I thirst. The Last Supper and the Cross.

In the refectory, beneath the Corpus on the west wall, is carved the word SITIO. “I thirst” (Vulgate of John 19:28). It is the fifth ‘Last Word’ from the Cross. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus refuses drugged wine, but is offered a sponge dipped in oxos or posca – wine vinegar, sour wine. It is a popular drink with Roman soldiers, because it was cheap, and considered more thirst-quenching than water alone. It killed some harmful bacteria in water and often made foul-smelling water more palatable. A sponge was part of Roman soldiers’ accessories, used to pad to the helmet as well as serving as a drinking aid.

In agony and humiliation, the king of the innocent, the king of Israel, the king of the Gentiles, the eternal king of glory, in his authentic agony inspires an outsider, a soldier, who was not in the least required to share his drink with the criminals under his power. But Jesus truly reigns from the tree for that unnamed gentile. Watching his slow death – one among so very many in Roman-occupied Palestine – we see the power of Christ made perfect in our human weakness. ‘I thirst’ evokes the offering of posca on his sponge – an extraordinary act of mercy, in a scene of unimaginable brutality. Hanging there, after a flogging, bleeding from head, back, hands, and feet – no doubt covered with dirt and faeces: this scene is met with an act of mercy to him, to him who is at that moment bringing the Father’s mercy to the whole universe.

And Jesus received the drink (John 19:30 – ‘ After he had received the vinegar, Jesus said, ‘It is finished’.) In that naked, bloody, and foul public disgrace, Grace, tenderness, and compassion are kindled.

On the eve of that agony there is tonight’s intimate heartbreak upon heartbreak. In the sharing of the Passover meal, the disciples are warned and prepared for the coming darkness and multiple failures, denials, and betrayals that are ahead. Eating together, with Christ in our midst, also banishes self-delusion, as Love confronts falsehood and fear of every kind. In your refectory, as around this altar, there are many perturbations and there is a strange comfort that truth and tenderness alone bring in the midst of conflict.

In our day, binary judgments abound. We are always asked to choose for ourselves, to self-identify, and to sell ourselves by producing résumés and CVs which tend to define ourselves in terms only of the very best things that we have done: our highest achievements, our most impressive qualifications and experiences. But Christ comes to eat with us, day by day, so that together in community and in fellowship, our delusory self-projections may be stayed, encountered by that for which Christ thirsts – truth, and love, and righteousness. ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied’. Sitio – thirsting for righteousness is the very opposite of a vindictive exposure, as it is poles apart from the tyranny of ego. The Lord does not ‘buy into’ a demonized evaluation of others or of ourselves. Tonight, at supper with him, we cannot but consider Judas, whose dreadful choice determined that he would be for ever remembered only for the very worst thing that he could have done. Which of us could survive the everlasting agony of being judged solely for the very worst thing imaginable – something which defines us completely and forever? ‘It would, surely, have been better had we not been born.’ The great liturgical texts provide a feast not of our making, but even in the Lenten Triodion which has seeped into each of our Lenten celebrations this year, there are agonizing references to Judas, e.g.:

Iniquitous Iscariot, forgetful of the Law of friendship, hastened to the betrayal, on the feet which thou hadst washed. Eating thy bread, the divine body, he lifted up his heel against thee. Lacking all conscience… he was not ashamed to drink what he had sold for money. [1]

Forgetting the Law of friendship’ is a poignant and painful description. Whatever it was that prompted Judas – and endless speculation about that will not get us very far – the law of friendship he forgot. And this we so readily also forget. So we are beckoned, together, to eat with the Lord and one another: to cry, to become angry, to bear disillusionment, to know despair, to laugh, to hold one another tenderly as we lean on him at supper, to be healed together, to forgive one another, to grow up and to grow old together, and never to be forgetful of the law of friendship. This is the meal which the Lord has longed to eat with his disciples – this is that for which he hungers, you are those for whom he thirsts; that word – sitio – inscribed in your refectory is spoken over you.

Tomorrow, publicly, when the day is dark and wet, with the wood of the Cross drenched with the Lord’s own blood, he will say ‘I thirst’. Then he will take the vinegared water, but tonight he drinks his last of wine, wine deeply and eternally changed so that, little by little, we too can be changed from tribal judgments of ourselves and others, to see how he sees, to long as he longs, and to thirst for love and truth in everyone. We become one with the Lord, one with the beloved disciple, and by Grace, also, we know ourselves one with Judas as we are renewed by Christ’s love.

He who made the lakes and springs and seas, wishing to teach us the surpassing value of humility, girded himself with a towel and washed the feet of the disciples, humbling Himself in the abundance of his great compassion, and raising us from the depths of wickedness, for he alone loves humanity. The Wisdom of God that restrains the untamed fury of the waters that are above the firmament, that sets a bridal on the deep, and keeps back the seas, now pours water into a basin; and the Master washes the feet of his servants… He who wraps the heaven in clouds girds himself with a towel; and He, in whose hand is the life of all things, kneels down to wash the feet of his servants. [2]

The community at which he is the centre, and of which is the focus, cannot but – despite itself – fulfill his longing to restore all the creation in his own body. His life will change all our sickness, obsession, and sin, into Love. It takes time for this Grace to sink in.

“God will punish all atheists,” a hermit once said to Staretz Silouan, “they will burn in everlasting fire!”

Obviously upset, Silouan said:

“Tell me, supposing you went to Paradise, and there, you looked down and saw someone burning in hell fire – would you feel happy?”

“It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault!” said the hermit.

The Staretz answered him with sorrowful countenance: “Love could not bear that,” he said. “We must pray for all.”[3]

Even in our intimate shelter of this Last Supper, we pray for all in any kind of hell – and ask even for the unspeakable grace to pray in our own hells for others in theirs, too. Tonight, we bathe in the intimate light of the Lord at supper, before tomorrow, bloody and dirty and naked, rough wood and cold iron will hold him aloft, until, crushed and broken, his Mother embraces him again, tenderly, in an agonizing Pietà. He who hold all souls in his mind and Sacred Heart, will be caressed in the lap of his brokenhearted Mother. And yet she, after his burial, would still have us love and forgive: she fulfills his longing and thirst, as is imaginatively and intuitively grasped in this poem:

 

In Mary’s house the mourners gather.

Sorrow pierces them like a nail.

Where’s Mary herself meanwhile?

Gone to comfort Judas’s mother.[4]

—————————————————————————————————————————–

Notes:

[1] Lenten Triodion, p 533.

[2] Lenten Triodion pp. 549, 541.

[3] Sophrony Sakarov, Saint Silouan, p.48.

[4] Norma Farber,Compassion’ in H. J. Richards A Worship Anthology for Lent and Easter. London: Mayhew 1994, p.33.

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[Revd Dr] Andrew Teal Chaplain, Fellow, Lecturer in Patristic & Modern Theology, Pembroke College, Oxford. Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of Oxford Warden, Community of the Sisters of the Love of God. ADVANCE NOTICE: Inspiring Service. November 23rd 2018 The Pichette Auditorium, Pembroke College Oxford. A panel of speakers to inspire adventurous and fulfilling service. Speakers: Lord David Alton of Liverpool, a leading lay British Catholic; Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, one of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints; Revd Prof Frances Young, leading British Methodist; and The Most Revd & Rt Hon Prof Rowan Williams (Baron Williams of Oystermouth), formerly Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of the world-wide Anglican Church.

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