I think everyone knows of the great painting by Leonardo Da Vinci of the Last Supper. In many ways it is the image that all of us hold in our head about the Last Supper: a long table with a white cover, food arranged along it, Jesus at the centre, the apostles to his right and left, the windows in the background looking out to a country scene. I suppose when we think of it, Leonardo pictures the Last Supper in his own time, the table is set like a table would be in the middle ages, the figures are more Italian that middle eastern, the clothes could easily be woren in Florence and Milan rather than Jerusalem, the countryside outside looks more like the North of Italy than Israel.
How proud Da Vinci would be that his painting defines for many what the Last Supper may have been like.
Da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper took 3 years to paint – between 1495-1498. Being a bit if a butterfly he didn’t work continuously at it, but returned to it over these 3 years – sometimes spending hours painting, sometimes minutes, sometimes looking for hours and doing nothing – apparently crowds came to watch him. The prior of the religious house in which he was painting the Last Supper gave him so much grief for the delay, that it is said that he painted the face of the prior as that of Judas.
The family that commissioned the painting, the Sforzas, intended in the first place the room to be used as a mausoleum for their family but it eventually became a refectory/a dining room for the religious order that ran the house.
It is said that that the moment that the painting recalls is the moment when Jesus reveals that one of his apostles is about to betray him. The painting records the apostles reaction to this news, shock, anger and disbelief, in gesture and flowing movements. From a manuscript by Da Vinci, discovered in 19th century, we can positively recognise all of the different apostles and figures in the painting.
Judas is seen in the picture, cast in shadow, his figures is bowed and the lowest of all the figures in the painting. He carries a bag of money, reference perhaps to the money given to him for his betrayal, or money kept by him in his role treasurer of the group. He knocks over a salt-cellar. It is meant to recall an expression of the time that knocking over the salt was a phrase that meant betraying your master.
Peter is seen to violently react to the news and lifts up a knife and looks quite fearsome, as if he will do someone damage. it is a portent of the damage he will do to the servant’s ear at Jesus arrest.
St John swoons and falls to the side when he hears the news.
Thomas looks stunned and raises his finger, foreshadowing his desire to touch the wounds of Jesus in the resurrection.
James cries out and raises his arms.
Philip leans forward and appears to look for more information.
Some of the figures turn to Peter looking as if they are seeking answers to their questions.
Other paintings of the Last Supper very often marginalise Judas, putting him at the end of the table or even show him in the act of departing to do the deed. Leonardo by contrast simply places him in the shadows. But he also does something else, he shows him distracted by all that is going on absent-mindedly reaching for the piece of bread, while Jesus points to the bread he is about to eat. In the Gospel Jesus will quietly say to Peter and John, the one who dips his bread into the cup with me is the one who will betray me. In the painting he simply points as Judas reaches for the bread.
Today in celebrating the Last Supper in our Mass of Holy Thursday, we are marking the institution of the Eucharist and the sharing of his priesthood with apostles. But you can’t help think this, far from being a serene occasion, it is quite troubled moment, in the middle of this scene is betrayal, traitorous intent, events are being in set in motion that will lead to the Lord’s death. Even St John sets the Last Supper in a troubling context. He ignores the table, the words, the gestures and has Jesus bowing and kneeling like a house servant before the apostles. Its not serene is troubling a thought-provoking.
I am sure you will often agree it is nice when the Church is at its most still when we are celebrating Mass, when we can concentrate and are not distracted by movement or noise. But what we are hearing is that even at the Last Supper there was distraction, trouble and challenge.
Perhaps it is of the very nature of the Eucharist that it is like this. It is moment that isn’t cut off, an oasis of silence. Everything is brought here. In a way it is not as if they are left at the door. Our worries are brought to Mass, our challenges, our concerns, the things that do not work out in life, our compromises and sin, they are not left at the door but they are brought in here – in the same way as Judas’s betrayal was right in the middle of the Last Supper..
Perhaps it is of the very nature of the Eucharist, that these things belong here because all things in the Mass are being redeemed. Things get straightened out, tight knots get unravelled. Tears are dried, broken hearts are mended, sins are forgiven, reconciliation takes place.
May it is at the very heart of things that in the Eucharist the Lord is gathering it all together and through his Cross healing it.
I think most of us realise that these great religious paintings of the past are more than just a painting or a record of an event in the Lord’s past. Da Vinci makes his painting more than a record more than a mere photograph, he sets the Last Supper in a world that he knows, with a room that would be recognisable, with a table the like of which would be known, with faces that looked like him and other people he knew - this was a world he knew broken, in this case by the sin of Judas, but a world that is to be redeemed by the cross and will continue to be redeemed by the celebration of the Eucharist in which the crucified presence of Jesus remains for all eternity.
Most of us here present from our earliest days have received the Holy Eucharist. At that moment when we receive the Holy Eucharist, no matter what we are thinking, no matter what we are doing, no matter how unworthy we are to receive it, God’s grace had come to the door of our life. God’s redeeming grace is with us, God’s healing grace is with us, God’s transforming grace is in us.
We are his guests at the last supper. It is us he has in mind when he lifts the bread and says this is my body and blood which is given up for you. He has everyone in mind and everyone who will share in the Eucharist, his redeeming grace is here now and fir all eternity.