The Passover was the greatest of all the Jewish feasts. It was the annual commemoration of the delivery of the Israelites from the bondage of Egypt. It was celebrated on the fifteenth of the month of Nisan (roughly, our April) but, since the Jewish day began at sunset, the feast really began at sunset of the fourteenth Nisan. For Christ and His Apostles, and undoubtedly for many others also, the Paschal meal was to be eaten that year on Thursday evening.
The Apostles knew that He would want to eat the Paschal meal in Jerusalem, and yet they knew also that neither He nor they had an abode in the city. They finally approached Jesus with the question: “Where dost thou want us to prepare for thee to eat the Passover?” Christ selected Peter and John and directed them to go and make the necessary preparations. He told them how they were to get in touch with one who was evidently a friend or disciple and who would provide the necessary “guest chamber.” The anonymous benefactor showed Peter and John “a large upper room furnished” which he placed at the disposal of Jesus and his Apostles (Mark 14:12–16).
Before the appointed hour, Peter and John had completed preparations for the Paschal meal, and Jesus and the ten Apostles arrived at the Upper Room. It was about six o’clock. All waited expectantly for the blast of silver trumpets blown by the priests at the Temple announcing the exact moment of sundown and the beginning of the meal.
The Supper Begins
As the Apostles started to take their places to begin the meal, a dispute broke out among them over precedence. Jesus quietly rebuked them and then gave them a lesson in true humility. He put aside His outer garments, girded Himself with a towel, poured water into a basin, and began to wash and dry their feet. After overcoming Peter’s resistance, Jesus spoke rather cryptic words: “You are clean, but not all” (John 13:10). St. John tells us that Jesus referred to Judas. It is likely that our Lord spoke these words as He moved on from Peter to begin washing the feet of Judas, thus giving the traitor a broad hint that He was aware of his evil intention.
When they had reclined again around the table, Jesus insisted further on the lesson He had just taught. “If you know these things,” He said, “blessed shall you be if you do them.” Referring again to Judas, Jesus went on to say: “I do not speak of you all.” And, lest the Apostles think that Christ had made a mistake in selecting the traitor to be an Apostle, he continued: “I know whom I have chosen,” and then He explained that the choice was made that a prophecy concerning Himself might be realized: “that the Scripture may be fulfilled, ‘He who eats bread with me has lifted up his heel against me’ ” (John 13:18). This quotation is taken from a psalm ascribed to King David (Ps. 40:10 [41:9]). While these words refer directly to David, they refer indirectly to Christ, as David was a prefiguring of the Messiah. Christ tells them in advance so that they will realize later that this prophecy refers to Him.
Troubled in Spirit
St. John, quick to note the sentiments of Jesus, tells us that “he was troubled in spirit” (John 13:21). It is obvious that Jesus was disturbed by the presence of Judas. He who had wept over the blindness of the people of Jerusalem was saddened now by the presence of a chosen one who resisted all His advances, persisting in His evil course. Again Jesus spoke of the betrayal, and this time in words that sound like the solemn deposition of a witness against an accused: “Amen I say to you, one of you will betray me — one who is eating with me” (Mark 14:18). Jesus reveals in these words the reason for His trouble of soul. He will be betrayed — and betrayed by one of those now eating at table with Him, one admitted to His friendship and intimacy, one of the Twelve.
The meaning of Jesus’ words finally penetrated the incredulous minds of the Apostles. They realized from His troubled mood that He was not using figures of speech. The Apostles, in turn, became sad and troubled. They looked around at one another doubtfully, but their glances were shamefaced rather than suspicious. Each was conscious of his own good intentions yet feared that he might be the one to whom Jesus was referring.
Jesus’ answer evidently interrupted the questioning, as Judas put his question later. Jesus still avoided designating the traitor and replied in general terms: “It is one of the Twelve, who dips with me in the dish” (Mark 14:20). It is likely that this expression is only a somewhat different way of saying: “One who is eating with me.” Jesus then continued: “The Son of Man indeed goes his way, as it is written of him.” Jesus was not deceived by a trap laid for him; He was not forced; He walked the way of the cross of His own free will in the manner foretold by the prophets of the Old Testament — betrayed by a friend. Yet the fact that the betrayal was the fulfillment of a prophecy offers no excuse to the betrayer, for Christ went on to say: “But woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It were better for that man if he had not been born” (Mark 14:21).
These are the most terrible words Jesus spoke during His life on earth. Their menace is inescapable: they are a direct threat of eternal damnation to Judas. Certainly, it would have been better for Judas to have been born if a time could ever come when he would enjoy the Beatific Vision in heaven, but this possibility seems clearly eliminated by Christ’s statement.
It is likely that our Lord’s words interrupted the Apostles’ question: “Is it I, Lord?” Judas knew very well that Jesus referred to him, but he felt that in order to avert suspicion, he too must question him, so he said: “Is it I, Rabbi?” Christ’s answer came quickly and unequivocally: “Thou hast said it” (Matt. 26:25). Evidently, the others did not hear Christ’s reply, or there would have been an uproar. They were probably busy questioning one another. Judas could have no doubt that Jesus saw through his hypocrisy and knew his evil intentions.
Peter made a sign to attract John’s attention and then said in a low voice: “Who is it of whom he speaks?” Thereupon John leaned back until his head was directly over, or even touching, the breast of Jesus and whispered: “Lord, who is it?” Our Lord answered, “It is he for whom I shall dip the bread, and give it to him.” Jesus then took a piece of bread, and with it in His fingers, picked a choice morsel of meat from the dish of lamb and offered it to Judas. This was a delicate mark of attention on the part of the host. As John watched Judas accept the morsel, he must have experienced a feeling of shock and loathing. There is no evidence from the Gospel whether he revealed to Peter the identity of the betrayer. It is highly unlikely that he did, or the volatile Peter might have been at Judas’ throat.
At this moment, St. John again mentions the influence of Satan: “And after the morsel, Satan entered into him.” It would seem that, in designating him as a traitor, Jesus excluded Judas from the Apostolic college. As Judas became more and more abandoned by God, Satan became freer to exercise his power over him. Each rejected grace, each rebuffed overture from Jesus weakened his will and reduced his power of resistance to Satanic suggestion.
The last hope for Judas had faded. Jesus could expect nothing from him now. His efforts to win him back had failed. He turned to him and said quietly: “What thou dost, do quickly.” Jesus wanted to be relieved of the presence of the traitor so that He could spend the little time that was left with the faithful eleven. The others overheard Jesus’ words and thought that He was directing Judas to make some purchase for the feast or to give alms to the poor.
One can well imagine St. John watching in stunned silence as Judas rose from his place after receiving the morsel from Jesus and started to leave. As he passed through the doorway, John caught a glimpse of the darkness that seemed to envelop Judas like a cloak. The outer darkness contrasted sharply with the light of the supper room. John is evidently struck by the contrast, because he adds: “It was night.”
This brief sentence of John’s makes a profound impression. It would seem that John saw in the darkness more than a mere physical phenomenon; the darkness into which Judas goes is a symbol. This is the hour of darkness which men prefer to the light (John 3:19); it is the hour of the power of darkness (Luke 22:53), which has taken possession of the soul of Judas; it is into this darkness that the light shines, and the darkness does not comprehend it (John 1:5).
“You Will All Be Scandalized”
After the supper, Jesus spoke earnestly to the eleven Apostles, warning them of what was about to take place. During his discourse, he made the stunning announcement: “You will all be scandalized this night because of me” (Matt. 26:31). Jesus makes no exceptions. All of them will be scandalized because of Him.
The nature of the scandal is indicated by Christ’s reference to a text of Zechariah that referred to Him: “I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered” (13:7). Events of that very night and the next day would indeed bring about the fulfillment of Our Lord’s words. To the Apostles first, as to the Jews later (1 Cor. 1:23), the Passion of Christ was a stumbling block. In spite of all His forecasts and warnings, in spite of His efforts to prepare them in advance, the Apostles refused to face the facts, and the awful reality of Christ’s sufferings and death swept over them with the suddenness and completeness of a tidal wave.
Again, Peter ignored what our Lord was saying and interrupted in order to return to the subject that was on his mind. He flatly contradicted Christ. Our Lord had said, “You will all be scandalized.” Peter now declared loudly: “Even though all shall be scandalized, yet not I” (Mark 14:29). Peter was full of self-confidence. He was perfectly willing to admit that all the others would be scandalized, but he — never.
Peter’s protestations had no effect on Christ. Our Lord’s reply is incisive and definite. Every word adds clearness and emphasis to the prediction: “Amen I say to thee, today, this very night, before a cock crows twice, thou wilt deny me thrice” (Mark 14:30). The events of the night will bear out the truth of Christ’s prophecy regarding both Peter and the other Apostles.
Into the Night
Before leaving the supper room, Jesus and the Apostles sang the group of psalms known as the Hallel. This was part of the prescribed ritual for the Passover, as we have said. Then they descended to the street and started eastward toward the Garden of Gethsemane. It must have been between ten and eleven o’clock by this time, although we can only conjecture. The full Paschal moon had risen high over the Mountains of Moab to the east and shed a pale brilliance over the silent city. If tradition is correct, the group must have passed very near the palace of Caiaphas, where preparations were already afoot for the capture of Christ this very night.
Jesus and the Apostles descended into the valley and left the city through the Fountain Gate. Once outside the city walls, they walked northward on a path that followed the brook Cedron, which was dry at this time of year. At this point, the Cedron is a deep, dark gorge that separates the city on the west from the Mount of Olives on the east. As they walked along the path at the bottom of the ravine, they were in darkness, but above them the moon lighted the towering walls of the city on the left and on the right shed a soft radiance on the olive trees that covered the slope of the mount. At a point just opposite the Temple, not far from the present bridge, they turned eastward and mounted toward the Garden of Gethsemane on the lower slopes of the hill. The journey from the Upper Room was over difficult terrain and probably required about a half hour.