In Irish households there is a long tradition of the ‘good room’, usually a sitting room with all the trappings and trimmings of a family’s history and memories. It was a room that was reserved for special occasions and woe-betide any youngster who went in there without permission. In many ways ‘the good room’ was the best presentation of the family’s worth and value; their ‘best foot forward’ in social interaction. The ‘good room’ was always a far cry from the kitchen, where all manner of family life happened on a daily basis. The kitchen was the hub of the household. In many ways the house was built around the ‘good room’ but the home was built around the kitchen. The kitchen was for the family, but the good room was for the outer world. We didn’t have a good room when we were growing up. With eight of us living ‘cheek to jowl’ there just wasn’t enough space, but that didn’t matter because every visitor was brought into the kitchen. What delineated the status of the guest was the manner in which they received their cup of tea. If the visitor was familiar or familial, they were handed a mug or a cup. Special visitors were handed a fine bone china cup and saucer. We would tease our mother mercilessly when this happened, wondering aloud whether this strange addition to the tea-cup was a new fancy way of cooling the tea before slurping it from the saucer. Our mother in turn would signal her approval (or otherwise) of any girlfriend/boyfriend we’d bring home, by giving a mug to those she liked, and a cup and saucer to those she was unsure of.
What we now call ‘The Upper Room’ was actually one of hundreds to be found in the city of Jerusalem. They were large spacious rooms set apart for family gatherings and guests who would come to the city for the many religious festivals. Most people camped outside the city (in places like the Mount of Olives) because there simply wouldn’t have been any rooms available within Jerusalem’s walls and narrow streets. Ensuring you had a place to celebrate the Passover within a house took a lot of planning and preparation. This was especially true for Jesus and his disciples whose lives were in constant danger, and knowing who to trust was critical. It is likely that family bonds and connections were leaned on to get an upper room for Jesus and his disciples and a large number of family and followers. When his disciples asked him at the beginning of the festival of unleavened bread (the Passover) where he wanted them to prepare the Passover meal for him, there is already a sense of discomfort and anxiety. Most of his followers were country folk, fishermen and the like. They were uncomfortable and overwhelmed in such a crowded city. The noise, the smells, the constant movement of people and animals for sacrifice, would have added to their genuine fears for their very lives.
Jesus’ instructions to follow a man who would be carrying a pitcher of water that they would meet just as they entered into the city, would have confused them. In rural settings, the gathering and carrying of water was a job for the women. This man they were to meet was obviously part of a delicate and dangerous operation to get Jesus and his followers into the relative safety of the Upper Room. Tradition has it that the Upper Room was owned by the parents of John Mark, (he of the Gospel of Mark fame, and possibly the youth who ran naked from the Garden of Gethsemane to avoid those arresting Jesus). They would have been a wealthy family to have such a large space within their house, and to have servants who would carry a water pitcher around. Contrary to our image of The Last Supper being shared on a long table with everyone sitting on one side, the meal would have been shared in a cluttered space, with the disciples arriving in small numbers to avoid drawing attention to their meeting place. The atmosphere would have been tense with social and religious rituals forgotten in the growing uncertainty and fear that would have been building up among those gathered together. Jesus’ own mood wouldn’t have helped, his references to his betrayal and pending death would have unnerved them. His washing of their feet would have shocked them, and the coming and goings from the room (including the departure of Judas) would have confused them.
As Passover meals are meant to go, it would have been a bit of a disaster, something we can lose sight of as we celebrate Communion in such an ordered way on Sunday. We must not lose sight of the chaos and highly charged atmosphere within that Upper Room, it reminds us of so much more than the establishing of a new ritual to remind us of Jesus’ body and blood, broken and shed for us; it reminds us that the absolutely extraordinary can happen in the everyday mess and the chaos of our lives.
This year’s Holy Week services will delve into what happened in that Upper Room in Jerusalem nearly 2000 years ago. Our evening services (at 8pm) will follow these themes:
Spy Wednesday: ‘The Upper Room: The Arrival’.
Maundy Thursday: ‘The Upper Room: Breaking Bread and Traditions’.
Good Friday: ‘The Upper Room: A deadly silence’.
These services will be live streamed on www.churchservices.tv/christchurchbray (and will be recorded for those who want to watch later). We hope that you will be able to join us as we visit ‘An Upper Room’ like no other.