There has been a desire amongst many Christians, at least since the time of the Reformation, when the full Gospel story became available in the vernacular, to re-create the Last Supper as faithfully as possible. The intention was to be more faithful to the Lord’s command to ‘do this in remembrance’.
Alongside this was surely a feeling that it must have been wonderful to be in the presence of the Messiah on that night, listening to his words, and receiving the bread and wine over which he had said the blessing.
But if we look at the occasion it appears in many ways to have been a most uncomfortable evening. It opened, in John’s Gospel, with Peter’s refusal to have his feet washed. He almost prevented Jesus from completing this invaluable sign to his Church. Next came the moment, brought to life by Leonardo’s painting, where Jesus announced to his disciples that one of them would betray him. They all look around, wondering who has been accused. That moment was beautifully portrayed for me this year in a children’s passion play. As Jesus began to walk around the table, saying ‘It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread’, one of the disciples leapt up and fled from the table saying ‘I’m not really hungry. Don’t give it to me!’ An uncomfortable moment indeed for all. In their drama, when Jesus gave the bread to Judas there was a visible loosening of tension in the other disciples as if this idea had been going through all their minds. The departure of Judas only made the occasion worse, as everyone was filled with foreboding. Perhaps the party would be broken up in minutes.
Luke’s gospel has another tension: the dispute which broke out among the disciples about which was the greatest. Perhaps it was this rivalry which led to the sign of the washing of feet.
As we look at the way the evening unfolded, we find the disciples so wrapped up in their own personal agenda that they were hardly able to grasp the significance of what was happening. Few of us can ever have attended a dinner party among friends which actually turned out to be so difficult.
Their dispute, the anxiety not to be found in the wrong, Peter’s protestations and denials all add to make this a most painful but memorable evening. Clearly this memory of the disciples’ selfishness and lack of care stayed with them. Along with it was no doubt a profound regret that in Jesus’ hour of need they had not been able to rise selflessly to the occasion and give him their support.
Certainly, in our remembrance of the Last Supper, we would not wish to recreate the feelings which were around then. Fortunately, from the very first the Christian Church has not sought to replicate that Supper. Our holy day is Sunday, not Thursday. It is the day the witnesses to the resurrection found that the risen Christ came to them, offering from the first Easter Day the opportunity of forgiveness and a vision of their life and communion together.