Maundy Thursday: Last meals

"Frontrunner for my choice of last meal. Best BBQ, anywhere."
photo and caption by Mike Wayne
A week ago, a friend sent me a picture of a metal cafeteria tray loaded with dry-rub ribs, beef brisket, skin-on French fries, collard greens with bacon, a plastic cup full of homemade BBQ sauce, and next to the tray, a tall beer and a roll of paper towels. Along with the picture, he sent a caption: “Frontrunner for my choice of last meal. Best BBQ, anywhere.” I have to admit, his picture looked delicious. And c’mon…what better compliment can you give a favorite restaurant than making grandiose claims about making their food your last meal?

This week, as I have been thinking about the last days of Jesus’ life, and as I have been thinking about the scene unfolding here in the Upper Room, with Jesus and his disciples gathered for the Passover meal, and the footwashing and the premonition of betrayal that were served up right along with the bread and wine, my friend’s picture and caption kept popping into my head, because isn’t Maundy Thursday about last meals?

And the more I thought about my friend’s picture, the more I started thinking about the idea of last meals, and the more I started thinking about last meals, the more I started thinking about the book Dead Man Walking, written by Sister Helen Prejean, which is her reflection on her experiences serving as a spiritual advisor to prisoners on death row. There is a passage in which she recalls sitting with one inmate in his cell during his last meal:
I am surprised when Captain Rabelais and the warden appear with Robert’s last meal. It is six o’clock.

His last meal.

When Robert sees the trays of food, he smiles and rubs his hands together and says this is one meal he’s going to enjoy….He loves fried seafood.

A guard places three trays of fried shrimp, oysters, and fish, fried potatoes, and salad on three chairs in front of him. [Robert’s handcuffs remain on] but detached from the leather belt [around his waist], so he can move his hands to eat.

I take a sip – a tiny one – of [my] iced tea. Robert, occupying a universe of his own, picks up a fried shrimp with his fingers, smells it with obvious delight, and eats. And eats and eats and talks and eats, and it is hard for me to realize that this is his last meal. He seems to have found some space, some grace, some kind of lagoon in the present moment, even though close by are white, crashing rapids.

Maybe his experience in life has taught him early on that life is waves, not particles, that nothing is really solid, that everything is flow. Or maybe his fierce “macho” stance has inured him from appropriate feelings. “Electric chair don’t scare me, man,” [he said]. I quietly ask God to help me let go of life freely when it’s time for me to die. Ignatius of Loyola, Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Francis of Assisi – every saint has taught me the paradox that lies at the heart of the spiritual life: to love passionately but with freedom of spirit that does not cling even to life itself.
That last sentence is the absolute heart of what Jesus’ last supper is all about. So I’ll repeat it: “The paradox that lies at the heart of the spiritual life is to love passionately but with freedom of spirit that does not cling even to life itself.” I can’t think of a better way to describe the outpouring of selfless love that Jesus demonstrates by sharing his last meal with his disciples.

In another gospel account of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, he says to them, “How I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover meal with you!” which in its own weird way is the Biblical equivalent of my friend’s “Frontrunner for my choice of last meal” photo caption.

And honestly, I find it truly amazing – baffling, even – that Jesus would be so desperate to eat his last Passover meal with his disciples. I mean, his “frontrunner for his choice of last meal” is a supper eaten with a tableful of doubters, grumblers, and misunderstanders, who will desert and deny him once the last crumbs of bread have been eaten, who will fall asleep when they are supposed to watch and pray, who will offer him a kiss of betrayal, who will hide out in fear, and who will stand at the mouth of an empty tomb, more clueless than amazed by what they find there in the garden.

And not only does Jesus eat with these well-meaning but messed-up friends of his, but he kneels down, pulls off their dusty sandals, and washes their dirty feet, because he loves them so much, and the only way to show them how much he loves them is for him to serve them in the most humiliating and disgusting way he can think of.

And guess what: when we come up to this table tonight, we come up as the same well-meaning but messed-up disciples who were present for that Passover meal. We are doubters and grumblers, and we misunderstand Jesus’ instructions, and we desert him and deny him and are afraid to speak up about our faith, and even though we love Jesus, we get it wrong all the time. Just like the twelve.

And what really gets me, what really cuts my heart to the core, knowing that even though Jesus is facing the absolute agony of anticipating his own death, he is still more concerned for us than he is for himself.

I mean let’s be honest. How many of us, standing face to face with our own deaths, would have the strength to put our love for others ahead of our terror?

But tonight’s gospel says, “having loved his own who were in the world, [Jesus] loved them to the end.” Having already loved us who remain in this world, Jesus loves us to the end, putting his love ahead of his glory, and putting his love ahead of his dignity, and putting his love ahead of his own life. Jesus loves us passionately, deeply, and freely all the way to the end of his life, and to the end of our lives, and to the end of all things, even to the end of death itself.

And so out of such a great love, he invites us here to the table tonight, where we will eat with him his last meal; it is a meal of both the loveliness and agony. Inasmuch as this is a last meal for Jesus, it is also very much a last meal for us. It is bite of bread to nourish us on our walk to the foot of the cross, and a sip of wine to sustain us in our long night of waiting before the resurrection dawn.

Christ’s next meals will happen on the far side of the empty tomb. He will eat a breakfast of fish around a campfire at the edge of the water, and he will share a meal of bread and wine with still-clueless disciples at Emmaus. These first meals of his resurrection will be the first meals of a reordered universe where life wins and death loses and all creation has been scooped up and transformed into the new creation of God’s kingdom.

Let me tell you, I can’t wait to eat at that resurrection banquet.

But we aren’t quite there yet. We aren’t on the far side of anything. We’ve made our reservations, but the waiting list is still three days long.

Tonight, the best we can do is accept the invitation to eat inside a prison cell with a death row inmate whose primary concern is that our feet get clean. And he doesn’t ask us to petition the governor for a pardon, and he doesn’t ask us to become accomplices in a jail-break, and he doesn’t ask us to hire him a new attorney.

All he does is ask us, quite simply, to love others as deeply as he loves us, even if our love is imperfect and even if our knees creak as we bend down to wash each other’s feet and even if our backs get sore from carrying each other’s burdens. “If you know these things,” Jesus says, “you will blessed if you do them.”

So eat tonight, and drink. And be brave. Take off your shoes and let somebody else touch your toes. And when you leave from here in silence, go out with the taste of this last meal on your tongue, and walk out into the world on your clean and beautiful feet, and love. Love the world as deeply as you have been loved. Love the deserving and the undeserving. Love the last and the first. Love like you have never loved before.

It is your only commandment.

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