IT IS NOT UNUSUAL when a person dies for the people who knew him best and loved him most to try to remember the last time that they ever saw him or the last time, like Christmas for instance, or somebody's birthday, or a picnic on the beach, when they all came together, perhaps ate together, when they all were together in the special way that people who love each other are at some special moment like that. And then, as time goes by and Christmas comes round again, or that birthday, or another picnic on that same beach, the person who has since died is apt to be very much on the minds of the people who are there. They may never actually mention his name for fear of seeming sentimental or of upsetting the others or perhaps just from fear of upsetting themselves, but that does not greatly matter. Because the air rings loud, of course, with the name that they do not mention, and in a unique sense he is with them there, the absent one. He is there at least as a memory, at least as a lump in the throat, but maybe as much more than that. He may be there as a presence, a benediction, a terrible reproach, or possibly as all of these at once.
It is with something like this, I think, that you have to start if you try to understand why it is that in all of its long history and in most of its many branches, the Christian faith has made so much of the Last Supper. To begin with it was, of course, the last supper. They never all ate together again. In a sense they never even saw him again, at least not really, because within a few hours of their eating, all Hell broke loose, to put it quite literally. It was night time, and there were soldiers, and there was the fear of their own deaths as well as of his, and they were scared stiff, and so it seems unlikely that from that time forward they saw anything very clearly except their own terror or heard anything very clearly except the pounding of their own hearts. So that supper was virtually if not in fact the last time that they saw him, and they had good reason to know that it was even at the time.
Certainly he knew it, and he did not have to be omniscient to know it either. Anybody with eyes in his head could see that the Romans and the Jews alike were out to get him. He had attacked the Jews' most ancient and sacred tradition, which was their Law, and he was a threat also to what the Romans held most sacred, which was, ironically, peace in the Empire, the pax Romana. He had every reason to know that his death was upon him, and although it would seem that he could have avoided it easily enough—all that he had to do, presumably, was to get out of the city and lay low for a while—he chose to stay and die because he was convinced that this was the will of God. He felt that his death was necessary if the world was to be saved from the very evil that was destroying him.
He spoke of his death this way, and as he spoke, he performed a symbolic act, taking up the loaf of bread, breaking it in his hands, and saying, "This is my body which is broken for you" —in other words, "I die willingly, for your sake, just as I break this bread now for your sake." And then the cup of wine, which he spoke of as the blood that he would shed for them. Afterward, he invited the disciples to eat and drink this food, and with this the symbol is expanded somewhat and shifted; that is, he invites them to share in his life, to take his life into themselves, to live out in their own lives both the suffering and also the joy of it. And for all these centuries the Church has been re-enacting this last supper as a symbol of these things, a symbol of his giving his life away for the sake of the world, and a symbol of his followers' participating in this life, this giving.
- Originally published in The Magnificent Defeat