It was dusk in Jerusalem. The sun, having finished its journey, hid itself among the barren and jaundiced mountains of Judea. Suddenly, the Paschal moon, round and silent, appeared in the sky…. It was the 13th day of the month of Nissan, Thursday, the eve of the great feast…
Peter: Hey guys, now’s the time! My mother-in-law, Rufa says that the Paschal lamb must be eaten between two lights, between the sun and moon, so we have good digestion. Hurry up, Nat! Let’s go, Thomas!
John: Right! The women must be worrying a lot about us.
Philip: They must be desperate by now, and so’s my stomach! C’mon, let’s go!
James: Wait a minute… wait a minute…!
Peter: What’s the matter, James?
James: Nothing, Peter, but… let’s not all go at the same time. It’s dangerous. The city is being watched.
Peter: Red is right. We’d better disperse. You, Jesus, cover yourself with a cloak and don’t speak to anyone. They’re giving 30 shekels for your head, you know that. You shouldn’t trust anyone, even your shadow!… C’mon, let’s go…!
The streets of Jerusalem were teeming with pilgrims in spite of the time. They were in search of a lodging place or an inn where they could have a drink or two… We walked in pairs or in threes, passed through the little huts of Ophel; we edged our way through the fountain of Siloam and took the Long Street, which ascends to the barrio of Zion, where Mark lived… Jesus and I walked together…
John: Hey, Moreno… there’s something I’d like to tell you…
Jesus: Tell me, John…
John: Something odd’s happening around here. It’s about Judas… I dunno, but the Isacriot is not playing clean… Last Thursday, they saw him talking to Barabbas and the rest of the movement. They also saw him leaving the house of the chief guard of the Temple.
Jesus: How did you know this, John?
John: A friend of mine who works as a servant in the palace of Caiphas told me.
Jesus: Don’t you trust Judas?
Jesus: I don’t either, John. But I’m not sure… I can’t believe that the Iscariot could do us harm.
John: Neither can I, Jesus… but anything can happen…
Jesus: Are the rest aware of this?
John: I don’t think so. Peter hasn’t noticed anything. Neither has James.
Jesus: So, what do we do, John?
John: Listen to me, Moreno. Keep an eye on Judas. Don’t let him out of your sight. If the Iscariot has something up his sleeve, he’ll pay dearly!
In a short while, we came to Mark’s house. The women had marked the door, in accordance with tradition, with the blood of the Paschal lamb…. We crossed the small patio that was full of barrels of oil and climbed the concrete stairs until we reached the upper story where we were to have our supper that night…
Mark: Well, well, the rascals are here, at last! You see, Mary, your son and the rest got here safe and sound!
Magdalene: And they’ll leave this house safe and sound the moment they get their teeth into the poor lamb!
Mary: Jesus, son, do you think we’re safe here…?
Jesus: Yes, mama, don’t you worry. No one saw us come…
Mary: It’s you who look worried, Jesus. I can see it in your eyes. I know you like the palm of my hand. You can’t hide it from me, son…
Jesus: Be calm, mama. Nothing’s going to happen…
Peter: C’mon, Mam Mary, put away your fears and be happy. We’re celebrating a feast, mind you!
James: Yes sir, today is the Feast of the Passover which our fathers have been celebrating for seventy generations!… We ought to rejoice!
Magdalene: And set the table! C’mon lazybones, shake a leg and give us a hand!
My mother, Salome, and Magdalene lay several mats of braided straw over the wooden floor. Since it was already dark, Mark lit the seven wicks on the ritual candelabra and put it in the middle of the room. We helped the women bring the jugs of wine from the kitchen, the round cakes of unleavened bread, the earthen bowls of hot sauce and the large trays of salad with celery, watercress and other herbs seasoned with vinegar and salt….
Mark: Anything else, guys?
Jesus: The canes, Mark. Let everyone get their own cane. That’s how our forefathers partook of the first Paschal dinner, hurriedly, because they were on their way to freedom. We’ll do the same, for a short while.
We formed a circle around the mats. We took our canes and raised our right foot, as if we were about to undertake a long journey. The women held the arms of the men….
Mark: C’mon, Jesus, bless the food.
Jesus: No, Mark, you’re the owner of the house, the head of the family.
Mark: There’s no owner nor father here. Didn’t you say we are all the same here?… Go ahead, bless the food…
Jesus: No man, it’s your turn…
Philip: Well, well, you better decide, because I’m starved and I’m about to collapse on the floor…
Jesus blessed the food using words that our forefathers repeated for several generations, words taught him by Joseph, his father, when he was a little boy in Nazareth…
Jesus: Bless you Lord, our God, the king of the whole world, who gave Israel this feast that we may rejoice and remember!
All: Amen! Amen!
After the first psalm with which the Paschal supper started, we put our canes in one corner, took off our sandals and sat on the floor on top of the blankets, around the straw mats…. All thirteen of us were there, including the women and Mark’s family, forming one intimate group. The small flames from the candleholder dancing by the night’s breeze illumined our faces…
Mark: And now, our first toast, brothers and sisters! Let’s fill our cups to the brim, the wine is on the house!… Let’s raise our cups to freedom!… Long live Yahweh, the God of Israel!
All: Long live Yahweh, long live Yahweh!
James: Long live our forebears who fought against slavery and left in freedom on a night like this!
All: Long live our forebears!
Magdalene: And our grandmothers too, who also fought hard against the heartless pharaoh!
Mark: Let’s have more wine and more toasts, but… we’re forgetting something very important. Hey, will you move a little and leave a space for Elijah, who might arrive in our house!
According to tradition, the prophet from Carmel would come at night, during the Paschal supper, to announce the coming of the Messiah. That’s why, the doors of our houses were left ajar on this day and a place was reserved in all tables of the children of Israel for Elijah, who would probably come. Though tired and hungry, he would come announcing the good news….
Philip: Let Elijah come when he wishes, but please, serve the lamb now, ’cuz at the rate we’re going, I’ll be growing cobwebs in my belly!
Mary and Susana descended the stairs and soon enough, they were back with a huge tray of newly roasted lamb…
Peter: Bless the Paschal lamb!
John: And the hands that cooked it!
Magdalene: You better look carefully, that no one says they got a broken bone in their lamb.
Peter: C’mon and get it, partners! Not even the hoofs should be spared!
Mark: Just a moment, hold it!… All hands off the plates. First, let’s wash our hands, just as it is commanded of us.
Philip: Forget it for now, Mark and let’s eat, ’cuz I’m hungry as hell…
Mark: No way, man. A day is a day. At least, once a year, this gang of dirty people should eat with clean hands, I say!
Philip: Fine, fine, let’s go wash our hands… Let’s see… hey women, where are the bowls of water?
Magdalene: You’re not crippled, Philip… why don’t you get them yourself?
Mary: You too, James, there you are sprawled out, while your mother goes up and down the stairs…
Jesus: I’ll go get them, myself. Just wait….
It was Jesus who stood first to get the bowl of water from down in the kitchen. He came back with it and a towel…
Magdalene: C’mon Moreno, let me have that and go back to your place…
Jesus: No, Mary, let me help…
Mary: For God’s sake, son, leave that to us… Susana and I will wash your hands.
Philip: Here, Mam Mary, wash our feet, more than our hands. Something stinks over here…!
John: And it comes from your side, Philip!
Then Jesus approached Philip, tied the towel around his waist and bent….
Jesus: C’mon, big head, stick out your dirty feet here….
Philip: But Jesus, it is only a joke…
When we saw Jesus washing Philip’s feet, we began to laugh. Little by little, our laughter was changed to surprise… It was a job that was only performed by women or slaves…
Jesus: C’mon Peter, your feet don’t smell like a rose, either!
Peter: Are you out of your mind, Moreno?… You’ll wash my feet too?
Jesus: Sure, Peter. What’s wrong with that?
Peter: Jesus, you’re our leader. A leader ought to be respected.
Jesus: Oh, really?… Who said so, Peter?
Peter: …I’m… I’m saying it, dammit! C’mon, get up from there and leave that bowl….
Jesus: No, here there’s no leader nor master. No one is above the other. The one who wants to be first, must be last. So, give me your feet…
Peter: No, no, no. I said no.
Jesus: Fine, Peter. Therefore, I see you’re not fit to serve in the Kingdom…
Peter: What did you say, Moreno?
Jesus: If you won’t get into your head that we’re all equal here, then you don’t fit in our group. It’s better for you to go.
Peter: Wwwa…wwait, Jesus. If that’s the case… well, then, pour water on my head so I get it into my senses.
When Jesus had finished washing everybody’s feet, we crowded one another, reaching for the food with our hands… Through the skylight of the small room entered the enchanting moonlight of Nissan….
Mark: Let’s all enjoy our supper, partners!
We started to eat the lamb, dip the unleavened bread and the vegetables in the red sauce and raise our cups full of wine in the name of Yahweh, the God of Israel.
Peter: What’s the matter, Jesus. Aren’t you hungry?
Jesus: Yes, I am, Peter. I’m also in a hurry. Believe me, my friends, how I wanted to eat this Paschal supper with all of you because… because this will be the last!
Jesus, his legs crossed over the mat, looked at all of us, one by one….
Jesus: I tell you… rejoice. This year, we’re still slaves. Next year, we’ll all be free!… Friends, before we get together again, like tonight, God’s hand will have extended to us. Yes, today I’m sure of that. The Kingdom of God is at hand, and this time, it won’t delay!…
Jesus took his cup of wine and raised it amid everyone…
Jesus: I drink to the Kingdom of God! Friends, up to this moment, we have sown with tears. Now we will reap with joy!
Jesus first took a drink, then passed his cup to us. Everyone drank a little from it. Then, he got up, took the empty cup with his hands and broke it on the floor…
Jesus: You are the witnesses: I’m not drinking any wine until the Kingdom of God has come, until the Lord changes our luck, just as the desert gets transformed with the rain, until the earth opens and justice takes root!
Mary: May God hear you, son!
A thousand and two hundred years back, on a night of haste and hope, the God of Israel changed the fate of our people. That night, Yahweh stood watch, as He took our forebears from the land of Egypt. Our grandparents told the story to their grandchildren who passed it on to their children, from generation to generation, the Passover came to be the night watch for us in memory of Yahweh, the God of freedom….
After the incident in the Temple, and aware of a possible “faux pas” on the part of Judas, Jesus participated, with great tension, in the celebration of the Paschal supper. During those days he had been clandestinely living in Bethany. Jesus knew that the authorities had put a price on his head. This gave the supper its enormous drama. That celebration was loaded with prophetic implications. Considering the possibility of an impending end, while hoping against hope, that God, his father, would save him, Jesus celebrated his last supper of the Passover.
A wide Roman road ran through Jerusalem, connecting the barrio of Ophel where small houses of the poor were crowded together to the upper barrio, in the Mount of Zion, where houses were of better construction and many of the wealthy had their palaces. Among them was the palace of Annas and Caiphas. There is no historical certainty of the place where the last supper took place. But in order for Jesus to enter Jerusalem that afternoon, or to leave the city at night, once the supper was over, he probably would have passed through this street. Not only that day, but perhaps a dozen times during his various visits to the city. A stretch of this wide street is perfectly preserved up to the present time, with several wide steps near the place where tradition points to the venue of the last supper. This stretch is one of the few places in Jerusalem preserved exactly as in the time of Jesus.
During this epoch, the Jews counted daily time by making it coincide with the start of the day, not on midnight or at dawn, but with sunset. Or to put it more precisely, with the apparition in heaven of the first star. At this time, when the day started, the Paschal supper was already beginning. It lasted until late in the evening. There are extant writings where parents are enjoined to think of different ways of distraction to keep the children awake. Together with their elders, they were supposed to keep vigil that night, the most solemn during the year. To keep vigil on this occasion was an important gesture of religious fidelity (Ex 12:42).
Many engravings and paintings give us a picture of the last supper in a way that does not correspond very well to the customs of evangelical times. In the first place, Jesus is often depicted partaking of the meal with his twelve disciples only. It was the tradition in Israel for men and women to be together during that night. It was presumed that Jesus would be with the twelve disciples as well as with the women of the group: Salome, Susana, Magdalene, his mother, etc. Secondly, the images presented to us show the apostles and Jesus seated at a table, the way we ordinarily do nowadays. What is most probable is that those who took part in that supper took a reclining position on mats or cushions spread over the floor. In more ancient times, the Israelites ate in a squatting position. Later, the custom consisted in sitting at a table or sitting on the floor – when there was a big number. But on the night of the Passover, once seated, part of the ritual was to recline one’s self. This position was a symbol of freedom. “While slaves are accustomed to eat standing, it is necessary that on the feast of the Passover, we take a reclining position as we partake of the meal, to show that we have passed from slavery to freedom,” according to a ritual provision of the period. It was also specified that even “the poorest of Israel” ought to assume the same reclining position, because Israel was a nation of free people.
In this episode, before the supper of liberation commenced, Jesus and his companions stand on their feet – a sign of slavery in Egypt – with their canes in their hands and with their sandals on. It was reminiscent of the ritual norms contained in Exodus, for the Israelites when they left Pharaoh’s country that night (Ex 12:11). They were a symbol of the urgency of that night and the journey they were about to undertake, which would lead them through the desert, toward the Promised Land.
Wine was basic in the Paschal supper. Ordinarily in Palestine, wine was not part of the meal and even less so for the poor. On solemn occasions though, and especially during the Passover, the abundance of wine was essential. According to the ritual, a minimum of four cups of wine would be taken. One of the practices of that night was to await the coming of Elijah, the Messiah’s messenger. Every year, the people of Israel awaited on that night, the coming of the Messiah and His definitive revelation as the liberator of the people. Elijah, who in popular tradition was the precursor of the Messiah, had a place reserved in a number of houses at the Paschal table. There is an old poem called “The Four Nights,” which was always rendered on the night of the Passover, and which dealt with the most important events of history: The creation of the world, the alliance with Abraham, the liberation of Egypt… Likewise the Messiah – and this the fourth instance – would come on a night like this.
In order to solemnize the Paschal food, one of the requirements was to purify the water before eating the lamb. Since people were wearing sandals, the feet easily got most dirty every day. Jesus’ friends were not of the “pious” type (Pharisees), obsessed with a thousand and one purifications. But that night, even the least religious tried to respect the custom. It was a way of rendering greater significance to what was being commemorated in the supper.
Certainly, the washing of the feet was a task delegated to the servants or slaves in houses where they served. Otherwise, it was assigned to women. On this night it was Jesus who performed the ritual. This gesture was spontaneous, totally natural, without solemnity or ceremony. He never intended to show humility. He was already humble. In the simplicity of the event, the disciples read his important message after the Passover: God was revealed to them as a servant, as a friend. This gesture is no less than a sign of what he lived all his life: To be with his people, “as one of them.”
In breaking the cup, Jesus manifested his vow not to drink again until he does so again in the Kingdom of God (Luke 22:16). It was a prophetic gesture that was very meaningful. Aware of the risk hanging over him, Jesus staked his hope in the Kingdom that was at hand, the coming of which he saw as imminent. He put his trust in God, because he also foresaw the time of “hardship.” In this instance, not drinking and fasting bore the meaning of “intercession.” With this vow, Jesus ardently asks for the coming of God’s Kingdom.
(Lk 22:14-18; Jn 13:1-17)