‘In the same night that he was betrayed’. I very often struggle to get out those words when they appear in one of our Eucharistic prayers. I find them deeply moving. In the same night that his partner left him, in the same night that he was made redundant, in the same night that his home was destroyed…..In the same night that Judas was to betray him, Peter pretend he never knew him, and the rest of his closest friends abandon him, Jesus organised this special meal for his friends and washed the dust and dirt off their feet. How could he have thought to do these things?
Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper pauses on that moment when Jesus has announced that one of them will betray him. They are all aghast, looking at one another, wondering who it will be. Their focus is on themselves, leaving Jesus looking rather lonely at the centre of the picture, an anticipation of what was to follow.
Leonardo Da Vinci was an inventor and experimenter as well as an artist, and he experimented with the paint for this picture, with limited success, unfortunately, as it started to fade soon after he completed it. It has had to be restored constantly ever since!
We might take note of that as we approach the mystery of our Holy Communion, our Eucharist, the inauguration of which we celebrate on Maundy Thursday. We are so used to celebrating the bread and the wine every Sunday that, perhaps like Leonardo’s painting, we need the colours in it to be restored at regular intervals, so that we can see it more clearly. Maundy Thursday gives us an opportunity to do that.
So, what is it that we celebrate in the Eucharist? At the heart of it is a deep, intense love. My Dad had a rich bass voice and he would sometimes burst into songs from the shows, snatches of which sometimes come back to me. One was from My Fair Lady and included the lyrics, ‘If you’re in love, show me!’ Eliza Dolittle addressing Freddie and the wordy professor, wanting something more tangible than their constant verbosity. ‘Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words, if you’re in love, show me’. Through the bread and wine and the foot washing Jesus offers his friends tangible things that will remind them of him almost daily after his death. They are things we can taste, touch, see and it’s as though every time we do this we can hear Jesus declare his love for us. To participate in footwashing would have had a similar effect. In Jesus’ time it would have been a daily experience; to look down on whoever was washing your feet and be reminded of Jesus doing that. Very ordinary activities, but now charged with memories of Jesus.
The Eucharist is not only about ordinary things connecting us with Jesus’ love for us though…Now another painting, this time by Craigie Aitchison, a contemporary artist, called ‘Pink bowl with grapes’, so not a picture of the Last Supper or Holy Communion in any direct way. Craigie Aichison frequently drew on Christian symbolism in his paintings, especially the cross, and in the design on the bowl there is a hint of crosses and then, fluttering above it a butterfly, often a symbol of resurrection. The grapes a reminder of wine, yet looking like the buds we see all around in spring? The colour of the bowl, an intense pink, speaks of a love that is passionate, intense, and yet the bowl itself looks so delicate, so fragile, that we feel we could swipe it off the table with one movement of the hand, scattering the grapes and scaring off the butterfly. Or could we? It’s a sensible shape – designed to stand steady. It’s firmly planted on the table or ground – earthed, if you like, and there is an energy and assertiveness in the background colour. Christ’s offering of himself, whether through the footwashing or on the cross is the offering of a delicate human body, easily broken; vulnerable like the pink bowl to being shattered. Yet it is also so firmly earthed, or we might say, so fully human in a way that we had forgotten, that the butterfly of resurrection will continue to flutter over it and the grapes continue to hold the promise of spring time and new life.
So the Eucharist is also a sharing in the invitation to be fully human, entering the fractures in our lives as the bread is broken, draining the cup of suffering, whatever that is for us, as we drink the wine, and discovering within them and within ourselves the transforming energy and power of the resurrection. Each time we drink the wine or eat the bread we share not only in Christ’s brokenness, but also his resurrection life. They are two sides of the same coin.
Intense love, participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, and lastly divine foolishness. St Paul describes the cross as folly. A folly that had been present throughout Christ’s ministry, often playfully so (What do you want me to do for you? Jesus asks Bartimaus who is clearly as blind as a bat!). And now here he is, offering to wash their feet. What kind of folly is that? It’s expressed eloquently I think in Ken Kiff’s picture of man greeting woman. The invitation from a man wearing nothing but the funny hat, naked, vulnerable before the woman. How foolish is that?! Yet, rather similar to the way God approaches us in Christ. Let me wash your feet, he says to his friends; but for them he’s put on a silly hat – he’s a rabbi. Rabbis don’t wash the feet of their disciples. He’s wearing the wrong hat! He’s making them feel awkward, silly, perhaps. Yet he is saying that is what it takes if they want to become part of him ie participate in his death and resurrection. They too have to become foolish, naked, vulnerable, and then, emerging after the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, finding they no longer feel ashamed.
Do you remember that at the very beginning of the narrative of God’s dealings with us, in Genesis, we read that Adam and Eve, in that garden, were ‘naked, and yet neither was ashamed’. They were naked in God’s presence and were not ashamed, didn’t feel foolish or silly, rather like the woman in Kiff’s painting. Entirely at ease with her humanity. What Christ did on the cross which we remember in the Eucharist, means that we too can now be vulnerable in God’s presence without feeling ashamed. His foolish love frees us to show him our weird and wacky feet (or their equivalent) without embarrassment. That’s the invitation to the disciples and us.
‘In the same night that he was betrayed…’. It’s happening here, again, tonight; the same foolishly generous invitation to receive the ordinary, now made extraordinary, and to claim with Christ our full humanity, both broken and restored.
Picture Credit. Kiff, Ken; Man Greeting Woman; Arts Council Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/man-greeting-woman-63705