On this day: Reclining at Table

by Gerelyn Hollingsworth

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On this day, Tuesday of Holy Week, we hear again of Jesus reclining at table.

In yesterday's gospel, Jesus was reclining at table with Lazarus at the dinner in Bethany. In the gospels for today, tomorow, and Thursday, Jesus is reclining with his disciples at the Last Supper in Jerusalem.

For an illustration of reclining at table, click here.

A triclinium was a couch on which three people could recline. The triclinium sloped down at about a 10 degree angle. In some houses, the triclinia were built in, made of stone, rather than being movable pieces of furniture. There were cushions on the triclinia, and the food was placed on small tables within reach of the guests lying on the triclinia.

The triclinium at the left was the most important. As we know from Jesus's admonition to take the lowest place to avoid being asked to move down, positions were important.

The notes to the diagram at this site say position 1 at the lectus imus "is the place of the master of the house", but this source says the host ordinarily occupied the middle position at the lectus imus; in their diagram, it is "place No. 8, which was usually taken by the master of the feast, and was a convenient situation for giving directions and superintending the entertainment."

"Each man in order to feed himself lay flat upon his breast or nearly so, and stretched out his hand towards the table; but afterwards, when his hunger was satisfied, he turned upon his left side, leaning on his elbow."

"We find the relative positions of two persons who lay next to one another, commonly expressed by the prepositions supra or infra. . . . each person was considered as below him to whose breast his own head approached."

"As each guest leaned during a great part of the entertainment upon his left elbow, so as to leave the right arm at liberty, and as two or more lay on the same couch, the head of one man was near the breast of the man who lay behind him, and he was therefore said to lie in the bosom of the other."

We can see from all diagrams how convenient the feet were, as when Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus' feet, and as when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.

At times four people reclined on a triclinium. In the upper room, hired for the Last Supper, with thirteen people, there would probably have been four or five triclinia in use.

Reclining at table with his disciples, Jesus was deeply troubled and testified, “Amen, amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me.”
The disciples looked at one another, at a loss as to whom he meant.
One of his disciples, the one whom Jesus loved, was reclining at Jesus’ side.
So Simon Peter nodded to him to find out whom he meant.
He leaned back against Jesus’ chest and said to him, “Master, who is it?”
Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I hand the morsel after I have dipped it.”
So he dipped the morsel and took it and handed it to Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot.

The Beloved Disciple was next to Jesus -- below him. Peter was close enough to have heard Jesus' words and in a position to nod a signal to the Beloved Disciple. Judas was close enough to take a morsel from Jesus' hand.

Using the first diagram, Jesus could have been in position 1 at the lectus imus, the Beloved Disciple in position 2 at the lectus imus, Peter in position 3 at the lectus medius, and Judas in position 2 at the lectus medius.

What was the morsel that Jesus dipped and handed to Judas? It could have been a piece of matzoh dipped in the haroseth or a sprig of karpas dipped in salt water.

Click here to find the Liturgy of the Hours for today.

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