Follow the Leader
Luke begins his narrative of the Passion by inviting us to reflect on, in the words of The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, “what it means for the church to follow – courageously, with halting pace, and during changed circumstances – in the footsteps of Jesus, the leader, who is about to die.” For Luke’s own community, living about 50 years after the events that he describes, such an invitation could have challenged their assumptions about themselves as disciples of Jesus; they had seen the Destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., and they had themselves most likely experienced some forms of persecution or at least of shunning by the Jewish community. They had a lot to consider. But the gospel’s message, not limited to its original readers, reaches out to us as well.
What might it mean for us as church to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, the-leader-about-to-die? In this relentlessly instant world, where we no longer look but only glance, no longer listen but only snag sound bites, how can this gospel, especially the first section of it, aid us in staying with Jesus as he prepares for the “exodus that he was to accomplish in Jerusalem,” words used in the Lukan account of the Transfiguration (9:31)? Luke’s opening statement -- “And when the hour came, he sat at table, and the apostles with him” – emphasizes the “hour” that has at last arrived. The exodus of Jesus will be accomplished as foretold on Tabor; like the original Exodus, it will result in the liberation of God’s people. But the means – and the price to be paid – will be different this time.
This hour begins with the Passover meal itself, reminding us yet again of that foundational moment of salvation history. Each gesture speaks to the experience of Israel’s being saved by the hand of God; at the same time, each gesture also looks ahead to the definitive salvation for the new Israel that Jesus is bringing about. When Jesus takes bread and wine and offers them to his friends, he is, one last time, providing for them; he says: “This is my body which is given for you.” And a moment later: “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” Something new is happening right before them – and us, too, as we hear these words each time we participate in the Eucharist. Echoes of Exodus 24: 3-8 and Jeremiah 31: 31 reverberate as Jesus pledges his own life as the new bond between God and his people.
As a meal this Passover dinner also recalls the many meals Jesus has shared during his public life; this time, although the people at table are the apostles and disciples, we see quickly that his “exodus” is going to be accomplished among those who need his mercy and forgiveness just as much as the “tax collectors and sinners” (7:34) about whom the Pharisees have complained so often. At this supper, it won’t be a question of profiteering or of adultery; rather, “the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table” (21). This shocking statement leads to a flurry of questions, but soon enough they return to their favorite subject: “which of them was to be regarded as the greatest” (24). Disappointing for Jesus, to say the least – though possibly consoling for ourselves. Perhaps our short attention spans aren’t as uniquely 21st century as we sometimes think!
But to return to the notion of this gospel’s inviting us to reflect on what it means to follow Jesus the leader about to die: it’s not easy to stay focused – even if you’re sitting at table with Jesus in the flesh, never mind in a church with a creaky organ, an unsympathetic priest, and/or a howling baby in the background. But that’s the invitation here.
This “last supper” story offers something else to contemplate as well: what should leadership in the Church (that’s you and me, friends, and not just the Pope, the Vatican people, the hierarchy, etc.) look like? There doesn’t seem to be much room for doubt or discussion in these words:
“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them
and those in authority over them are addressed as ‘Benefactors’;
but among you it shall not be so.
Rather, let the greatest among you be as the youngest,
and the leader as the servant.
For who is greater:
the one seated at table or the one who serves?
Is it not the one seated at table?
I am among you as the one who serves. . . .” (25-27)
Jesus -- the One who served. The One who serves. And you? And me? Where do we fit in with that paradigm?
This Holy Week, let’s pray for each other to the One who serves. Let’s ask for the grace to stay with Him as he walks his road – ask that we not shrink from the suffering or ignore Good Friday in our desire for Easter. Let’s pray, too, that we not turn away from the suffering of so many of our brothers and sisters who are living Good Friday not for a single day but for many days, often with no end in sight. And that, having truly allowed ourselves to see the pain and hear the cries, we find ways to respond as servants of the Servant who continues to nourish us with his Body and Blood. These give life. Pray that we not miss the invitation to do the same. Amen.
—Sr. Nuala Cotter, RA, Provincial of the U.S. Province