A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. (Luke 22:24)
At 10:30 on Thanksgiving Day, I am standing in a long line waiting for a box of Thanksgiving. We are not in a restaurant, as you might expect, but in a nondescript building—a VFW hall, Rotary Club hall, or Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall. We stand in line in a plain, undecorated room waiting to say our last name and be handed our order by a woman who gives the impression that she has been sitting there several hours longer than she wants to. We are sent to a bigger, duller room to stand in a longer line. When we get to the front of this line, one of the dozen or so people handling orders fills a cardboard box with a turkey, a pan of dressing, a chocolate pie, and two bags of rolls. Along the wall there are dozens of boxes marked “choc” or “appl.” As she puts in the rolls, I realize that I don’t smell anything. In spite of the presence of several hundred Thanksgiving dinners, there is no Thanksgiving dinner smell because none of the food has been cooked there.
On Thanksgiving Day, this crowd doesn’t seem thankful or even happy. An elderly man in a Boomer Sooner sweatshirt has his hood pulled up as if something vaguely disreputable is going on. The people there are embarrassed to admit that they didn’t do their own basting, baking, boiling, broiling, roasting, and toasting. Their rolls rose in someone else’s oven. How will they explain if someone sees them? “I know how this looks, but I swear this is our first time. We’re so busy that we had no choice. What are you doing here, anyway?”
What we’re doing is trying to buy a box of Thanksgiving—not just a turkey, dressing, pie, and rolls but the experience of a family Thanksgiving. Maybe the room is eerily quiet because we suspect that it isn’t going to work. The fortunate ones of us remember Thanksgiving at Grandmother’s house—the smells wafting from the kitchen, the constant questions about when the food will be ready, putting extra leaves in the dining room table, and setting up the card table in the kitchen. The view from the card table was not much, and Grandma’s dressing was dry, but the memories smell better every year.
The pace of life has changed. Buying a box of Thanksgiving makes sense, and the turkey tastes fine, but it is hard to believe that thirty years from now our children will say, “I want a chocolate pie just like we used to pick up at the VFW hall.”
As the time for the Passover draws near, Jesus hopes that everything will turn out just right. Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper makes it seem idyllic. We might think that the Last Supper would qualify as a picture-perfect meal. Jesus goes to a lot of trouble for this thanksgiving dinner. This is his last chance to eat with his friends, so he prepares with great care. He chooses a guest room in Jerusalem and sends two disciples ahead to purchase bread and herbs, roast the lamb, and set the table.
As they begin to eat, Jesus tells them how much he has looked forward to sharing thanksgiving. He says that they are his family and tells them to “divide the cup among you.” The supper is warm and wonderful: “Everybody on this side of the table for a picture.” The meal is picture perfect for a while. But then Jesus shocks the disciples when he warns them of a traitor in their midst. He makes a final appeal to Judas, his friend of three years.
The disciples talk about what has become an ongoing betrayal. They argue over who is the most important. Jesus has addressed this on at least four occasions. No one knows how many times have gone unmentioned. He must have been tempted to throw up his hands in disgust. “What’s the use? You’re never going to get it.”
Jesus turns his attention to Simon Peter. Satan is going to sift him like wheat. When Jesus most needs his friends, none of them are going to be there.
In the space of four paragraphs, Jesus eats this thanksgiving meal with his family, says that one of them is going to kill him, listens as they argue over who is the greatest, and sadly informs Simon that he will act like no friend at all. By the time the pumpkin pie is served, Jesus is alone.
In light of the pettiness, phoniness, and selfishness at the Last Supper, how can this table be thanksgiving? Jesus makes it clear that the Last Supper is not thanksgiving for where we are; it’s for where we are going. Jesus tells his friends of a thanksgiving dinner yet to be. One day there will be a table with no pettiness, phoniness, or selfishness.
This is not the Last Supper so much as it is the promise of the Last Supper. At the end of it all, there will be a glorious thanksgiving dinner free of the deceit that was present at that first Last Supper and every succeeding one.
The family at the table has not changed much. Like Jesus’ first disciples, we are not as brave as we should be, but our present failures will not keep us from being God’s people. One day, we will live as God’s family.
We give thanks for our destination. The supper that we celebrate is the appetizer. The table invites us to live in gratitude for the promise of what is yet to be. One day, we will gather around the table for a thanksgiving meal to end all thanksgiving meals.
This post originally appeared in Time for Supper: Invitations to Christ’s Table by Brett Younger.