Traditionally, we celebrate the Last Supper with a blaze of glory, in total contrast to the austerity of the Lenten season. The Gloria is sung, the sackcloth is laid aside and white vestments are worn to celebrate the Feast. We give thanks for ‘this wonderful sacrament’. Yet in this joyous moment, there are uncomfortable reminders that even the holiest moments are not immune from attack.
After Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness, Luke warns us that this was no final defeat. He writes (Luke 4.13) ‘When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.’ Tonight, on this most holy night, he returns in envy and spite to attempt to wreck the celebration.
Jesus came to the table knowing that one of the disciples would betray him (Matthew 25.23). Peter at first refused to have his feet washed, the disciple thinking he knew better than his teacher. Luke (22.24) tells us that ‘A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.’ Matthew (20.20-28) had described this kind of contest more delicately, in saying it was a request from the mother of James and John to grant her sons first place in the kingdom of heaven, but the rivalry clearly bubbled away under the surface, and broke out again tonight.
They were all out for themselves, and Jesus knew it, saying (Matthew 26.21) ‘You will all become deserters.’ We recall that Peter protested, and Jesus recognised how great the threat was, saying (Luke 22.31). ‘Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat’.
Even in our holiest moments we remain a prey to pride, envy, jealousy and selfishness. We are so full of ourselves that we fail to see the glory that is before us. We fail to listen to the voice of God. The fact that we are engaged in the most holy enterprise grants us no immunity from temptation. But the heart of the gospel is that even when we are failing, Jesus is not failing us. At the very point where Jesus tells Peter that all of the disciples will desert him, he assures Peter (Luke 22.32) that ‘I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’ He prays for us even as we are going wrong. He exhorts us to pray for ourselves when we are being tempted, as he did repeatedly in the Garden of Gethsemane. And the assurance is that though we will fail, he will accept us when we turn back. The father accepts the prodigal son back not with a reproach, but with a feast. The risen Christ welcomes Peter with a breakfast of fish by Galilee, and the repeat of that command to strengthen his brothers in the words ‘Feed my sheep.’(John 21). The fishermen had come empty handed to the meal, but Jesus supplies their want.
But then, we never did obey that command to ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ in our own strength. The initiative had to come from God. There was little left of faith in the two shattered disciples who left Jerusalem for Emmaus. But Jesus prayed for them. They recognised him as he blessed the bread, presiding at the first Christian Eucharist. It was not their remembrance of him, but a reunion with the risen Lord who remembered them and invited them.
Tonight, in this most holy night, Christ is preparing the feast. He prays for us that our pride, our envy and all our sinfulness will not prevail. He warns and teaches us of the dangers, as he did that night, and he assures us, whatever happens, that when we turn back to him, he will remember us. He has overcome the world. Tonight we can sing ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’.
Tom Ambrose is a priest living in Cambridge.