Discipleship in the Last Supper: What Vaisnavas Can Learn from the Followers of Jesus
A reflective essay written during Holy Week, 2019.
The church is quiet and dark. The altar is stripped of its embroidered fabrics and the cross lies bare upon the ground. Jesus is about to be arrested by the religious police and will soon be crucified. His disciples are scattered, afraid and alone. This moment of desolation is made all the more poignant by the joyful celebration of the Last Supper that preceded it. That’s what makes this day so powerful: Holy Thursday, the turning point of Holy Week, which teaches that truly following God means embracing both this holy desolation and holy joy.
Although I’m now a Vaisnava practitioner, I grew up in the Episcopal church, attend a Christian divinity school, and make a point of attending occasional Christian observances, finding spiritual inspiration from them. The life of Jesus offers powerful lessons to us as Vaisnavas – especially in our practice of discipleship.
Although the joy of Christmas is naturally attractive, the desolation of Holy Week – the week leading up to Easter – is almost more meaningful for me personally. This spring, I attended Holy Week services at a small church in New Haven, CT, and found myself deeply reflecting on discipleship in the desolation of Holy Thursday. More than any other episode in the life of Christ, the message of what the commitment of discipleship really means is arguably most pointed during Holy Week. The narrative of discipleship is illustrated in different ways by Mary and Martha, Judas, Peter and others. In this essay, I’d like to focus on Holy Thursday, those final and most profound moments of Jesus’ teachings about how to be a disciple.
In Vaisnavism, discipleship is an important part of the spiritual journey. A practitioner develops in surrender and spiritual maturity in relationship with guru. It should be noted that this doesn’t just mean guru the physical person, but guru in many forms. In fact, discipleship can be understood not only as a relationship with a person, but as an orientation towards a lineage, towards a practice, towards God.
Holy Thursday is an observance of the Last Supper, marking a feast on the first night of Passover. Jesus and his disciples had traveled to Jerusalem, a Jewish city of pilgrimage, to celebrate Passover together, and gathered on this night for a celebratory meal. Passover celebrates God’s promise to be present with the Jewish people. Little did Jesus’ disciples know that in just a few hours, their Lord incarnate would be gone.
What happened during this meal represents much of the spirit of discipleship towards which we strive as Vaisnavas. While Jesus demonstrated this spirit through much of his life’s example, three key moments during the Last Supper teach the essence of how to be a disciple.
Jesus set the tone from the very beginning of this feast. As the guests arrived, Jesus washed the feet of each one of his disciples. In historical Jewish culture, as in Hindu culture, typically a servant (or disciple) would wash the feet of the master. Yet here Jesus reveals the spirit of the script-flipping God, the humble loving service that is at the heart of all spiritual relationships, moving many of the attending disciples to tears. Through this act, he taught that discipleship means to be the servant of the servant of the servant.
This same mood of selfless loving service was amplified during the next key moment of the feast. During the meal, Jesus revealed his imminent departure to his shocked disciples and issued a ‘new commandment,’ from which Holy Thursday gets its other name, Maundy Thursday after the Latin mandate. Jesus said, “You must love one another as I have loved you,” instructing his disciples to carry forward his spiritual love towards one another and towards all people. In this moment, Jesus taught that discipleship means to carry forward the selfless love and mood of the guru in service to all – rather than being a ‘groupie.’
After this fateful meal, Jesus led his grieving disciples to a garden to spend his night on Earth in prayer. While he prayed to God from the depths of his soul, knowing what would happen in the morning, he told his disciples to pray so that they would “not fall into temptation” after his departure. Yet throughout the night, they kept falling asleep, and he rebuked them for how poorly they demonstrated their faith, even knowing that he would soon be gone. They protested that they were indeed devoted, but fell asleep yet again. This turbulent night teaches that discipleship is not just through our words, but is demonstrated in our actions. It also teaches the gravity of the austerity and sacrifice of the spiritual master. Discipleship means to recognize this sacrifice and, rather than taking it for granted, to reciprocate in some way. Prabhupada is believed to have said that a spiritual teacher sheds gallons of blood for each disciple, for each person brought to Krishna Consciousness. Where’s our austerity? Where’s our sacrifice?
The name of this garden – Gethsemani, literally “olive garden” – has become synonymous with spiritual desolation – what might be called vipralamba. Were Jesus’ disciples able to stay awake, they might have experienced the agony of that ‘love in separation’ at the imminent departure of their lord. Yet their preference for sleep (maya) foreshadows what so many of us experience. Spiritual desolation is unpleasant. Feeling the pain of separation from God or separation from the spiritual master; feeling our own profound inadequacy as sadhakas, our complete inability to reciprocate with all the spiritual gifts we’ve received; or recognizing the depth of our anarthas are unpleasant. It’s far nicer to chant and dance, share prasadam, engage in all the ‘fun’ aspects of Krishna Consciousness without embracing the depth, too. But without embracing spiritual desolation, those ‘fun’ aspects quickly become superficial. Touching that inner longing, or that inner grief, moves Krishna Consciousness from hype to hope. And it moves our discipleship from something external, all too often based on comparison and competition, to something internal and deeply transformative.
All glories to the spiritual master!