The busload of tourists stood in the middle of the unbelievable small empty room. It wasn’t what I expected. It was rather small which surprised me. Every other religious site, that we had visited so far, had been over seen by some religious group or order, but not this one. There wasn’t a charge to walk up the steps and enter this “holy” site. It still was just the upper chamber of a house. People lived downstairs. There was no altar, no candles, no bookstore filled with trinkets … just an empty, bare upper room.
First impressions can be a little misleading especially when they come loaded with anticipation. Actually the room was quite dirty. The windows were just openings in the wall. Through these windows birds would come and go, making nests in the corners of the room and leaving a few deposits on the floor, as well as the walls. Dirt, leaves, and some loose papers were spread throughout the room. And, yet, there we stood in what our Arab-Christian tour host was calling the Upper Room.
The skeptic in me began to create a hoax theory, but I’ve been to the Holy Land three times and on each of these visits have been shown the same room. And so there I stood this time thinking that this would have been an ideal place for the bus to celebrate Holy Communion, but that was on our schedule for later in the day at another site. So we stood shoulder to shoulder – I said it was small – and listened to the tour host’s speech. I’ve heard it all before … so, this time I closed my eyes and tried to shut out the noise around me.
I tried to imagine the events that took place in this holy place so many years ago. I tried to picture the disciples all reclining around the table spread with the foods and trappings of the traditional Jewish Seder meal. I thought of John Mark, of the Gospel According to Mark fame, nervous in the corner as Jesus and his followers used his upper room for this meaningful meal during Passover.
I also thought of Jesus speaking about the one who was about to betray him … and he wasn’t looking at Judas this time, but at me. The pain was almost greater than my soul could bear. Betray him? Me? How could he think such a thing? Why does his eyes penetrate my soul with such burning compassion? Does he really know? Dare I even admit it to myself? Betray him? How often have I been guilty of betrayal this past year … the past week … within the last couple of hours? Hadn’t it been just too easy? But the compassion, love and acceptance were almost more than I could handle. I am not deserving of the grace and forgiveness … but, actually no one is and isn’t that the point.
Forgiveness, if it really is deserved, is it actually forgiveness? Forgiveness offered when it isn’t asked for … forgiveness given when it isn’t deserved … forgiveness shared when the offender may not even be aware of what they did … this kind of forgiveness is so divinely sweet, so powerful, so healing … How can anyone escape those eyes and words of forgiveness? And it all begins with symbols of body and blood, broken and spilled out for all those of us who didn’t know that we really needed forgiveness in the first place, let alone knew that in our little betrayals we helped crucify him.
We had to get back on the bus and head to our next religious site, but a part of me wanted to linger a little bit longer in the Upper Room … the healing was just starting to take root within my spirit. I had some unfinished work to be done between Jesus and me. As I walked down the stairs, I was the last to leave the room, I looked back and longed for the freedom to simply stay there in the Upper Room, but alas, like the disciples of old, there was a Garden to visit, a hill to try to understand and an empty tomb to experience.
Isn’t that just like God, always saying, “Okay, it is time to move on to the next stop on our spiritual journey” … have to be careful that we don’t stagnate or get caught up in the way stations along the journey, but it is nice to re-visit them once every now and again like the Upper Room … and I do in the breaking of bread and sharing of the cup … and I close my eyes and remember a small room above a dwelling in the land called Holy.
Quote for today: “Maundy Thursday there is joy and strength, of course, in this holy food and drink, but it is also an inevitable joining forces with the vast Scheme of reconciliation and redemption. Now there is something in our natural selves that may well make us wary of such a contact. The man who in his heart intends to go on being selfish or proud, or who has already decided how far his Christian convictions should carry him, is probably obeying a sound instinct when he keeps away from this glorious but perilous Sacrament. For, if the truth be told, men are often willing to put their trust in a god who in the end must be triumphant, simply because they want to be on the winning side; but they are not nearly so ready to bear any part of the cost of that winning. Yet the fellowship of the broken bread and the poured-out wine can mean no less than that.” ~J. B. Phillips