Holy Thursday: The Coldest Loneliness

On Holy Thursday, the costs of an unrelenting challenge to a powerful elite begin to accrue. Suddenly, Jesus, yesterday a hero, is alone.

The beginning of Holy Week is exhilarating: Jesus’ transgressive entrance into Jerusalem, a carpenter from the countryside with the gift of healing and prophesy, riding on a donkey, being welcomed by huge, adoring crowds, like a victorious Roman general; Jesus with his whip and bellowing voice, ridding the Temple of money-hungry, widow-exploiting merchants; Jesus locked in a public battle of wits with some of the best legal and theological experts of Judea, trouncing them, telling them to take their blind, hollow, hypocritical act and shove it where the sun don’t shine; Jesus with his disciples on the Mount of Olives, in intimate conversation, contemplating the coming end of the Age.      

This is the stuff of movies. And the good guys win, right?

In reality, the film just keeps rolling, around, around, around. We quickly learn that life does not so easily offer us coherent, positive narrative arcs. When you make it your business to empower the weak and harangue the powerful, as Jesus did; when you depart from trite, abstract platitudes, and turn, as Jesus did, toward the material matters of hunger, poverty, exploitation, imprisonment; when you start impugning not just the obvious, uncontroversial “villains,” but, as Jesus did, those who have successfully cast themselves as the most virtuous of all; when you take your body and put it in the very headquarters of money’s kingdom and start smashing the merchants’ and the bankers’ windows; when you do these things, when you do what Jesus did, there are costs. And as these costs begin to arrive, to accrue, you may very quickly find that your adoring crowds have turned to hostile mobs. Where is my victorious finale? What went wrong? The film just keeps rolling, rolling.

On Holy Thursday, the costs begin to arrive, to accrue.

Throughout his three-year ministry, Jesus has tried to warn his followers. The Christ path is not all parades, miracles, and victory laps around Mammon. He says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross…” He says, “If you want to be my disciple, you must, by comparison, hate everyone else—your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life.”

Jesus understands the severity of what he is saying. He seems to recognize that this course will be, for some of us, beyond our capacities. There were, after all, only twelve disciples. “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who see its will ridicule him…” Or “suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.” Jesus, in his compassion, appears to be throwing us a lifeline: if my path is too steep, there is still the mercy of God.  

Jesus has tried to warn his followers, he has even given them an escape hatch. But we overestimate ourselves. In the jubilant spring, it is all healing lepers, soothing mental torments, raising the dead, feeding the five thousand, walking on water, campaigning for righteousness, basking in revelation. We are buoyed by the vision, the glory, the praise, and the togetherness. We feel strong and centered, so we think we are prepared to withstand whatever pain might come. We say with theatrical conviction, but a little too breezily, like Peter Simon to Jesus, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.”

But then, on Holy Thursday, the costs begin to arrive, and to accrue. The legionnaires begin to appear on the streets, with their javelins, short swords, and daggers, questioning people, searching for this problem named Jesus. The cheering throngs have quieted; now there is only hushed murmuring in the odd alleyway. We who were yesterday receiving Jesus’ healing have returned to our homes to take cover, peeking through the curtains. We see tanks rolling down the streets, searchlights skimming the city; we hear low-flying planes, the occasional gunshot. We pray no one knocks on our door. This isn’t fun anymore. Maybe, we realize, we aren’t ready for pain.

In this way, slowly, everyone starts backing away from the Christ, as though he has become a trigger bomb. “He was always a little crazy.” “He just didn’t know where to stop.” “What did he expect?”

And suddenly, Jesus, yesterday a hero, is alone.

Jesus knew loneliness well. He arrived in a lonely little stable in the big capital state of Judea, born to country mice parents traveling from Galilee, a rural region whose people could be quickly identified (and judged negatively) by their distinctive accents. There was no family assembled to celebrate Jesus’ birth, no midwife or doctor attending. Just some unbothered donkeys and sheep; and outside, countless numbers of tired, uninterested strangers. There was not even a bed for this baby; he was laid in a feeding trough. It was a lonely entrance.

As a young child, Jesus would be a refugee, with his parents, in Egypt. God had warned his father Joseph that Herod, Rome’s Judean client king, had learned from Eastern astrologers that Jesus, the “king of the Jews,” had been born. Herod, along with the chief priests and the experts in the law, was “disturbed,” and so was searching for the baby in order to kill him and protect his power. Refugees like the young Jesus, fleeing unjust dangers, watching their parents eke out a life in a foreign, often hostile land – they know loneliness.

As a young man, Jesus would wander the desert, the mountains, the Capital city, for forty days and forty nights, without food, just alone with himself. In this liminal, vulnerable state, he is tempted by the devil. Tempted first to betray his fast; tempted then to throw himself from the highest point of the Temple, to prove his power; tempted finally with reign over all the kingdoms in the world. To be by yourself, half-starved, fighting with the devil in your own mind, is an extremely lonely place to be.

After his Temptation, Jesus returns to his hometown, Nazareth in Galilee. He is a transformed man. He goes to the local synagogue. He rises before his neighbors to speak. At first, they smile: Jesus has always been so clever, they whisper approvingly. But then, something has changed. He is criticizing them. As the crowd grows cold, Jesus concedes, “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.” His old community, outraged, chases him out of town and nearly throws him off a cliff. Again, Jesus is alone, a cornerstone rejected.  

It is only then, after his long study of loneliness, that Jesus’ work begins. It is as though he has been digging a well within his soul, deeper and deeper, until finally, he reaches miraculous inner reserves, discovering himself and his true nature. Now, he has the water of life to share.

So begins a period of relative relief from this punishing solitude: Jesus’ relationship with his loving disciple-comrades, the intimacy of ministry and healing the sick, cathexis with rapt crowds, the love of children, to whom Jesus’ message of love seems to make obvious sense.

But the loneliness waits. It will return, on Holy Thursday, the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Passover, the celebration of the Israelites liberation from slavery in Egypt.

Using a set of passcodes, Jesus and his disciples have carefully traversed Jerusalem, and surreptitiously gathered in a “large upper room” in the home of an undisclosed ally.

The air is tense. A few days ago, so many paths seemed possible; now, they are all falling away, all but one. Jesus has grown quiet. It is as though he is back in Egypt, a refugee; back in the desert, delirious in his solitary hunger, up against the devil himself; back in Nazareth, his old, trusted neighbors, now furious, driving him away from his familiar. We can see his willpower fraying, his grip slipping. He is surrounded by his disciples, but Jesus knows he is very alone.

As they recline together, trying to relax, Jesus suddenly says to his friends: “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me.” The disciples – all but one – are stunned. “Surely not I, Lord?” They all deny they could do such a thing.

But of course Judas Iscariot already has, for a mere thirty silver pieces.

Not long after this, Jesus exclaims again: “This very night you will all fall away on account of me…” Again, all the disciples are distraught; all protest. Peter Simon is the most adamant: “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will. … Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.”

But Peter Simon will disown Jesus, three times, all before the rooster crows.

Night falls; Jesus knows his time, his options, are running out. Who can bear this? Sweating blood, he ascends to the hillside garden of Gethsemane to pray. He begs three of his friends, “I am overwhelmed… to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Jesus then “falls to his face,” prostrate on the damp earth, among the olive trees, and pleads, “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me.” He adds, obediently, “yet not what I will, but what you will.” Polite addendum notwithstanding, Jesus does not want to die.

But there is just silence, the ancient moon, the scent of lilies. The film keeps rolling. 

Jesus turns. His closest comrades have fallen asleep on their watch.

Three times this happens. Three times Jesus begs his brothers to keep a look out; three times they fall asleep. Three times he begs God to intervene and change this story; three times, God is silent. The implacable cosmic film just rolls and rolls.

The night wears on. What is happening in this cocoon of darkness? We feel a key change, an octave shift. A strange peace, an otherworldly resolve, an ancient surrender. We thought we understood him, but something new is being forged inside the heart of this fully human man.

Dawn arrives. “Rise,” Jesus says, “let us go!” He straightens his back, and leads his disciples to go and meet their adversaries.

They can’t take what you’re giving away for free.

As Jesus had said at Holy Thursday’s Last Supper, which transpired just hours ago, said to those whom he knew in a short time would betray and abandon him: “Take and eat this bread; this is my body.” “Drink from this wine, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

From within his coldest loneliness yet, this portent of self-sacrificial generosity. How do you keep giving, giving, giving more still, to the point of death, to all these weak-minded, ungrateful, treacherous fools? Those who will sell you out for just a little bit of extra airtime, just thirty damned silver pieces? Those who will steal your divine testimony, peddle it as their own, but are too ashamed to say they knew and loved you? Those who will nail you to the cross today, and eulogize you tomorrow? What do you see in them? What do you see in us? Why do you keep coming back, even as we greet you, again and again, with loneliness?

We wonder at it, but the answer is there, again and again and again, the very heart of Christ’s message.

“I have loved you, my people, with an everlasting love. With unfailing love I have drawn you to myself.”

There, at the base of the Mount of Olives, Jesus turns himself over. He and his disciples come face to face with a “large crowd” of armed men, led by one of the twelve, Judas Iscariot. “Greetings, Rabbi!” he says, and kisses his leader’s face, the fated signal: this is the one, arrest him.

Jesus is seized. Panicked, a disciple pulls out his sword and strikes one of the accosters, a valiant but pointless demonstration: “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus says.

Maybe a few hours ago Jesus was bewildered, thrashing against the nature of his task, the nature of his being. But he is not bewildered or thrashing anymore. “Put your sword back in its place.” This will not be the nature of Christ’s war. His aim is higher; the blow he is preparing to land will be unlike anything seen before, ramifying like lightning into the past, into the future, altering in an instant the course of the entire human drama, its electricity seeming to grow every time someone dares tell the truth of the full story.

Marcie Smith is a lawyer teaching in the department of economics at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She has a JD from the University of North Carolina School of Law. Her writing has appeared in Jacobin Magazine and at nonsite.org.


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