The First and the Last

I find the works of Christian artist, Sadao Watanabe, interesting. As a Christian born and raised in Japan, his view of Christ and the Gospel message come from a different perspective. Like the four Gospels themselves, different perspectives don’t necessarily change the message, so much as give us new ways to think about how to apply it to life. Whether he intended it or not, his depictions of Jesus with His disciples always look to me as if the disciples are pestering Jesus, much like a litter of baby kittens are always climbing on mom and demanding attention.

Though Watanabe was a prolific artist, it’s somewhat telling how many different depictions he did of the Last Supper. Though I haven’t found a complete listing of all of his works, a quick search turns up at least seven or eight different instances of the Last Supper. There are many similarities between them. They often depict fish on the table, alongside bottles of sake. Judas is also usually shown holding the money bag behind his back, while the disciple on Jesus’ left hand is usually prodding Him and looking distressed.

Reflecting on the various depictions Watanabe has done made me consider the very nature of what we call, “The Last Supper.” One of the things I was chewing on was the fact that nowhere does the Bible actually call this scene the “Last Supper.” We see from the perspective of the Gospel writers that it is the last supper Jesus celebrates with His disciples before His crucifixion. We also have Jesus’ words that He will not share the fruit of the vine again with them until He drinks new with them in His Father’s kingdom. So, there are reasons why “last” is an appropriate adjective, but it is still something we’ve come to associate with the events of Maundy Thursday. That means calling it the “Last Supper” may not be wrong, but it does mean we should be careful about how we think about it. Calling it the last certainly implies there won’t be any more.

As a pastor, I’m neck deep in the work of Holy Week. From a liturgical perspective, the services of Holy Week are quite unique in the calendar. Every congregation has its own traditions and liturgical elements it is used to, but all of that makes the services at the end of Holy Week distinct. A Good Friday service, regardless of whether you have Communion or whether you have some variety of tenebrae service or something else entirely, probably doesn’t look like any normal Sunday service. If it does, you’re probably doing it wrong. An Easter Vigil service is very different from other services, with its emphasis on quiet reflection and meditation on the work of our Lord. Maundy Thursday probably follows more or less a standard divine service format, but the feel of the service is still different from what you would be doing on Sunday. Lent has been building up to this moment, but now the moment has arrived and the mix of urgency and somberness we see in Jesus as He celebrates the Passover with His disciples flows over us as well. Easter morning is, of course, what this is all about. The highest of the high feast days. This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for and the voices of Christians everywhere shake the rafters as they join together joyfully singing, “Jesus Christ is Risen Today!”

Still, for all of that unusualness, there is another liturgical layer that is often overlooked and, in many cases, omitted entirely. The church has long considered the services from Maundy Thursday through Easter to be not 4 separate services, but one extended service. The ancient form of this is called the Triduum or “three days.” In this case the days are not thought of as calendar days but as 24 hour periods from the end of Maundy Thursday service to Easter evening. If your church follows this pattern, you’ll notice there is no benediction at the end of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, or Easter Vigil. The benediction is given when God is sending you out to carry out your work in the world and declaring that He will be with you. Here we only find the benediction at the end of Easter services. It’s as if all of these services are meant to be one continuous story and it is only when you have heard the conclusion of the story that God sends you out.

The culmination of all of Christ’s work is in His death and resurrection. Not just His death, but His death and resurrection. Going back into the world without hearing Christ has been raised puts in the same position as the disciples huddling in the upper room. We end up being the very people St. Paul preaches about in 1 Corinthians, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” But if everything is about Christ’s death and resurrection, then it seems odd that the Last Supper is included in this story. Jesus doesn’t die on Thursday, nor does He rise from the dead. Why is this service made a part of the whole?

The answer comes in what Jesus is doing here. Jesus is already telling the disciples that this is the last time this will happen…”until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” This may be the last time for the moment, but it will happen again. That means it isn’t really the last at all. It’s at this point I recall Jesus’ words, “So the last will be first and the first last.” Granted, Jesus is addressing a different issue there, however, the idea that God upends our notions of what is first and what is last is very much valid. Of course, we have Jesus’ words in Revelation to go with it, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.  Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.” Jesus encompasses the first and the last and everything in between and commands that those things that have been seen be written. Words just as appropriate for John and the other Gospel writers as they were for John at that moment.

If we think about the story told by the Triduum about Jesus’ death and resurrection, the main events are certainly His death and resurrection. But, at the Last Supper, Jesus is already alluding to the future, to a “Next Supper.” The Last Supper becomes the introduction that helps us to understand what the rest of the story is all about. Jesus will die, but He won’t stay dead. He’ll rise again, but He won’t just rise for His own gain. In His life, we find our own life. Jesus will share this supper with us again.

That means, while it is perfectly reasonable to refer to the meal Jesus shares with His disciples as the Last Supper, we might very well call it the “First Supper.” For every time we come to the Lord’s table, we share it with Him as we celebrate with the bread and the wine in His presence. This is not a mere commemoration, but continuation of what Christ began as He share the Lord’s Supper with His disciples for the first time. Everything that happened over those three days carries on-going, eternal significance. We share the meal with Christ and in sharing His table we are brought into that story too. His death is ours and so is His life.

Question – Does seeing Maundy Thursday as a beginning instead of an end change how you view Good Friday and Easter?

The Aaronic Benediction

The Aaronic Benediction that concludes the traditional worship service in a Lutheran church may sound like one of the most basic parts of the service, but it was not always this way.

When Luther was asked to write a revised liturgy that did away with some of the Catholic abuses of the service, he mentioned the Aaronic Benediction as being a worthy conclusion to the service.  This was a rather radical idea, because prior to this the service concluded with the bland statement, “It is the dismissal.”  There is no requirement to use the Aaronic Benediction, for the service of Aaron and his sons has found its fulfillment in Christ, the Great High Priest.  Nevertheless, a blessing given by God already has much to commend it.

The first time we see Aaron blessing the people of Israel is in Leviticus 9, just after his ordination.  The priesthood has been established and now the worship of God can begin.  Moses and Aaron bring the sacrifices and lay them on the altar as the first act of worship, inaugurating the worship life of Israel.

As Moses and Aaron bless the people for the time, fire from heaven comes down to consume the offerings and the glory of the Lord shines forth in splendor.  The symbolism comes through clearly.  The priest has entered into God’s presence and the priest and the people have been accepted.  Now the priest carries out to the people the benefits that only come from being in God’s presence.  God confirms their status as His people.

The benediction is a blessing from God and thus a declaration that even when the people depart they do not go alone.  They continue to be His people and continues to bless them even though they are gathered in worship their status before Him does not change.

It’s unfortunate Luther does not comment more on what he thinks about the Aaronic Benediction, but his rediscovery of it brings a renewed understanding of who we become as a result of our gathering in worship around the presence of God. We take everything we have received with us when we leave. Our identity is built what takes place in worship, but does cease being true when we leave church. We are always God’s people. His presence goes with us wherever we go.

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