(A Meditation for Maundy Thursday 2016, based on Mark 14:1-2, 12 – 15:39)
One reason that I have been looking forward to this evening is that I get to show you a wonderful gift that was just recently presented to our church: a quilt beautifully and lovingly crafted by our own Donna Lee Rust that depicts the very event that we are seeking to remember and in some fashion recreate in this service of worship: our Lord’s “Last Supper.”
It’s beautiful, don’t you think? I love this for a whole lot of reasons, most especially because it comes from Donna and as such is for us a “church family heirloom;” and I thank her for that. But I also love this because it’s a recreation – an interpretation, if you will – of one of the most recognized, iconic and recreated paintings of all time; a work of art that, in one form or another can be found in just about every church edifice there is, including now, this one. I speak, of course, of Leonardo DaVinci’s classic painting The Last Supper, the original of which still can be seen in the place where it was created: on the wall of a dining hall in a monastery at the Santa Maria delle Grazie church in Milan, Italy.
You might remember that a few years back, DaVinci’s painting – a mural, actually – was fully retouched, refurbished and renovated. I remember reading a great deal about this at the time, and it was fascinating: this was a process that took over 20 years and cost over eight million dollars as a small group of restoration experts painstakingly scraped some 500 years’ worth of grime off this priceless work of art. And the dirt was just the beginning: over the years, DaVinci’s The Last Supper had also fallen victim to at least nine previous attempts of retouching; near destruction by Napoleon’s troops, who used the church grounds as a stable; an Allied bombing during the second world war; and this is to say nothing of the huge amount of greasy build-up that emanated from a nearby kitchen! It took paint and dirt being flaked away a millimeter at a time to get at DaVinci’s original masterpiece, the hope being that The Last Supper would be sharper, more beautiful and intensely colorful than ever before.
And… it was! At the same time, however, there were many historians and art critics who began to talk about how this massive restoration project had done more damage than good, and that a great many important details of the painting had been stripped away, leaving nothing more than fragments of DaVinci’s original work. In fact, as much as 80% of the mural was lost in the restoration, and the intervening space was filled in with… watercolors! So, in other words, what resulted was not so much DaVinci’s masterpiece The Last Supper, as much as it was a lovingly and carefully created, yet ultimately blurred depiction of what it once was!
Very interesting, indeed; and actually, it seems to me that therein lies something of a parable for what we’re doing here tonight.
In one sense, the story that we’re retelling this evening is so familiar to our ears that the main points cannot help but be forever etched in our memory: Jesus breaking the bread and saying to the disciples, “Take; this is my body;” the disciples’ vehement protestations that “surely,” none of them would betray Jesus; and not only how Judas would do just that – with a kiss, no less – but also how Peter, who had promised never to desert Jesus, would by his three denials do pretty much the same thing. The fact is, we come here tonight already knowing what happens: we know about Jesus’ arrest and the mockery of a trial that followed; we know how the crowd cried out for his crucifixion; we know how that mob chose Barabbas to be released rather than Jesus; and we know how Jesus died… yes, we know about the cross.
…like the refurbishing of Da Vinci’s masterwork, our retelling of this incredible story risks blurring a great many of the details. Painful details… how God’s own Son was literally abandoned by those closest to him; how he was shoved from one “judgment” to the next from the “powers that be” that wanted no part of him; how he was then sentenced to die, but not before being stripped, mocked, ridiculed and beaten without mercy; not before the very instrument of his execution was placed upon his shoulders so he could be forced to carry it through the streets to the outskirts of the city, all accompanied by the sound of hundreds of angry voices jeering him as he staggered by, this the very same crowd who’d only a few short days before had shouted joyous hosannas in his direction. And what about the ringing of the hammer as it strikes upon the nails driven into his wrists and ankles; what about the realization that this one who was born a Savior – the very one who was promised to us as a “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6) – was now hung upon a wooden cross, left out in the hot desert sun to die a long, slow and excruciatingly painful death between two common criminals.
Do you see how easily this story becomes blurred for us? Very tempting it is for us to either move directly from Palm Sunday Hosannas to Easter Alleluias; or else to make this journey to the cross, but let the experience of it become somehow subdued in our hearts and mind and thus make an easier and much more joyous transition to an empty tomb on Sunday morning! Even you and I as people of faith have a hard time understanding why celebration must lead to crucifixion and triumph give way to tragedy. Why must the suffering and pain of Jesus be real? Why does there have to be this most horrible, excruciating death? Why can’t a legion of angels rescue him? This is the question for which all of humanity cries out for an answer: why must there be the cross?
And the answer is simple, really; and we’ve been saying it again and again throughout this Lenten season: it’s for the LOVE of it all.
It is love – God’s love – seen and personified in the person of Jesus Christ crucified. It is a love so great that brings God’s reign into every heart that ever has torn itself away from God; it is a love that is so deep and so full and so all-encompassing that it lifts you and me up out of our shame and disgrace and saves us with the vindication we need before God, moving us out of the judgment of our mortality and into an eternity with him. It is a love that Jesus gives freely, willingly and obediently; and it is a love that demands our attention and calls for our devotion!
That is why we come here tonight; so that we might get past the blurred experience of our Lord’s passion, and get a clearer view. We’re here to sit with the disciples around this table; to listen to Jesus’ teachings and their conversations with one another; to wait with Jesus in the garden and then go with him to the place of trial and scourging; and finally, to stand beneath the cross of Jesus so that in some small way you and I can also bear witness to the greatest love we can ever know, while also facing up to the hard truth that this is a gift we can never earn, and one that we don’t deserve; and yet a gift, by grace and infinite love is offered to us by a Savior who is truly “dying to love us.”
So, beloved, let us now take our place at the “last supper;” and then let us follow Jesus into this night of betrayal and desertion; remembering , in the words of that old hymn, that “dearly, dearly has he loved, and we must love him too. And trust in his redeeming blood, and try his works to do.”
Thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry