Meditations for Holy Week – Thursday: “I am the Bread of Life”
The Maundy Thursday liturgy at the monastery has three elements: First, we re-enact the footwashing, which is the focus of John’s account of the final meal Jesus shared with his disciples. Then, we share in the Eucharist. And finally, we follow Jesus to the garden, where we watch with him through the night.
John’s account of Jesus’ final meal with his disciples differs significantly from the account of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). The synoptic gospels imply that Jesus and his disciples were sharing the Passover meal, and they report that during this meal, Jesus took bread and wine and identified it with his own body and blood, thus anticipating his sacrificial death. There is no reference to bread and wine or Jesus’ body and blood in John’s account. The focus instead is on Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, thus giving them an example of how they are to serve one another in love. John’s account takes place on the night before the Passover begins, so that Jesus is put to death (on Friday) at the same time as lambs are being sacrificed in the temple. The connection is deliberate since Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29,36). This final meal is also the setting in which Jesus identifies Judas as his betrayer (John 13:18-30) by giving him a piece of bread. In John’s gospel the Beloved Disciple has a special role in the exchange.
Although the Fourth Gospel does not have the same ‘eucharistic’ overtones that the synoptic gospels do (cf. Matt.26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-23), there is a ‘eucharistic’ reference in John’s telling of the feeding of the 5,000 in John 6. Here Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to his followers, mirroring the action of the Eucharist. A lengthy discourse follows in which he explains that only those “eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood” can share in the eternal life he is offering (cf. John 6, especially vv.1-14 and 52-59). “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink,” Jesus tells them (v.56).
Following the supper, Jesus and his disciples cross the Kidron valley “to a place where there was a garden” (John 18:1). But what follows in John’s gospel is not the agonized prayer reported in the synoptic gospels (cf. Matt.26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:39-46). John portrays Jesus as self-possessed and confident throughout his arrest and trial. In John’s account, the betrayer Judas comes with Roman soldiers and temple police who intend to arrest him. “Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward.” He asks them whom they are seeking (18:4). They answer, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus replies, “I am he,” and the soldiers immediately step back and fall to the ground. Jesus allows himself to be arrested, but it is clear that he is in charge. They are not taking his life from him; rather, he is voluntarily laying down his life, just as a good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
In our prayer today, we might reflect on Jesus as “the Bread of Life,” recalling the ways in which he nourishes and sustains our life. We might consider the deeper meanings of the Eucharist – e.g. as signifying the self-offering of Christ, as a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, as a meal/sign of unity shared by all (without distinction of class or privilege), etc. In our prayer, we might also imagine Jesus washing the feet of his disciples (or our feet!) as a servant, or watch and pray with him in the Garden of Gethsemane.
See other days offerings:
- Wednesday: “I am the Light of the World.”
- Good Friday: “I am the Good Shepherd.”
- Holy Saturday: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”