On the streets of a busy flea market in Miami, Florida, my three sisters and I stood around a cardboard box filled with a dozen fuzzy yellow chicks and begged our father to buy one. After an hour of pestering, he relented—on one condition: whenever it was big and plump enough, we would kill it and eat it as a family. You see, my father grew up on a farm, and you can’t take the farm out of the boy, even when he lives in the middle of a metropolis. As a reminder of the little chick’s destiny, our father chose his name: Nuggets. “Don’t get too attached,” he warned us.
As a reminder of the little chick’s destiny, our father chose his name: Nuggets. “Don’t get too attached,” he warned us.
But of course, our love for this new pet grew along with his golden feathers—we pushed him on our swing set and toted him in laundry baskets. We chased him around the yard and fed him handfuls of seeds, giggling as his beak nipped softly at our skin. Now, I’d like to think our father would have let Nuggets live if our neighbors had not reported us for a zoning code violation, but maybe not. What I do know is that when Nuggets was about six months old, our father came in from the backyard to pronounce that “Today is the day”—and we all knew what he meant.
My younger sisters started to cry, mostly out of confusion because they were too small to understand why. My older sister ran to her bedroom and locked the door. She later emerged solemnly and silently, her clothing and nails black in protest. I set myself apart as the intrepid sister, heading outside to watch my father lead Nuggets to the chopping block. I stood there with a disposable camera to take pictures of our pet’s last moments—but my eyes stayed shut and my stomach churned.
In the end, we gave Nuggets’s plucked, yet hardly plump, body to a family in our church—the thought of consuming our precious pet was far too distressing. No amount of forewarning could have prepared us for that moment which, while somewhat trivial to me now, was quite traumatizing as a child. And yet I look back now and wonder why it felt so sudden, so surprising, when my father made it clear from the beginning that Nuggets was a creature bound for death.
I’ve often chided the disciples for their incredulity at the death of Christ. As a modern reader of the text, it all seems so clear, so neat and tidy. The scriptures record three instances where Jesus foretells His crucifixion and alludes to further references He made “from that time" (Matt. 16:21) He did not use a parable or allegory as He often did in other teachings; He spoke directly and plainly, explaining exactly what would happen to Him, how and where it would take place—and at whose hand. Why, then, were the disciples so shocked when what Jesus said came to pass? Surely they had come to know that their friend and teacher was, like my father, a man of His word and not prone to exaggerate. After all, they had seen Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead. Why didn’t they at least wait by the grave three days to see if His prophecy would come true?
Before, when Jesus told His disciples that He was going to die, they “did not understand this statement, and they were afraid to ask Him” (Mark 9:32). Yet on another occasion, “they were deeply grieved” (Matt. 17:23). But most startling is when Peter objects—eliciting a scathing rebuke from Jesus. Before the officers came to arrest Jesus in the Garden, Peter was willing to die himself rather than to see His Lord handed over to death. And yet, only hours later, when it was clear Jesus was bound for the cross, so complete was Peter’s horror that he denied any relation to Him altogether. Peter, who’d been so convinced of his own zeal and devotion, was entirely shaken when he saw Jesus walking like a lamb to the slaughter. It was clear that this was not the finale he’d anticipated.
Sometimes I catch myself making the death of Jesus out to be a gorgeous painting. I stand before it, contemplating the depths of mystery and meaning behind each swath of color and think, But of course, it had to be that way. His self-sacrifice is so ripe with beauty, so filled with portent and etched with glory. But while its design may appear obvious to us now, we must remember how absolutely senseless it felt to those who followed Him then. The disciples’ disillusionment shows just how wrong, ill-timed, and unpoetic Christ’s death was at the time. That next morning in the upper room, the disciples were not nodding at each other in meaningful knowing. There was no burst of inspiration where Christ’s prophecy was illuminated, giving way to sparkling anticipation of His resurrection. No, I would imagine their Lord’s death felt more like a Band-Aid stripped off a gaping wound or like a hard green fruit snatched from a tree—like a child taken by a sudden, irreverent illness. It was nothing short of terrible and traumatic.
We must remember how absolutely senseless Jesus' self-sacrifice felt to those who followed Him then.
And yet it was not enough for Jesus to let His body hang naked and bloody on a tree before His enemies—He created a ceremony for this unceremonious occasion. At the Last Supper before embracing His death, Christ held the wine and bread in hand and told the disciples to drink and eat in remembrance of Him. By this, our Lord ensured that believers for all time would not simply be moved by the meaning of His death, but that they would remember its unavoidable necessity and even experience its corporeal reality—the way His body took up space on earth.
Even before that, Jesus alludes to this feast in John 6 while speaking to a group of people that had been following Him for days. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves.” He says, “For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him” (John 6:53-55). Dismayed and disgusted, His followers began to grumble to themselves, “This is a difficult statement” (John 6:60). At which point we are told that many of them turned back and no longer walked with Him. Jesus then turns to the Twelve and asks, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” To which Peter replies, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life” (John 6:67-68). I imagine a bit of exasperation in his voice, as if he almost wished there were someplace else he could go.
I think followers of Christ still struggle with the same dilemma today. Do we choose to believe in all of His words—even the ones we don’t understand? Are we prepared to serve a God who has promised us trouble and hatred in this life, knowing He did not spare Himself from His own unfair share of it? Do we acknowledge His suffering along with the suffering of others, as well as our own—without sanitizing any of its uncomfortable reality? Are we following Jesus because He makes sense, or because we’ve determined Him to be our one and only way, truth, and life? Yes, even when it tastes bitter to our tongue, Christ has called us to eat His flesh and drink His blood.
Perhaps the sacrament of communion is a reminder that our suffering Savior will always be a hard pill to swallow. A crucified God was and is a foolish notion; a sharp rock upon which the world stubs its toe. And for those of us who continue to follow in the shadow of His cross, even though we already know how the story is supposed to end, Christ’s death still represents the confusing and unexpected—those unsettling moments when we aren’t quite sure that everything will turn out all right after all.