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The Bitter Hour
Maundy Thursday reflections
Now before the feast of the passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end.
With these tremendously poignant lines, the writer of John opens the thirteenth chapter of his gospel. So begins the countdown of Jesus’ final hours before his Passion agony.
The authorship and provenance of John’s gospel is a matter of some contention in the gilded halls of biblical criticism. I don’t intend to delve into the ins and outs of that debate in this space. Straightforward apologetics has never been the main course of this newsletter, which is meant to evangelize more by suggestion than systematic argument. I write under the assumption that my agnostic or atheist readers have had their reasons to eschew Christianity for some time. Still, I’d be lying if I denied my natural evangelical desire to give some reason for the hope that is in me, particularly in this most holy of weeks. Something a bit more systematic may follow in a few more days, but for now, these are some impressions of Maundy Thursday, part apology, part devotional. (For more on my positive evidences for John in particular, I’ll point people to this short introduction I did at The Spectator, which is based on my own mother’s superlative peer-reviewed research.)
John continues this chapter with the famous foot-washing sequence, unique to his gospel, where Jesus takes the servant’s role and moves from disciple to disciple with a towel and a basin of water. There is an unintended consonance between this incident and the account of the Last Supper in Luke 22. In Luke, the disciples, true to character, have been bickering over the meal about which of them is to be “the greatest.” Jesus rebukes them, reminding them that the one who rules is the one who serves. “For who is greater, the one who is at table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” From there, Luke passes fairly quickly to the Garden of Gethsemane.
Yet despite the fact that he includes no independent record of the foot-washing sequence, that sequence interlocks perfectly with this bit of dialogue, unique to Luke. Jesus’ usual rhetorical modus operandi is a word sealed by a tangible sign—a coin, a child, a miracle to drive the point home. If we harmonize John and Luke, we have the word that he comes as one who serves, sealed by a sign of tangible service. This is just one among numerous indicators against the alleged great gulf between John’s text and the synoptic texts. And so here, together with the breaking of the bread, we have what John Paul II describes as “two expressions of one and the same mystery of love entrusted to the disciples, so that, Jesus says, ‘as I have done… so also must you do.’”
When Jesus comes to Peter, Peter demurs strenuously, but once he does consent, he will have no half-measures: Let Jesus wash all of him, or nothing. Like Jesus’ character, Peter’s character emerges with a vibrant consistency across all four gospels: brash, quick-tempered, warm-hearted, the first to speak, the first to leap. And here, in this most tragic of moments, Peter brings a touch of comedy, simply by being who he is. How true this rings, for how often in our lives are tragedy and comedy intermingled.
“And ye are clean,” Jesus says, “but not all.” Here the chill, the cloud passing over, as Jesus is heavy with the burden of the one who will betray him. Why is he so heavy-laden? Because he is a man who loves his friends, desiring their companionship, grieved when his love is not returned. In Luke, he tells the disciples he has “earnestly desired” to eat this last Passover meal with them, painful as he knows it will be.
He makes the point explicit after the ritual, saying in so many words that one of the group will betray him. A ripple goes around the gathered men, as everyone immediately begins to wonder who Jesus means. John writes that Peter, a little farther from Jesus, subtly motions to the beloved disciple on Jesus’ breast, traditionally thought to be John himself. “You ask him,” Peter is quietly signaling. “Ask him who it is.”
“Lord,” the beloved asks, sotto voce, “Who is it?”
Jesus will answer with one more tangible sign: the bread dipped and offered to Judas. The eyes of the betrayer meeting the eyes of the betrayed. The silent understanding that passes between them. Then the quietly bitter dismissal, whose meaning only they two understand: “That thou doest, do quickly.” Then, finally, the exit into outer darkness, beautifully caught by E. M. Blaiklock in Jesus Christ: Man or Myth: “Judas opened the door to leave the tense and puzzled group. An oblong of sudden darkness seen for a second stamped itself on one mind forever; and remembering, the writer comments, ‘And it was night.’”
In Gethsemane, we see again the lonely Jesus, wistfully desiring that the disciples might be able to keep their eyes open for a little while, to watch with him one bitter hour. They can’t even do this, as he knew they couldn’t, and still, he is sad.
We see brash Peter again, vowing that even if all the others fell away, he would not. Here again, jumping ahead, we have another artless bit of interlocking, between this bit of Matthew and the post-resurrection reunion sequence in John 21, where Jesus asks Peter, “Lovest thou me more than these?” It seems harsh to ask, given all Peter has suffered in the anguish of his denial. Yet it makes sense when we recall the specificity of his boast—that he would love Jesus “more than these.”
Then the betrayer’s return—the men, the flickering torches, the kiss. The remarkable detail, unique to John’s gospel, that the captors fall back stunned for a moment when Jesus steps forward to ask who they are seeking, and when they say Jesus of Nazareth, announces, “I am he.” But let the rest go, he says, so that the saying would be fulfilled, “Of them which thou gavest me have I lost none.”
Common to John and the synoptics is the flurry of swordplay resulting in the loss of a servant’s ear—though John provides the additional specificity that it is Peter’s sword (because of course it would be Peter). Also unique to John is the name of the man who was struck and instantly healed, Malchus. This information is supplied in passing, in the organic manner of someone relating witness testimony: “The servant’s name was Malchus.” This fits together with the implied later note that John had connections with the household of the high priest, whom Malchus served. It is also only in John that Jesus stops Peter with the words, “The cup which my father hath given me, shall I not drink it?” This once again artlessly interlocks with the synoptics, as John leaves out but Luke includes Jesus’ solitary moment of agony in the garden, with the prayer “Let this cup pass from me.”
Yet Jesus is still sarcastic as ever, defiantly taunting even in submission. “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest Me,” he asks in Matthew, “as you would against a man inciting a revolt? Every day I used to sit within the temple grounds teaching, and you did not arrest Me. But all this has taken place so that the Scriptures of the prophets will be fulfilled.”
And so he is led away to the judgment hall, as all but two of the disciples flee—Peter, and that other, whom Jesus loved.