Brief synopsis of the readings: There’s a certain irony in the word “brief” because today is Palm Sunday and the readings are long. The Gospel today comes from Mark; it encompasses chapters 14 and 15. It begins two days before Passover with the chief priests and scribes looking for ways to get rid of Jesus. Judas then approached them and promised to hand Jesus over to them and was rewarded by 30 pieces of silver. As Jesus approached Jerusalem to celebrate Passover he instructed two of his disciples to go ahead of him and make preparations for the Passover meal. At the beginning of the meal Jesus told those gathered that one of them would betray him. He then took some of the unleavened bread, blessed and broke it, and said: “Take this; this is my body.” Then, taking some wine, he passed it around and said: “This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, which is to be poured out for many. I tell you solemnly, I shall not drink any more wine until the day I drink the new wine in the kingdom of God.” At the end of the meal they walked to the Mount of Olives where Jesus told them that they would all lose faith in him. Peter protested and Jesus told him that before dawn the next day, Peter would deny him three times. Arriving at the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus went alone to pray. On returning to his disciples he found them asleep. As soon as he woke them up, Judas arrived with an armed guard. Jesus was arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling council). They found him guilty of blasphemy but didn’t have the power to execute him. Peter found himself in the courtyard and was accused of being a follower of Jesus. Three time he was accused and three times he denied it. Jesus was then taken to the Roman ruler, Pontius Pilate. Pilate showed no interest in executing Jesus, but the crowds demanded it and Pilate relented. Jesus was then beaten and forced to carry his cross to his place of execution. He was crucified and his body was given for burial.
Last year I wrote about the difficulties of preaching on Palm Sunday simply because there is too much material. Not only does today’s Gospel encompass two full chapters, but through countless books and movies we have visualized these events and that’s why I chose one part of these events. Last year I focused on the person of Judas Iscariot. This year I chose to focus on the Last Supper.
At first this may seem like a puzzling choice. After all, don’t we know all we need to know about this meal? Well, not really. In Mark’s Gospel (that we read today) it only goes from verses 17 to 26 in the 14th chapter. As Catholics it contains the blessing of unleavened bread and wine that we look to as the first Eucharist (Holy Communion). But there aren’t many details.
This isn’t surprising as Mark wouldn’t have needed to give many details. Mark, as well as Matthew and Luke, place the Last Supper as the Passover meal (John places the Last Supper as the day before Passover). Instructions for Passover were given in Exodus, Chapter 12. One of my seminary professors explained it this way: Imagine you’re living in Europe and you get a letter from your mother about Thanksgiving. She’ll likely tell you about anything unusual (you’re uncle didn’t get drunk this year but still decided this is the time to talk politics). But she probably won’t tell you that they ate turkey and that your father did a magnificent job carving it, only because you’d already know this.
And frankly, most of what we think we know about the Last Supper comes from Leonardo DaVinci’s famous painting. He painted it in the dining room of a convent at the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy, finishing it in 1498. There’s also Salvado Dali’s painting “The Sacrament of the Last Supper” that was painted in 1955 and hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
I have to confess as a child being amused at the idea that 13 men all sat on the same side of the table but to be fair when we want someone to take a picture of us at a dinner we crowd around one side of the table. But all the food is on the same side of the table.
More interesting to me, these were all men. Catholic theology tells us that this was intentional. Not only did this meal establish the Eucharist, it also established the Twelve as the first bishops. These were the men who ordained their successors, and even to this day bishops around the world can trace their roots back to these twelve men. We call this apostolic succession.
I don’t mean to deny or challenge apostolic succession, and as an ex priest I’m spiritually descended from one of these men. But I do wish to challenge the idea that the Last Supper was this exclusive.
If we go back to Exodus, the rules are clear. Passover (and by extension the Last Supper) was not exclusive. Exodus 12:3-4 tells us that each family must procure a lamb; if the family is too small for an entire lamb they will join with the nearest family. Obviously there is no standard weight for a lamb, but it must be a male lamb, one year old, and without blemish.
And obviously a one year old lamb provides more meat than can be consumed by 13 men. But more to the point, what about the families of these men? Was Mary included? How about Peter’s wife and mother in law (that we read about in Mark 1:29)? Did any of these other men have wives and children? Did they include people who didn’t have families? Much of the Gospels speak of the widows, orphans, and the poor. Did the Last Supper include any of those who had nowhere to go on Passover?
I hope so. I like to think that the Last Supper was more inclusive than we imagine. Without getting into the issue of who will be our bishops and priests, can we imagine this iconic meal being crowded? I hope we can.
I recently rewatched the videotape of my priesthood ordination in 1994. It’s a good memory and I enjoyed watching it again (albeit on a grainy videocassette) but I had forgotten something. The week after I was ordained I traveled back to my hometown (Woodbridge, Virginia) and celebrated my “first mass” at my home parish (Our Lady of Angels). It’s customary for the new priest to thank everyone at the end of mass and it’s customary to have a celebration in the church hall. At this mass I thanked all the customary people and then I said this: “You may know that there is a reception in the church hall after this. Many of you are here because you knew me, but some of you just came to Sunday mass and have never met me. Some of you may wonder if you’re invited to this reception. So here’s the rule: If you can hear my voice, you’re invited.”
I don’t say this to make me look good. I say this because I hope that the Last Supper also included people who wondered if they were invited. We look at the Last Supper in terms of who can lead this (priests and bishops) but I’d like to look anew at the Last Supper in terms of who is invited (everyone).
Next week we celebrate that Jesus has defeated death to give us all eternal life. Let us look at each other and think not only of eternal life, but inclusion in this life.