Mr. Shepherd is pastor of Swarthmore Presbyterian Church in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 8, 1987, p. 327. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
A narrative of a Lenten meditation in poetic form written from the standpoint of the apostle Thomas: And if it were not for his love, his grace that sought me out behind locked doors, called me to touch and then believe, I would not be here at your humble table ready now with you, to break the bread and pour the wine as he did years ago.
"How I have longed to eat this Passover with you before my death" [Luke 22:15].
Yes, they always said I questioned everything –
too much for my own good, was the way they used to put it.
Although, since that evening in the Upper Room
when he offered me his hands and side, the nail prints,
spear wound to touch and know, I’ve never doubted him again.
And yet, I still have questions.
Yes, they always said I questioned everything –
For instance, what he meant when he told us
how he’d wished to eat that supper with us just
before he died. "How I have longed . . ." he said;
as if that was a moment he had lived for all his days.
"How I have longed to eat this pesach with you all
before I die." It gave us quite a shock, I can tell you,
him talking again like that about his death.
But it was the longing that puzzled me at the time –
still catches, tugs the tangled cords of memory
after all these many years. "How I have longed. . ."
What could the Lord have meant by that
expression of deep yearning?
Might it have been because he knew the goal
was now within his reach, that after three hard years
of testing, trial, stress and many disappointments,
giving, always giving, pouring out his mind, his heart,
his very soul, spilling forth so readily the vibrant life
that was within him in acts of healing, feeding, loving,
might it have been with some relief he caught sight
of the end of his long journey, glimpsed the goal which,
fearful though it was to us, to him would mean fulfillment
of his task, the long-expected climax and conclusion
of his pilgrimage? Was that, perhaps, why Jesus said
he longed to share the feast with us, because
it meant that all was nearly over?
Another thought. Could he have seen this supper
as a fond farewell; one final feast with all of us before
he faced the end alone? We certainly had shared enough,
had plenty to remember and be thankful for that night.
So much had happened since he called us from the boats,
the sheds and shops, the hillsides of sweet Galilee,
so many miles of journeying, so many mouths fed,
miseries relieved. Everywhere we went, especially at first,
there were crowds, crowds wanting something, food,
freedom, a future maybe, something they could hope for,
live for, shape their battered lives around
and start to dream again. Mostly they came, I think,
because, he loved them and could tell them so, yes,
even those vast, milling throngs; there was a touch,
a sense, a spirit moving in, across, among those mobs
of eager people, told them here at last they had a man
who was concerned not for himself, who was not out to get
himself elected, but who cared for every single one of them,
and tottering old dames, lepers, whores, soldiers,
robbers; I’ve seen them all transformed by seeing him.
So anyway, perhaps it was the thought of all we’d shared,
the memories, relationships we had built up, he wanted,
then, to celebrate, to gather all together in one last
and glorious evening of true fellowship before he said
"Farewell" to us, the twelve who had walked with him all the way.
And yet I think that there was even more
than this within that longing. He said it
with such passion, I have never, even yet, been able
to forget those words and just the way they sounded.
"How I have longed to eat this Passover with you before I die."
Could it have been that he too was unsure,
that although he knew the basic fundamental fact
that he must die, he did not understand precisely how
and why this had to be fulfilled? It seemed to me as if,
in all he did that evening at the table, he too was finding
meaning and enlightenment, as if, in breaking bread
and pouring wine, our Lord himself was being led –
as we were through him -- into a new and richer comprehension,
into a full and final revelation that this, of course,
was why it must be so -- that only as a grain of wheat falls
to the ground and dies can it arise again and bring forth
ripe new grain to form the loaf that feeds a hungry world.
Yes, I believe it dawned on him -- as he was dong it –
that bread, in being broken, is available, and being shared
becomes a part of many bodies, many lives; multiplies
itself in twelve or twenty, twenty thousand ways and soon
is irresistible, a mighty and united host of servants
for the kingdom. And with the cup,
so clear a symbol of his blood in that red wine,
he saw, as we did, that his life, poured forth, would seal
a new commitment, would form upon the altar of God’s grace
a whole new covenant that would replace the ancient,
worn-out slaughter of the animals with one complete
and final act, the sacrifice of God’s own son
to show the world, to show us all the height
and depth and majesty, the eternal glory of God’s love,
which gives itself forever, or until we come,
at last, and offer up our own lives in return.
So, as the meal progressed, we saw the Father
and the Son converse together in his actions and his words.
We watched the faith take shape, the kingdom-yet-to-be
assume its royal form, its sacramental lineaments.
We all were witnesses at the birth of a new era, new creation.
What followed afterwards, of course is history.
It shattered me -- the whole thing was too much.
And at the cross I had completely lost already all
I had seen and heard and tasted in the Upper Room
the night before. I lost it all.
And if it were not for his love, his grace
that sought me out behind locked doors, called me
to touch and then believe, I would not be here
at your humble table ready now with you, to break
the bread and pour the wine as he did years ago.
Yet I am here; here to tell you what I know,
what I remember of that night and even more,
what I believe will happen here and now as you and I
take bread and wine together in his name.
For it is with great longing that I too have longed
to eat this Passover with you.
Now in his name, and in his risen presence,
let the feast begin. Amen.