It was a night like no other night.
In the ancient walled city of Jerusalem, thousands of Jews had traveled long distances for an important Jewish festival.They had been doing this for centuries to commemorate the exodus of the Israelites. They were there to thank Yahweh for their safe deliverance from Egyptian slavery, from the bitterness of servitude and to the safety of the land that was promised by God to his chosen people.
Among those who came were a group of men who had gathered in the upper room to partake of the Passover meal. They were tired and confused. Earlier in the day, their leader, Jesus had told two of his disciples to go into the city where they would come upon a man carrying a jar of water. He instructed them to follow him and whatever house he entered they were to tell the owner that Jesus and his disciples would eat the Passover meal in the upper room.
The disciples puzzled over the strange scene of a man carrying a jar of water. That was women`s work. Only women filled their pitchers with water and carried them on their heads to their homes.They also could not fathom why they were to eat the Passover meal that night. Historically, Passover is a pilgrimage festival during which the entire population of the Kingdom of Judah made a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar and Passover was celebrated on the first Friday, following a full moon in the vernal equinox. Many Jewish scholars thought Jews in far away lands could not be certain if their local calendars fully conformed to that of the Temple. They added an extra day to accommodate people who had to travel great distances. The practice of adding an extra day might also have been a safety measure in areas where Jews were often in danger so that their enemies could not be certain on which day to attack them.
The Jewish day was modeled on the reference to “there was evening and there was morning`in the story of creation. Therefore, a day in the Hebrew calendar begins at sunset to the next sunset. In the story of Exodus, Israelites marked their doorposts with lamb`s blood to protect them from the tenth plague – the slaughter of the first born. With this protective mark, the destruction would “pass over“ the house. To commemorate that ritual, lambs would be slaughtered by priests in the temple in the early afternoon of Thursday, giving families enough time to cook them (usually roasted) and eat the meal on Friday night – a day that began at sunset. If such is the case, then the disciples were puzzled as to why they would eat the Passover meal on Thursday and not Friday as Jewish laws dictated.
The Last Supper as a sacrificial meal closely resembled the Passover, but every critical element was puzzling: the day, the time and above all the sacrificial lamb and its significance was missing. Only priests can slit the throats of the lambs in the Temple and give it to the people to prepare the meal.
The weary group of disciples were clueless. They seemed to be composed but there was an underlying tension in the room. They were troubled and filled with doubt. They had heard of Jesus talk about his impending death with obvious sadness. Now Jesus was telling them he would not be with them much longer. They were frightened and their faith seemed to waver. Earlier in the week, Jesus had triumphantly entered Jerusalem. A great crowd had assembled to welcome him. They brought branches of palm trees and went out to greet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord – King of Israel.“
For centuries, Jews had awaited a Messiah with a fervor beyond comprehension. No matter how many had been born, grew up and died, each new generation was sure they would be the one to bring forth the Messiah. Here at last was a man whom the Jewish people believed to be the One. He would avenge and free his people from their oppressors with hordes of sword-bearing angels in fiery chariots. Alas, many in Jerusalem, Galilee, in towns and villages around the land, were sorely disappointed. Instead of calling on legions to strike the Romans, Jesus spoke of the power of love and forgiveness.
Caiaphas, the high priest and elders of the Temple were alarmed when the crowds greeted Jesus with such enthusiasm. Even though the Jewish people were in bondage to Rome, they had some autonomy and freedom of religion. They were free to worship Yahweh and follow their own laws, as long as those laws did not conflict with Rome. The Sanhedrin, the Jewish High Court, had supreme authority in religious matters and maintained a balance between the Sadducees and the Pharisees — believers in the written law and believers in the oral law. They had the power to try people of criminal offences and to carry out the punishment – the most common being, death by stoning. But they had no power to convict a person of sedition. That was left to the Roman governor and the most common form of punishment was crucifixion.
Caiaphas and the elders feared even this autonomy would be taken away because they considered Jesus to be a rabble rouser. They were all the more alarmed when the Jewish people stated proclaiming Jesus as a King – a King who had no legions to command and who rode triumphantly into Jerusalem on a donkey! They plotted to have this trouble maker eliminated. They reasoned it was better for one man to die than have the whole Jewish nation suffer.
To add to the confusion, anxiety and fear of the men around Jesus, he calmly mentioned that one of them would betray him. They looked at each other in utter disbelief. He had led them on, steadily but gently toward this moment. Yet they were not prepared for it. They were stunned. Each apostle tapped his bosom, begging for answer, “Is it I, Lord“ The feast, an hour old, was disrupted. Judas had stopped eating. He too, had asked, in feigned surprise, the same question and like others, received no answer. Jesus took a morsel of bread, dipped it in a bowl of bitter herbs and handed it to Judas. Inwardly he trembled as Jesus told him that whatever he had to do, to do it quickly.
After Judas had left, Jesus solemnly offered his body and blood in the form of bread and wine. none of them understood that Jesus had instituted a new sacrament and he had done it without defiling it with the presence of a sinner. Yet, barely 24 hours later, all of them, with the exception of John, would flee, abandoning him to a cruel fate. Many would reject him and Peter would deny him not once – but three times.
After his arrest and trail by the Sanhedrin, Jesus was brought before Pilate who at first found no fault in this just man. But Caiaphas and the elders assured Pilate that this man was inciting the nation to revolt. He opposed the collection of taxes to Caesar and also claimed to be a King. Pilate was aghast. The words revolt, taxes and Caesar terrified him for it meant a totally different charge against the prisoner. It was now a high crime of treason against the Roman Empire. Pilate realized it was a naked threat to him and he had no choice but to hand over Jesus to the Roman soldiers to be crucified. To make sure everyone understood the case, Pilate had an inscription placed above the head of Christ on the cross. It read: “Jesus of Nazareth. King of the Jews.“ It was written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin so people would know that this was his crime.
As the present world commemorates the Last Supper, it must be understood that it is not just the partaking of the bread and wine that is transformed into the body and blood of Christ. It is how we are transformed into better human beings by loving God and our neighbor.
And as we commemorate the suffering, the shameful and ignominious death of Christ on the cross at three in the afternoon of Good Friday, we will do well to keep in mind that by the Jewish calendar it was still Thursday. For centuries, scholars have tried in vain to explain and synchronize various calendars to conform to the general idea that Christ was crucified on a Friday. He was not. The simple explanation would be that Christ, in his infinite wisdom chose Thursday afternoon because that would be the time when he and the paschal lambs would be sacrificed.