Oh, What a Night
by Tim O'Hearn
A while back on Yom Kippur (see “A New Day” in the 10/05 issue) I said some other time I would tell of the events of the night before the Teacher was taken prisoner. Since it is Passover (April 3, 2007), perhaps now would be a good time.
Passover was always a good time. We had spent several with the Teacher and some of us looked forward to this one. Sure, he had been talking about the Jews, meaning the Jewish leaders, killing him when we got to Jerusalem; but then there was that entry into the city with the people singing psalms and praising him. Surely he was wrong about that “killing me” thing.
Since we had gotten here almost a week early we were spending our nights in Bethany. Hey, it was Passover week. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a room in Jerusalem during Passover week? The Teacher didn’t want any uncertainty about finding lodging. Maybe he got that from his parents. After all, his mother has told us many times about when he was born, and the trouble they had finding a room then. He kids her that he didn’t have a bed then, and had no place to lay his head now. It is a lot easier to find a place outside the city this time of year—especially if you have friends to stay with.
It was a bit of a surprise, then, when he decided to eat the Passover in Jerusalem. Everybody wanted to eat in the city. Rooms were sure to be scarce. But he sent Peter and John to find a room. I overheard his strange instructions to them.
“When you get into the city you will see a man carrying a water jug. Follow him. When goes into a house, ask the owner where the room is where your teacher will hold his seder.”
Now what were the odds? No man carries water; that’s woman’s work. And even if they were to find such a man, why would his master just give a prepared room to a couple of fishermen who asked? Yet, apparently all went as the Teacher had said, for when we got to the gate of the city, there were Peter and John waiting to show us to a house with an upper room all ready for us, just as if the owner had been expecting us. I know, a lot of people prepare rooms for guests at Passover, but this room was a perfect size and prepared for a large group. This man was not expecting some small family.
We went into the room and everybody found a place around the table. I know some people picture us all on one side, but who does that? No, we sat, or rather reclined, around the table. Why waste space? Besides, it was easier to hear the Teacher if we were closer to him. (Not that anybody ever had trouble hearing him anyway; remember that “sermon on the hill?”)
The first half
A seder can be fun, but it is pretty somber, too. This one was even more of a downer after the Teacher started it by saying this would be the last one he would eat with us. He was back to that “they’re going to kill me” routine. But then everything went normally for a while. We got through the story of the exodus. We had the first cup and went on.
The first dipping was a little awkward. The Teacher said something about being betrayed by one who dipped with him. It almost made us change the routine. Nobody, it seemed, wanted to dip with him. One of the Judas’s had apparently not heard him, or was already in the process. He finished dipping at the same time as the Teacher. Then the rest of us did our dip.
Then came the second cupthe one before the meal. There the Teacher repeated that he would not again drink the seder cups until in the kingdom. That sure made Simon (not Peter) perk up his ears. Any mention of kingdom was of special interest to him. I wish the subject never had come up. The meal started and you couldn’t shut Simon up about the kingdom. He was either discussing it with the Teacher, or bragging about what he and his friends planned to do to the Roman garrison. I was glad when the meal ended and the Teacher said the grace after meals.
The Teacher often followed Rabbi Hillel in matters such as the Passover. Earlier, following Hillel’s instructions, we had eaten the bitter herbs between a couple of pieces of matza. Now came the time for just plain matza. We were expecting the usual comments about how the fathers had to leave Egypt so quickly that they did not have time to let the bread rise. Instead, the Teacher referred us back to something he had said on a previous Passover, when he had fed thousands of people with a little bread and a few fish. On that Passover he had offended a few people by saying he was the bread from heaven, and that they would have to eat him in order to live. A lot of people left us after that holiday. This time he was repeating the same idea. He said the blessing over the bread. “Baruch ata adonai, Elohenu melech ha-olam, ha- motzi lechem min ha-aretz.” (Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe who brings bread from the earth.) Then he told us all to eat it because it was his body given for us.
Of course, this was before the events of the next day, so we were a little (OK, a lot) confused about what he meant. We had heard the bit about eating his flesh before, but what did he mean about giving his body for us? This evening was getting stranger as it proceeded.
If we had a problem with the matza, the third cup was even more a problem. He said the blessing for the grape. ”Baruch ata Adonai, Elohenu melech ha-olam, boray peri ha-gafen.” (Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe who created the fruit of the vine.) Then he told us all to drink the fruit of the vine (he always used that phrase instead of specifying wine) because it was his blood of the new covenant. Eating his flesh and drinking his blood; that we could handle, barely. But this reference to a new covenant was something else. Sure he had quoted Isaiah many times in our hearing. We knew the scriptures about a new covenant, but we didn’t expect it quite yet. Was he to be a new Moses, bringing down a new set of commandments? Actually, he said, he was. He talked about a new command, which was really not new. This was a command to love. He said this new covenant would be recognizable by the love its participants showed to one another, and even outside the covenant. We had heard him quote Hillel many times, saying that the greatest command was to love God and the second was to love people. Now he was making it the cornerstone of a new covenant. We didn’t understand it all then. We didn’t understand much of it then. But within days we saw his show that love by shedding his blood. We saw him after his resurrection, living that love. What we had difficulty with that night seems almost routine now.
After supper, and after the matza and the third cup, a heated discussion began. As usual, it started with the teacher’s cousins and then Peter jumped in. It was the same old argument about who would be first in the kingdom. So of course the other Simon had to chime in too. Fortunately this was about the traditional time for washing our hands. I understand that some people now do it earlier in the evening, but for us it came after the third cup. Thus it was no real surprise to see the Teacher grab a towel and a basin of water. Again, though, he seemed to change things around, and make them significant in a different way. Rather than bringing the water to each of us so we could wash our hands, the Teacher began washing our feet. He started with John, who was too surprised to say anything. Then he turned to Peter.
You know Peter. You can probably imagine how he reacted. Washing his hands was one thing; washing his feet was something totally different and unheard of. That was a servant’s job. The Teacher was the master; he had no business washing feet, and especially not Peter’s feet! Never Peter’s feet! But the Teacher calmly said something to him that changed Peter. The next thing we knew he was ready to pour the basin over himself, saying to wash his head and hands also. The teacher told us, as he often did, to follow his example. If we were to be masters, we had to be servants. After the argument of a few minutes before, the room was amazingly silent.
It was about this time that we had to dip again. And again Judas, Simon’s son, managed to dip at the same time as the Teacher. I was close enough to hear the Teacher tell him to hurry up and do what he was going to do. Judas rushed out, to everyone’s surprise. The meal was over. Surely he couldn’t have to go buy something that we forgot. And where would he buy it? The holiday had started. There was nowhere to go. This just added more mystery to an already strange evening.
The Teacher now lived up to his designation. He taught us many things. We talked about following where he was going. He talked about the Father, and about leaving us. He promised to send us someone to help us after he had left. Then he prayed that we might all be united. He talked; we listened; we failed to understand most of what he talked about.
Even after all that Judas was not back in time for the final cup. So we decided to proceed without him. He would know where to find us. So we sung a hymn and went to the garden in the olive grove. And the rest is history.
(Based on Matthew 26; Mark 14; Luke 22; John 13-17)