The Bread of Affliction: A Meditation on What Jesus Endured at the Last Supper

040115The Last Supper is, strangely, a sad study in the kind of affliction the Lord had to endure from His own disciples. Of all the meals the Lord must have shared with them, this was the one that should have gone beautifully and perfectly; it did not. From one moment to the next the blows just got worse. There were inept responses, distractions, bullheaded debates, and rebukes directed against Jesus … and then of course betrayal. It was nothing short of a disaster. The ineptitude would be almost comical if it weren’t so sad. If ever the Lord needed His disciples’ attention and understanding, it was at the Last Supper. But to a man, they let Him down. There was squabbling, misunderstanding, argumentativeness, and betrayal, all packed into one evening.

I am mindful that the unleavened bread Jesus took in His hands that evening was called “the bread of affliction.” Scripture says, You shall eat [the Passover]  with unleavened bread, the bread of affliction—for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste—that all the days of your life you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt (Dt 16:3).

Indeed it was an evening of affliction! It was so awful that one could hardly have faulted the Lord for saying, “That’s it, Father. I’ve had it with them; I’m coming straight home!” Praise God that He chose to stay and die for the likes of us. And further, He takes this “bread of affliction” we dish out to Him and lifts it to the glory of the Sacrament of His Body and Blood.

Lest we be too critical of The Twelve, remember that we are often like them in many ways. Indeed, they are we and we are they. And the Lord loved both them and us to the end.

So on Holy Thursday, let’s examine the sequence of events at the Last Supper. It illustrates pretty well why the Lord had to die for us. We will see how earnest the Lord is about this Last Supper, how He enters it with an intense love for His disciples and a desire that they (we) heed what He is trying to teach them. We shall see, however, that they (we) show forth a disastrous inattentiveness and a terrible lack of concern for the Lord.

Here, then, are the movements of the Last Supper. Watch how things begin with the loving and careful attentiveness of the Lord and end with a selfish, inept, and unloving response from the Apostles (us?).

  1. COMING CLOUDS – Jesus knows that His hour has come; this will be His last meal. Judas has already conspired and been paid to hand Him over. Scripture says, Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come. He always loved those who were his own, and now he would show them the depths of his love. The devil had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand him over (John 13:1). Thus in the gathering storm Jesus plans His last meal, which will also be the first Holy Mass. He instructs His Apostles to prepare the meal: He sent two of his disciples, and said to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the householder, ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I am to eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us” (Mark 14:13-15).
  2. CARING CONCERN – This last supper was obviously important to Jesus. Luke records the heartfelt words of Jesus: And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you I shall not eat again until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:15-16). Yes, this was to be a very special moment for Jesus.
  3. COSTLY COMMUNION – Jesus, reclining at the table, will now celebrate the Holy Eucharist for the first time. But this was to be a costly communion. He had already lost many disciples for what he taught on the Eucharist (cf John 6:50ff). After the first consecration, Jesus looks into the cup at His own blood, soon to be shed, and He distributes His own body, soon to be handed over. Yes, this is no mere ritual for Him. Every other priest before Jesus had offered a sacrifice distinct from himself (usually an animal, sometimes a libation). But Jesus the great High Priest will offer Himself; it is a costly communion.
  4. COLLABORATIVE CONDESCENSION – During the meal Jesus rises and then stoops to wash the disciples’ feet. He instructs them to see in this action a model for those who would collaborate with Him in any future ministry. John records it this way: He rose from the supper and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded (John 13:5). Jesus then teaches the Disciples: Do you know what I have done for you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you (John 13:12-15). Just moments from now, we will see them demonstrate a complete disregard for what Jesus has just tried to teach them. Now things get bad.
  5. CALLOUS CRIME– Back at table after having taught them that they must wash one another’s feet, Jesus suddenly becomes troubled in spirit and says, I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me (John 13:21). This causes a commotion among the Apostles, who begin to ask, “Who can it be?” As the anxiety around the table builds, Simon Peter motions to John and says, “Ask him which one he means.” Leaning back against Jesus, he [John] asked him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, son of Simon. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. “What you are about to do, do quickly” Jesus told him (John 13:24-30).
  6. CONFOUNDING COMPETITION – But as Judas takes the morsel of bread and heads out into the night, no one even tries to stop him! Despite the fact that Jesus has clearly identified His betrayer, no one rises to block the door or even utters a word of protest! Why not? Luke supplies the answer: A dispute arose among them as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest (Luke 22:24). They should be concerned about Jesus’ welfare but instead they debate which of them is the greatest. How confounding and awful! Yet is that not our history? Too often we are more concerned with our own status and welfare than with any suffering in the Body of Christ. So much that is critical remains unattended to because we are concerned with our own status, position, comfort, and welfare. Jesus had just finished teaching them to wash one another’s feet, but in an amazingly inept response, they end up arguing as to who among them is the greatest. Jesus patiently reminds them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves (Luke 22:25-27). Meanwhile, due to their (our) egotistical ineptitude Judas has escaped into the night.
  7. CAUSTIC CONTENTIOUSNESS – Jesus continues to teach at the Last Supper. At this moment He surely wanted to impress upon them His final instruction. How He must have longed for them to listen carefully and to deeply internalize what He was teaching! Instead, all He gets are arguments. Both Thomas and Phillip rebuke Him. John records this outrage: Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God ; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” But Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; henceforth you know him and have seen him. So Thomas rhetorically rebuked the Lord by saying, in effect, “We have NO IDEA where you are going; when will you show us the way?” Jesus answers, but Phillip will have none of this promise to see the Father and boldly says, “Lord, show us the Father, and then we shall be satisfied.” Jesus, likely saddened at all this, says to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? (John 14:1-9) His own Apostles are being argumentative and contentious. They are caustic and seem to rebuke the Lord. This supper isn’t going so well!
  8. COMIC CREDIBILITY GAP – Undeterred, Jesus embarks on a lengthy discourse (recorded by John) that has come to be called the priestly prayer of Jesus. At the end of it, the Apostles remark, perhaps ironically, perhaps with sincerity, Ah, now at last you are speaking plainly, not in any figure! Now we know that you know all things, and need none to question you; by this we believe that you came from God (John 16:29-30). But Jesus knows their praise is hollow and will not withstand the test. There is a great credibility gap in what they say, so much so that it is almost comical. So Jesus replies, Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, every man to his home, and will leave me alone (John 16:31-32). Peter protests, saying, Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away. Here is another almost comic credibility gap. Jesus says to Peter, Truly, I say to you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times. Still insistent, Peter replies, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And so said all the disciples (John 16:33-35). Well, you know the story, and you know that only John made it to the Cross. Their credibility was, by this time, a dark comedy.
  9. COMPASSIONATE CONSTANCY– But you also know the rest of the story. Jesus went on and died for the likes of them (us). I wonder if He had some of this Last Supper in mind when He said to the Father, “Forgive them, they know not what they do.” It is almost as if to say, “They have absolutely no idea what they are doing or thinking, so have mercy on them, Father.”

What a grim picture of us the Last Supper was! A disaster, really. But the glory of the story and the saving grace is this: the Lord Jesus Christ went to the Cross anyway. Seeing this terrible portrait of them (us), can we really doubt the Lord’s love for us?

May your Holy Thursday be blessed. I hope you will attend Mass and the Last Supper/First Mass will be made present to you. Never forget what Jesus endured!

6 Replies to “The Bread of Affliction: A Meditation on What Jesus Endured at the Last Supper”

  1. Jesus knew what Judas planned to do well in advance of him doing it. But it was important to Christ that the Last Supper not be interrupted by Judas betraying Him and the arrest He knew would follow. So how does Jesus ensure that His arrest will not take place until after the Last Supper is over? He arranges for the location of it to be a secret or mystery to most of the apostles (including Judas). Judas didn’t know where it was going to take place. As a result, he had to wait until afterwards to go and get the Temple guards when he must have known that they would take a walk to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray after eating. A minor, but important, consideration when contemplating the Last Supper.

  2. Is it correct that Judas left *after* Our Lord distributed his Body and Blood? I’ve always found this a mystery, why Judas was included in that… unless I’m wrong. Very telling, too, that Jesus must have washed Judas’ feet as well. The Love and Mercy He offers are truly astounding.
    My prayers and best wishes to you for these Holy Days, Msgr. Pope, thank you and may God always bless you.

  3. ‘ 8. Comic Credibility Gap’ Although not mentioned, Jesus was lovely towards the apostles when he told them that although they would scatter he would not be alone, he would have the Father, he told them this so they would have peace, from John 16: 32-33.

  4. They are we, but im not too critical of them. They were raised knowing the old Covenant. They were told in Lk 22 “It is you who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer a kingdom on you” yet they couldn’t fully grasp how our Lord’s supper was the fulfillment of all, the Passover to the new and eternal Covenant, from death to life, darkness to light. We who were raised in the New, in the Mystery of Faith (cf 1Cor11:23-26) are blessed, yet we all fall short for the same lack of faith. Father, have mercy. Christ Jesus, have mercy. Holy Spirit, have mercy.

  5. How strange. All the apostles who ran from the cross eventually died by it (or something like it)…and John, who stood at the foot of the cross, as far as we know, did not die a martyr’s death.

    Any thoughts about this?

Comments are closed.