinning as we pause to remember Jesus’s commands to his disciples to love one another, to eat and drink, to serve as he served us. Listen to the sound of the world beyond our doors. We take all that we have come to know and believe here and carry it out there. Because that, too, is what Jesus told us to do.