“And it was night.”
Those few words – four in English, just three in the Greek original – are absolutely key to this story, the pivot around which John’s account of the Last Supper revolves. In a sense, they are the pivot around which his whole Gospel revolves. They aren’t just telling us about the time of day; they are telling us about cosmic time, about what is happening at the deep heart of everything as Jesus moves towards his death. It is a point of no return. Judas goes out to betray Jesus, “and it was night”.
As we end this service we will enact those words in the service of – Tenebrae – it means shadows in Latin – as we blow out the candles in the Lady Chapel one by one, leading us into a “night” that will stretch right through to Easter Sunday.
John’s Gospel is full of the language of light and darkness. It begins with the beautiful passage we hear at Christmas “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”
John goes on to tell us story after story about people seeing the light, or being blind to it. Nicodemus comes to Jesus “by night” to question him. He’s in the dark, but he’s caught a glimmer of something in Jesus that he wants to know more about. A man born blind is healed. He sees the light, but the religious experts around him are baffled and offended. All they can see is that Jesus has broken the rules because he healed him on the Sabbath when work was forbidden. Who is it that is really in the dark here? Not the man born blind but those who choose not to see what is glaringly obvious. “I am the light of the world,” says Jesus. As John put it at the beginning he is “the light [that] shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”
But just at this moment, as Judas slips away, it doesn’t look like that at all. We may know that Easter Sunday is just around the corner, but Jesus’ followers don’t. The darkness looks as if it is very definitely going to overcome Jesus. “It was night.”
I have to confess, at this point, that actually the set Gospel reading for Maundy service is supposed to miss out this bit about Judas, skipping from verse 17 to verse 31, from the footwashing to Jesus’ words about loving one another. But it seemed to me that this distorts the message of the story. If we chop this bit out it just becomes a story about a bunch of people who have a lovely meal together – with some mildly embarrassing stuff about having your feet washed - and that’s not how it was. It isn’t how it is for us either. It turns the Last Supper into the kind of family meals beloved of the advertising agencies. Everyone’s smiling. The food’s perfect. Wise words are being shared. The children are eating their sprouts… I mean… whose family is that? Family gatherings can be wonderful, full of love and joy, but every family I know, including my own, also has its fair share of tensions, resentments, anxieties and squabbles. Did we have to invite Uncle Fred and Cousin George – we know they get on each other’s nerves? Please don’ t let anyone ask how Julie’s boyfriend is – I know he’s dumped her, but no one else does. And what’s with Aunt Susan? She’s hardly said a word, and I’m sure I saw her kicking Uncle John under the table…
That’s real life, and the Last Supper was real life too, so it matters that we hear the whole story, not just the bits we want to hear.
One of those sitting at the table with Jesus – Simon Peter – supposedly one of his closest friends - is about to deny even knowing him. Another, Judas, is going to betray him. And none of the rest really have a clue what is going to happen, despite him trying to tell them. How lonely must that feel?
The light of the world is sitting there in their midst, but they have their eyes tight shut to it, through ignorance, through weakness, through their own deliberate fault, as our confession puts it.
At this point, their failings may seem relatively trivial. Even Judas probably started out meaning well, wanting to follow Jesus. But gradually something changed. Dissatisfaction crept in. Things weren’t going the way he wanted them to. Maybe even at this late stage he doesn’t mean for Jesus to die, but it will all get out of hand.
Peter’s flaws might not have seemed significant either. Ok, he’s all bluster on the surface, and we know he sometimes doesn’t follow through – but it never occurs to him that when push comes to shove, his fear will get the upper hand and he will abandon his promise, and his friend.
Even those who most actively plotted for Jesus’ death – the powerful religious elites that decide to get rid of him – were not monsters. They were just trying to pick their way through a dangerous world as best they could, protecting themselves and their families. Who wouldn’t? But somewhere along the way, they lose sight of the humanity of those around them and convince themselves that it is all right to sacrifice one man – even if he is innocent – to preserve the status quo. “Father forgive them,” says Jesus, as they nailed him to the cross, “they don’t know what they are doing.”
The darkness that covers the earth as the Light of the World is eclipsed by sin isn’t caused by some dramatic cosmic force of evil. It’s made up of a million of tiny shadows – tenebrae - little shreds of darkness that we all produce when we neglect to care, when we allow self-interest to triumph over the love God calls us to share.
Like so many of our family gatherings, Jesus’ Last Supper is a strange and awkward event, with all sorts of simmering tensions and mixed feelings under the surface, but the extraordinary thing is that he still chooses to be there, to spend the last night of his earthly life with this mixed up, treacherous bunch of people. And he commands us to be there too, gathered with him and with one another as we “do this, in remembrance of him”. He commands us to come together as we are, to welcome one another as we are, to stick to one another as we are, differences and all, resentments and all, with all our failings and flaws, however terrible. He commands us to do that because it only when we do that we can discover what love is really all about, and how powerful it truly is, powerful enough to drive back the darkness of hatred, powerful enough even to raise the dead.