the fourth cup
I clattered the customary three cups onto the counter before remembering the need for the fourth. I held the smooth china, round, white and familiar, then placed it in front of the smiling foreign yet somehow familiar face. New hands ate with the old silverware that night, at least from my limited perspective. It’s not like I had any idea who he was at the time, but I could see tears welled up in his incredibly weathered eyes, each wrinkled with little crow’s feet in the corners. The dark circles revealed leaky blood vessels and thinning skin. He was clearly exhausted. Mother acted unusual as she walked from one end of the table to the other, placing warm cloths beside the dishes. Her head was downcast and her lips pursed as if she was holding back a secret. Surely this wasn’t our usual Seader meal.
A heavy fragrance of fresh matza drifted from the kitchen into our dining room. My brother had just come back from Jerusalem and we were all anxious to hear the stories he must’ve had. There were twelve of us, thirteen including the old windswept man. My brother took his seat at the end of the table, tilted in towards mother and whispered. She placed her hand on his shoulder, his face locked on the mystery man at the head of our table. I was only a child, I assumed he was a rabbi from one of the local synagogues, but I had no idea.
Here it was Passover, the night integral to our faith and identity. The tradition lay ingrained in my memory for years; if I wanted, I could probably conduct the Seader myself, even at that age. We would read the same story of our ancestor’s exodus from Egypt and the younger children would ask the same basic questions but I already knew all the answers so the ritual wasn’t so important to me. Though on that particular evening, I was captivated by the man who led the custom. He told the story as if he had been there himself and he sure looked old enough to have been. From what mom told me of my dad, he would have probably loved to have been there that day. Passover was his favorite time of year and he was apparently the master story teller. This was close enough though, because all a sudden, I was incredibly engrossed in the story I had heard a total of seven times now. When the elderly man came to my favorite part, I straightened up, clasped my hands and leaned in. This was when Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that God has made with you.” In the past, I had tried to envision the blood of the lamb over the doorways of the houses and the Lord passing over the ones covered by it but now I felt like I too was there. I wondered if this man was a better story teller than father must have been, before he was taken away to Rome many years ago.
Soon we would eat the sacrificed lamb as a symbol of atonement. It was my job to fetch it from the yard. There it would stand, defenseless and innocent, just letting us kill it. We drank the cups of wine together, one by one. The first one symbolizing God taking our ancestors out of Egypt, the second was his deliverance, the third was his redemption that was to come and the fourth was to represent the fulfillment of his coming kingdom. This was the first Passover I would never forget, but the second would change my life forever. The room seemed to slowly spin at the man’s closing words, revealing who he was. I’m not sure if it was because of what he had said or if the wine had gotten to me. All I knew was my father was home and now a part of my life.
Many Passovers later, I was again setting the table for the Seader. My parents had grown old and passed away and most of my family was scattered now. This was my nineteenth Passover, but each year I couldn’t help but remember how my father had re-entered my life when I was seven. I wish I could say I was in high spirits, but depression had taken its toll upon me for many months. Monstrous is what I had become. I didn’t even recognize myself anymore. Going from such stability to no self control in a matter of hours, then days, weeks and months… had wreaked havoc upon my meaningless life, transforming everything, leaving a quiet, sorrowful remorse that hovered over me like a vicious gray tempest. The more time spent thinking about it, the more it developed like an uncontrollable cancer, eventually ravaging and taking down the host with a ferocious compromise. For someone like me who supposedly had so much control, so respected by the Pharisees, to allow myself the guilty pleasure, thinking of nothing other than myself. My example was devastated, and if anyone had ever known the real me, the one behind the mask of righteousness, they would have gasped in horror and disbelief. Could they have forgiven me? Could they still have seen me as they pictured me? Why was that so important to me? Would they have been able to understand that I wasn’t perfect, and that I had failed? Would they have looked inside my heart and seen this terribly hurt, broken and searching person who wanted nothing other than to be made alive? I was ruined in despair; a complete and utter desolation like a hopeless misery that sucked the excitement and happiness out of everything. I had these grotesque secrets and I didn’t really see the point in this life at all. How could I ever be made right?
To me, everything was within these limits! Time was my greatest enemy. I just didn’t see the point since everything was run on a clock. Eventually I would get old and die. There was no escape. I watched as a bystander while the world around me restlessly raced to the finish line of death. None of it made sense. All of my days appeared as little square boxes of white and a sliver of black in-between them for the night. Lately I hadn’t been sleeping much at all, and all those square white boxes began merging together. I felt constantly sick, and I wanted so badly to escape time. To me, there wasn’t meant to be such limits. My creativity was suppressed, my relationships were suppressed, my potential, everything was measured by time. Clearly we were meant for something so much more, right? I hope?
After following the Teacher those past three years, even at a safe distance, I knew he could see right through to the real me. But to my disclosure, he never once condemned me or brought up my wrongs. When I was around him, I felt at ease. I didn’t have to worry about the heavy burdens of life and my constant existential crisis’s that I wouldn’t dare tell the priests or rabbis. I actually opened up about it to the Teacher and his words perforated my heart more than anything I had ever heard before.
Despite my ailing emotions, Jerusalem couldn’t have shown more immaculate than that promising dusk. But there was no beauty in it for me, no not that night. The Seader didn’t mean much to me anymore anyway. I was tired of these superficially futile traditions. I wanted something new, something concrete, something I could touch! I wasn’t even sure if I fully believed the stories anymore. Though after what I had personally witnessed those last three years, I guess I would say I leaned more on the side of believing, but if it weren’t for the Teacher I don’t think I would have.
A rodent darted through the doorway of the house, out into the road solidified by dung and flattened palm leaves. My mind was racing, restless and desperate for newness. I walked the creaky stairs to the upper room and set the table. There were twelve of us, thirteen including the Teacher. These men had become my new family and that couldn’t have been more evident than that night. We were all so different, mostly poor; I guess you could have called us a family of outcasts.
As everyone shuffled in, amidst a clamor of voices, Jesus patted me on the back and smiled, taking his seat at the head of the table. Before him stood the four cups and within a few moments, he began the Seader.
“You’ve no idea how much I have looked forward to eating this Passover meal with you before I enter my time of suffering. It’s the last one I’ll eat until we all eat it together in the Kingdom of God.”
Each of us looked to the other. He had already broken tradition right then and there. He was known to shake things up, I guess we should have expected it, but we didn’t really understand what he was talking about.
“You guys are my friends, and I love you all so much. The greatest love is when someone lays down their life for their friends. All of you, you’re my friends.”
That evening I felt like the whole world was focused in on us. I know, it sounds absolutely absurd! We were no names, poor, in a small house off a side street in Jerusalem. Surely the world was focused on the palaces in Rome and the great kings and queens of the world, but tonight, I honestly felt as if we had stepped onto history’s stage.
Later he told the story but from a perspective I had never heard before. For generations we had passed down the Passover story from man’s perception but never from God’s, and that is how the story was told to us that evening. It was as if we had heard it for the first time, and in a sense I guess we had. When he took the third cup, the cup of redemption, he raised it and said that it was his blood! You should have seen the looks on all of our faces. We were stunned! Honestly, it almost seemed blasphemous, especially to the more orthodox among us. Jesus was never bound by traditions or customs anyway, which was something that drew me to him to begin with.
“Drink from it, all of you, this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
My mother had said I was very absorbent as a child, and picked up on words people said that others wouldn’t normally catch. That night was one of those instances. I knew the story inside and out, and I paid close attention to when he said, “Drink from it, ‘all of you’ and ‘new covenant.’ He then took the matza bread and broke it and said, “Take it, this is my body, it will be broken for you.” Again, he drew a similar reaction, but many of us were already convinced that he was truly the Son of God.
Finally, he raised the fourth cup and said, “I’m not going to drink this last cup with you. Let it be my promise to you that we will drink it together, anew, in my Father’s Kingdom.”
The word churned the fluids of my stomach. He looked directly at me when he said it too, as if he knew. Subtly, he placed the cup back on the table before him. What I had planned to be a normal Seader meal had turned into the most unexpected turn of events, because it was only a few hours later when I stood with his mother at the foot of a cross in which he was hung.
He was silent! That was when I knew. They falsely accused him and he never once stuck up for himself when he could have so easily proved them wrong. I couldn’t wrap my mind around why he was being quiet. He was just letting this happen to him, standing there defenseless and innocent, letting them kill him. Slowly my mind connected the dots and everything collapsed on me right there at the foot of the cross. My Lord’s blood dripped from his battered body and warmly sprinkled my face. This was the blood of the covenant that God had made with me. Everything made sense now. The story I had been told throughout my life had been fulfilled! Why didn’t I see it earlier? With both calloused hands I gripped the base of the rugged, splintering cross; searing hot tears coated in his blood streaming my face, bowed my head and howled.
I was his friend.
Gazing out over Jerusalem, as far as I vision allowed, hundreds of smoke piles billowed upward into the April air. The heat from the thousands of fires in the households bellow made a thick smoky haze over the city. Ashes fluttered up the hill, floating around on the breeze, blowing by my face. Smoldering flesh suffocated the muggy atmosphere, stifling all of us atop Calvary. The Passover lamb was being sacrificed in thousands of homes throughout the city, and yet I beheld the fulfillment, the real lamb. Did no one else in this city realize what had just happened? They all sat together, drinking the cups and eating their lamb, all they had to do was look out their windows and see him there on Calvary. Why would God reveal himself to me, to us, a group of lousy, sinful, poor, uneducated nobodies? Why was it that we knew, while the Pharisees bellow ate their lamb, looking forward to a messiah who was just outside their door? I vowed right there to never sacrifice another lamb, because it was finished! And just as the thoughts entered my brain, in a broken coarse voice, he exclaimed them: “It is finished.” His gory, fractured head bowed and he breathed his last.. or so I thought.
Suddenly the ground shook violently, but I clung tight to the cross. My Heavenly Father was now truly in my life. I wandered about Jerusalem that night, crying and disoriented, with nowhere to go. The others were scattered too, and there was significant structural damage from the quake. Stumbling down the dust caked road in the black of night, I entered into the home we had been in just hours prior. Some of the steps had collapsed but I made my way to the upper room which appeared as if a squall had desolated. One of the walls had split and crumbled, the chairs had fallen over, and the plates were crushed. I whimpered pathetically in the corner of the room, head in hands. He planned this specifically for me, I just knew it! Throughout my years getting to know him, he had always met me where I was, and here was the proof. I was so scared of time but now I knew, I just knew his Kingdom -eternity was for me. He had said it before:
“I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me will live even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Everything on the table was knocked over and shattered, all except that fourth cup, the promise. There it stood alone, filled to the brim, exactly where Jesus had left it.