I still remember Helen McGregor: faithful, generous, a matriarch of our congregation for many decades. And I remember, after conducting Helen’s memorial service, her husband giving me a personal cheque as a gesture of appreciation.
At first I demurred, insisting that leading the service was my way of saying thank you for Helen’s life. But Chris persisted, and I realized it was his way of doing what was “proper,” expressing gratitude and honouring Helen’s memory. I accepted the gift, thinking I would donate it to the Mission and Service Fund; in truth, I knew that I wanted something more tangible, something to help me remember Helen.
Fast-forward a month, and there I was, wandering through a Mission and Service art auction at the annual general meeting of British Columbia Conference. It was the energy of the print, with its swirling blues and yellows, that first caught my eye. When I stopped and looked more carefully, the abstract shapes became flames and bodies, as if Pentecost were exploding once again. I stepped closer, and the title transfixed me: The Next Supper.
So I bought it, creating one of those win-win-win-win moments: M&S got a donation; the artist, Rev. Bill Dixon, a minister then serving on Vancouver Island, got recognition and a tax receipt; I got a wonderful print to hang on my office wall; and Chris knew that Helen was remembered.
Over the years, this painting has taken me on many an Easter journey. Because of the title, my pondering always begins with the Last Supper. The blue background suggests an evening haunted by fear and grief. The chalice stands in the middle, and right above it, a drop of blood. Or is it a tear? The disciples are pulling back from predictions of betrayal and denial, the threat of suffering and death.
I know that feeling. All of us want to forget about the pain, brokenness and sin inherent in life. We are tempted to jump right from the hosannas of Palm Sunday to the hallelujahs of Easter. But life doesn’t work that way, and in our heart of hearts we know it. So we have to figure out how to live with the full recognition of evil and suffering, and our part in it, while simultaneously being people of hope and joy. That won’t happen by pretending Last Suppers don’t occur; they remain part of the picture. But can they be transformed and become, at the same time, the “next supper”?
And what is the artist suggesting with that title? Clearly not the meals shared the first evening or two after the crucifixion, when the disciples hid in fear behind locked doors. No, the picture is filled with too much energy; it has to be a resurrection meal. But when?
Perhaps the next supper occurred when a couple of disciples found themselves on the road to Emmaus and invited the stranger they had been travelling with to stay with them. Is that the scene this painting depicts, when suddenly, in the breaking of bread, the resurrected Jesus is recognized? You can sense the surprise in the image, as if there were an explosive energy at the very centre, with all the figures reeling back, eyes open, hearts burning, while the calm Jesus-presence in the upper middle holds it all together. Perhaps the artist is suggesting that it’s in the sacredness of any meal, especially when we break bread with strangers, that we experience Easter and the power of new life.
Or maybe the next supper is actually a breakfast on the shore of the Sea of Galilee when, after an evening of extraordinary fishing, the disciples gather around a campfire on the beach, fearful of the mysterious Easter Jesus in their midst. Once again bread is shared, with its echo of the Last Supper: “He [Jesus] took the bread and gave it to them.” And right after that shared meal, Easter continues when Jesus forgives Peter his previous triple denial. “Do you love me?” Jesus asks three times, and each time Peter says yes. The renewed disciple then receives his marching orders: “Feed my sheep” — so very reminiscent of a previous supper commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.”
But when you stare at Dixon’s picture, it’s impossible not to imagine that, truly, the next supper occurs at Pentecost. Although Luke’s Pentecost story does not refer to the disciples having a meal, why else would the community gather but to worship and then eat? (Interestingly, tradition suggests that both the Last Supper and Pentecost took place in the same room.)
In fact, I find myself wondering if the wind rushed in and the tongues of flame flashed right in the middle of worship, in the breaking of bread. Just look at Dixon’s painting, where Spirit-fire pours down onto, into and through Jesus, filling the cup, breaking the bread, jolting the disciples, sending everyone into awe-filled dancing. Maybe Easter isn’t something that happened long ago, but a permanent unleashing of Spirit energy; Easter not as an event, but as a movement.
The Next Supper hangs on my office wall in Toronto. I am grateful to Helen and Chris for the memory and the gift. I am grateful to Dixon for his artistic vision, which invites us into a Last Supper-Easter-Pentecost moment. And above all, I am grateful to the God who is present in suffering and joy, in blue and yellow; who meets us in the breaking of bread; who knows us and forgives us; who fills us with new wine and resurrection life; who empowers us to see visions and dream dreams; and who sends us into the world to love one another.
Rt. Rev. Gary Paterson is the 41st moderator of The United Church of Canada.