This evening marks the beginning of the Triduum, the three days that honor Jesus’ passage from life unto death. From the last supper he ate with his disciples to the Easter Vigil on Saturday night, Christians try to honor the suffering, not just of Jesus during this time, but of his disciples, family and friends. They lost their beloved, their rabbi, the center of their lives, and in some essential way, the Ground of their Being, with no thoughts of getting him back. He was gone and with him, all their hopes and dreams for a different world, based on the love and compassion he embodied. The old orders of church and state had prevailed after all. Even for those of us who know how the story ends, it can be difficult to believe in a different outcome.
So in honor of Maundy, or Holy Thursday, I offer you Rilke’s poem about the Last Supper.
They are assembled around him, troubled and confused.
He seems withdrawn,
as if, strangely, he were flowing past
those to whom he had belonged.
The old aloneness comes over him.
It had prepared him for his deep work.
Now once again he will go out to the olive groves.
Now those who love him will flee from him.
He had bid them come to this last meal.
Their hands on the bread
tremble now at the words he speaks,
tremble in sudden silence
as a forest does when a gun is fired.
They long to leave, and they will.
But they will find him everywhere.
Rilke wrote this poem after seeing Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the event, but this translation moves me beyond the painting; it captures the energy of the event. When faced with a momentous change, we often withdraw from our loved ones and our lives as we have lived them. Painful, isolating, and disorienting as it must be, it is the only way we find the inner resources to master ourselves and move forward alone. Jesus can be our model for these times, speaking truth and blessing, before departing.