Maundy Thursday: Betrayal and Denial

As we come to Maundy Thursday,
as we reflect anew on that Last Supper,
that institution of a meal that is at the very heart
of Christian identity and formation,
I have a troubling series of questions:

When did this revolutionary meal get so domesticated?

When did a meal eaten in secrecy because it was so dangerous,
get to be so public and safe?

How did it happen that a meal of subversion
became a badge of legitimacy?

How could such a meal of liberation
ever become a tool of oppression?

How could a meal of such radical memory
ever devolve into such numbed out amnesia?

When did a meal of such horrific images
– body broken, blood poured –
ever get so nice,
dressed up as if this were a high class dinner party?

Or maybe I could put the question this way:

When did a meal of covenantal faithfulness and trust
devolve into betrayal and denial?

And the answer is: from the very beginning.

Betrayal and denial have always been the context of this meal.

The Last Supper,
this revolutionary re-interpretation of the Passover,
this Eucharist,
has always been framed by betrayal and denial.

And it still is.

Jesus isn’t so good at small talk over dinner.
He never quite honed the skills of polite dinner chatter.
So, he drops a bomb early in the proceedings,

“Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me,
one of you who is eating with me.”

Well, that isn’t really a conversation starter, is it?

Saying something like this at dinner can only disrupt the proceedings,
can only make everyone’s stomach drop,
and take away their appetite as they’re trying to enjoy their meal.

Betrayal.

It seems that there can’t be a revolution without betrayal.

It seems that this path that Jesus is on,
this path towards a showdown with the authorities,
this path that will see him dead within 24 hours,
is a path that crosses a bridge of betrayal.

I guess that you don’t get broken bodies and poured blood
without betrayal somewhere in the story.

Betrayal is written into the script.
Betrayal is part of the story of this meal.
And betrayal tragically remains within this meal to this day.

You see, when this meal, this Eucharist,
this foundational enacted memory of the church,
is domesticated and becomes a symbol of legitimacy,
is eaten in the context of oppression and injustice,
is a meal of exclusion and not inclusion,
then it becomes a meal of betrayal all over again.

And as faithfulness succumbs before betrayal,
so also is trust overcome by denial.

The story begins with betrayal, but it ends with denial.|
The story begins with deceit, but it ends with desertion.

Not me, protests Peter.
Not me.

All those guys might abandon you, but not me, insists this fisherman.

Before the cock crows twice, Jesus replies,
before the cock crows twice,
you will deny me three times.

Just as betrayal is at the heart of this meal,
so also is denial.

You see, when this meal that calls us to trust,
and invites us to remember,
is domesticated and becomes a symbol of legitimacy,
is eaten in the context of oppression and injustice,
and becomes a meal of exclusion and not inclusion,
then it devolves into denial all over again.

On Maundy Thursday we gather to remember.
We gather to eat the bread and to drink the wine.
We gather to root ourselves again, deeply in this story of redemption,
by eating this meal of liberation.

And we will gather to pray.
We will gather to do what the disciples could not do:
to watch and pray.

Maybe we could commit ourselves anew to do something else
that the disciples could not do:
to be faithful and to trust.

You see, when the rituals of watching and praying,
even on Maundy Thursday,
are domesticated and become a symbol of legitimacy,
are accompanied by oppression and injustice,
and serve a piety of exclusion and not inclusion,
then Maundy Thursday devolves into betrayal and denial all over again.

May it not be so, sisters and brothers,
may it not be so.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian and the CRC Campus Minister at the University of Toronto. He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is entitled Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination.

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