I have been struck in recent years by the artwork of Harry Hargreaves, an artist from New Zealand who photographs the last meals of those who are on death row in his "No Seconds" series He says that his main goal is "to have the viewer identify with the prisoner though their meal request. I wanted the viewer to think of them as a person for a moment instead of them being anonymous."
Some of the meals that struck me were a bowl of ice cream, someone else had a bucket of KFC, another was from Texas where they stopped providing special last meals so he just ate what everyone else ate, chicken legs, mixed vegetables, and some soup and tea. Another plate had only a single olive on it. Other plates were empty, for those who had refused a last meal at all. And at least one prisoner ordered a very large and expensive meal and then refused to eat it—one final act of defiance.
Historians disagree on when last meals became standard among countries with the death penalty. Some believe that the tradition may have started back in ancient Greece and Rome. In some ancient accounts, the prisoner would share a meal with the executioner. Was this about reconciliation? Is it to give a picture of a more humane government authority? Why feed someone who is about to die? It doesn't make sense.
These meals are more than nutrition. They all say something different about the person eating them. Some of them are about reliving memories of more comfortable and pleasant times. Others seem to be making a statement about wealth or status. Still others are forms of protest, like those empty plates. They also all say, this is a human being, someone who ate and drank. This was someone's daughter or son, someone who enjoyed certain things, who brought people joy and brought them pain, someone who was born and will die.
There are many last meals in our lives. When I read the story of the passover, I think of meals I've eaten in haste, the car packed, our minds already on the journey. I remember a lunch I threw together a few years ago when my dad called in crisis. We ate this simple meal as we drove to this family emergency, solemnly on our way to go be with him in that terrible pain. I remember nursing my child for the last time, with mixed feelings, knowing I would be more free to be away from him, but also appreciating the connection that we shared and knowing more what it meant to fully nurture another human being. I remember meals with people I love who are no longer living, the warmth and laughter. And I remember meals where someone stomped off in a huff, where someone was offended. Before our son was born, we usually ate in front of the television. It was always something we vowed to changed, but never managed it until circumstances really forced us to do something different. Our child is still too young to tell us much about his day, but mealtime has become a time in which we talk about where our food came from and how and who prepared it, and to be nurtured with laughter and song. It is a time of deep connection and joy. It is a time of rejoicing and appreciation.
What does the last supper of the Israelites before they head out on their exodus say about them and what does Jesus' last meal say to us about who he is and who we are? Of course I think it says something different to us each time we consume this meal. Tonight and every Sunday when we celebrate the Lord's Supper we not only eat the last meal that Jesus ate before his execution, but we hear the words and remember what was most important to him. We seldom think of it according to its nutritional content, but instead we look at it a time of community, of unity with Jesus, hearing his words, receiving his promises, receiving God's grace, being forgiven, empowered, and filled so that we can try to share God's grace with friends and strangers during the coming week.
Communion is a time of eating with Jesus. It transcends time and space so that we hear the words he spoke that night. We eat the food he ate that night. That table at which we eat extends and becomes the communion table for all who share this feast, in all times and places, past, present, and future. We give thanks for the food we eat. We hope communion makes us all aware of the stuff of life that we need to keep going, both spiritually and physically. We give thanks for the fertility of the earth and all those who make it possible for us to eat, farmers and harvesters, those who grind grain, those who pick grapes. We share what is most basic in life. Communion is not sharing the most fancy food, but the basics of life, bread and drink. Every culture has these foods. They are inexpensive and available to all. We share what we have with others. Communion is about having enough for everyone, not gorging ourselves. A little bit goes a long way. We remember what Jesus taught us, especially about loving one another. We remember who he ate with—tax collectors and sinners, prostitutes and children and Pharisees. We come because we are all invited, not because we have done right or believed right. And we all stand in God's presence and receive God's presence. And even better that we join together, our two churches in communion and hand washing. It is so easy to see the same faces week after week and worship in our own special space, but now we truly do what Jesus wanted us to do, he wanted us to eat on the run, like the Israelites, to get out of our comfortable space so that we would see each other, so that we would see Jesus, so that we would experience a little bit of death ourselves, in letting go and starting over.
For the Israelites, the last meal, was not the last meal of course. They would never again eat in Egypt, and oh did they miss that food. But they had something better out there in the Exodus on their journey—they knew God's presence with them, they knew how to share, they learned a lot about themselves. Jesus last supper was not his last meal either. Once he rose from the dead, he ate some fish on the shore and shared some food with the Disciples. And we know that he promises a great feast when we are all gathered with him. Tonight, think of this as your last meal. When you wake Easter morning, and every morning you are a new creation, full of new possibilities. Now that you have been fed with this holy food, God's new life is coming to life in you. Go and live that life so that it spreads to others. Go and live God's love,. In this meal and community and neighborhood, be challenged, be willing to let go, and be raised to live once more in God's grace and love.