Frederick Buechner’s books include The Faces of Jesus and Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons.
This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 4, 2006 p. 26-31. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Our task is to try to draw near to Jesus and to each other. By believing against all odds and loving against all odds — that is how we are to let Jesus show in the world and transform the world.
“Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where l am going you cannot come’”…. Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you shall follow afterward. . . Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself that where l am you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”
(John 13:33,36; 14:1-6)
When Jesus sat down to eat for the last time with a handful of his closest friends, he knew it was the last time, and he didn’t have to be the Messiah to know it — they all did. The Romans were out to get him. The Jews were out to get him. For reasons that can only be guessed at, one of his own friends was out to get him, and Jesus seems to have known that too. He knew, in other words, that his time had all but run out and that they would never all of them be together again.
It is an unforgettable scene there in that upper room — the shadows, the stillness, the hushed voices of people speaking very carefully, very intently, because they wanted to get it all said while there was still time and to get it said right. You can only imagine the way it must have haunted them for the rest of their lives as they looked back on how they had actually sat there with him, eating and drinking and talking; and through their various accounts of it, including the above passage from John, and through all the paintings of it, like the great, half-mined da Vinci fresco in Milan, and through 2,000 years of the church’s reenactment of it in the Eucharist, it has come to haunt us too. But I think of the Last Supper as haunting in another way as well — not just as a kind of shadowy dream of an event long past but also as a kind of foreshadowing of an event not all that far in the future, by which I mean our own last suppers, the last time you and I will sit down with a handful of our own closest friends.
It’s hard not to believe that somehow or other there’s always going to be another time with them, another day, so the chances are we won’t know ifs the last time, and therefore it won’t have the terrible sadness about it that the Last Supper of Jesus must have had. But not knowing is sad in another way because it means that we also won’t know how precious this supper is, how precious these friends are whom we will be sitting down with for the last time whether we know it or not.
Who are these friends for you, who are they for me? We have to picture them for ourselves, of course — to see their faces, hear their voices, feel what it’s like to be with them. They are our nearest and dearest — our husband or wife, our children, a few people we can’t imagine living without or their living without us — and the sadness is that we have known them so long and so well that we don’t really see them anymore for who they truly are — let alone who they truly are to us, who we truly are to them. The sadness is that we don’t see that every supper with them — even just a bowl of cornflakes in the kitchen some night after the movies — is precious beyond all telling because the day will come beyond which there will be no other supper with them ever again. The time will come when time will run out for us too, and once we see that, we see also that for the 18-year-old at McDonald’s as well as for the old crock in the retirement-home cafeteria, every one of our suppers points to the preciousness of life and also to the certainty of death, which makes life even more precious still and is precious in itself because under its shadow we tend to search harder and harder for light.
There in that shadowy room the disciples turned to Jesus, who was their light, with greater urgency and passion than maybe ever before because, with all hell about to break loose, they had no other place to turn. They had drunk the wine he told them was his blood and put into their mouths the bread he told them was his body, and thus with something of his courage in them they asked him a question they had never risked asking so helplessly and directly before. It was Simon Peter who asked it, and what he said was, “Lord, where are you going?”
As if they didn’t know. As if they didn’t know. As if you and I don’t know — both where he was going and where all of us are going too. He was going down the stairs and out the door. He was going into the night. He was going to pray in a garden to the God he called Father not to let the awful thing happen to him that he knew was already happening, and the Gospels do not record that he got so much as a whisper in reply. He was going alone, and he was going against his will, and he was going scared half out of his wits. He sweated blood is the way the Gospels put it.
The Last Supper not only prefigures our own last suppers wherever and whenever they are to be. It also is our last supper. You cannot read the account of it without in some measure being there, and the table where he sits with his friends is our table, and as they drew close to the light of him, we too try to draw close as if maybe in the last analysis he is the one who is our nearest and dearest — or our farthest and dearest because he is always just too far away to see very well, to take hold of, too far away to be sure he sees us. If we have any hope at all, he is our hope, and when Peter asks him, “Lord, where are you going?” the question within his question is “Are you going anywhere at all or just going out, like a light,” and that is also our question both about him and about ourselves. When time runs out, does life run out? Did Jesus’ life run out? Do you and I run out?
“You will seek me,” Jesus says, and no word he ever spoke hits closer to home. We seek for answers to our questions — questions about life and about death, questions about what is right and what is wrong, questions about the unspeakable things that go on in the world. We seek for strength, for peace, for a path through the forest, but Christians are people who maybe more than for anything else seek for Christ, and from the shabbiest little jerry-built meeting house in the middle of nowhere to the greatest cathedrals, all churches everywhere were erected by people like us in the wild hope that in them, if nowhere else, the one we seek might finally somehow be found.
A friend of mine told me about a Christmas pageant he took part in once as the rector of an Episcopal church somewhere. The manger was down in front at the chancel steps where it always is. Mary was there in a blue mantle and Joseph in a cotton beard. The wise men were there with a handful of shepherds, and of course in the midst of them all the Christ child was there, lying in the straw. The nativity story was read aloud by my friend with carols sung at the appropriate places, and all went like clockwork until it came time for the arrival of the angels of the heavenly host as represented by the children of the congregation, who were robed in white and scattered throughout the pews with their parents.
At the right moment they were supposed to come forward and gather around the manger saying. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men, and that is just what they did except there were so many of them that there was a fair amount of crowding and jockeying for position, with the result that one particular angel, a girl about nine years old who was smaller than most of them, ended up so far out on the fringes of things that not even by craning her neck and standing on tiptoe could she see what was going on. “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will among men,” they all sang on cue, and then in the momentary pause that followed, the small girl electrified the entire church by crying out in a voice shrill with irritation and frustration and enormous sadness at having her view blocked, “Let Jesus show!”
There was a lot of the service still to go, but my friend the rector said that one of the best things he ever did in his life was to end everything precisely there. “Let Jesus show!” the child cried out, and while the congregation was still sitting in stunned silence, he pronounced the benediction, and everybody filed out of the church with those unforgettable words ringing in their ears.
There is so much for all of us that hides Jesus from us — the church itself hides him, all the hoopla of church with ministers as lost in the thick of it as everybody else so that the holiness of it somehow vanishes away to the point where services of worship run the risk of becoming only a kind of performance — on some Sundays better, on some Sundays worse — and only on the rarest occasions does anything strike to the quick the way that little girl’s cry did with every last person who heard her realizing that Jesus didn’t show for any of them — the mystery and miracle of Jesus with all his extraordinary demands upon us, all his extraordinary promises.
Let Jesus show in these churches we have built for him then — not just Jesus as we cut him down to size in our sermons and hymns and stained-glass windows, but Jesus as he sat there among his friends while with wine on his breath and crumbs in his beard and his heart in his mouth he spoke about his death and ours in words that even the nine-year-old angel would have understood. “Let not your hearts be troubled,” he said in the midst of his own terrible troubles. Take it easy. Take it easy. Take heart. “Believe in God,” he said. “Believe also in me.
Well, we are believers, you and I, that’s why we’re here — at least would-be believers, part-time believers, believers with our fingers crossed. Believing in him is not the same as believing things about him such as that he was born of a virgin and raised Lazarus from the dead. Instead, it is a matter of giving our hearts to him, of come hell or high water putting our money on him, the way a child believes in a mother or a father, the way a mother or a father believes in a child.
“Lord, where are you going?” Peter asked from where he was sitting, and Jesus answered, “I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am you may be also.” Can we put our money on that? Are we children enough to hear with the ears of a child? Are we believers enough to believe what only a child can believe?
Three years ago, not long after my only brother, Jamie, died, I found myself one summer afternoon missing him so much, needing him so much, that I decided to call up his empty New York apartment. I knew perfectly well there wasn’t anybody there to answer and yet of course I couldn’t know it for sure because nothing, nothing, is for sure in this world, and who could say that at least some echo of him mightn’t be there, and I would hear him again, hear the sound of his voice again, the sound of his marvelous laugh. So I sat there in the Vermont sunshine — this skeptical old believer, this believing old skeptic, who you would have thought had better sense — and let the phone ring, let it ring, let it ring.
Did Jamie answer it? How wonderful to be able to say that by some miracle he did and that I heard his voice again, but of course he didn’t, he didn’t, he didn’t, and all I heard was the silence of his absence. Yet who knows? Who can ever know anything for sure about the mystery of things? “In my Father’s house are many rooms,” Jesus said, and I would bet my bottom dollar that in one of those many rooms that phone rang and rang true and was heard. I believe that in some sense my brother’s voice was in the ringing itself, and that Jesus’ voice was in it too.
Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you…, that where I am you may be also,” speaking about death because that is what was uppermost in his mind as it was uppermost in the minds of all of them that last time they had supper together. and as I suspect it is uppermost in our minds too more often than we let on. He says he is not just going out like a light. He says he is going on. He says he is going ahead. He says we will go there too when our time comes. And who can resist giving our hearts to him as he says it?
“You know the way where I am going,” he says, and then Thomas speaks out for every one of us in a voice that my guess is had all the irritation and frustration and sadness of the little girl’s. “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?”
If I were as brave as the rector at that Christmas pageant, I would stop talking precisely here with those starkly honest words. When it comes to the mystery of death, like the mystery of life, how can any of us know anything? If there is a realm of being beyond where we now are that has to do somehow with who Jesus is, and is for us, and is for all the world, then how can we know the way that will take us there?
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” is how he answers. He does not say the church is the way. He does not say his teachings are the way, or what people for centuries have taught about him. He does not say religion is the way, not even the religion that bears his name. He says he himself is the way. And he says that the truth is not words, neither his words nor anyone else’s words. It is the truth of being truly human as he was truly human and thus at the same time truly God’s. And the life we are dazzled by in him, haunted by in him, nourished by in him is a life so full of aliveness and light that not even the darkness of death could prevail against it.
How do we go where he is? How do we who have a hard enough time just finding our way home in the night find the way that is his way, the way that is he? Who of us can say, and yet who of us doesn’t search for the answer in our deepest places?
As for me, I think what we are to do is to keep on ringing and ringing and ringing, because that ringing — and the longing, the faith, the intuition that keeps us at it — is the music of the truth trying to come true even in us. I think that what we are to do is to try to draw near to him and to each other any way we can because that is the last thing he asked of us. “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12) is the way he said it, and that is exactly what the little girl asked too on that Christmas Day. By believing against all odds and loving against all odds, that is how we are to let Jesus show in the world and to transform the world.