Holy Week is a pilgrimage towards our encounter with Jesus, face to face. As with any pilgrimage it proceeds in stages; sometimes we ascend mountaintops and catch a vista that helps us to see where we are, at other times we trudge through dry valleys that challenge our determination to complete our journey. John Henry Newman reminds us that our religion has two sides:
“The catholic faith has two sides, a severe side, and a beautiful; and we shall be sure to swerve from the narrow way [on our pilgrimage] which leads to life, if we indulge ourselves only in what is beautiful while we put aside that which is severe.”
Tonight’s liturgy takes us from the joy of our Lord’s presence in the Upper Room, and brings us down to the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. We call this day Maundy Thursday from the Latin mandatum, Jesus’ command to His disciples to love one another as He washes their feet. Much has been and could be said about the importance of this rite, just as much could be said about Our Lord’s request that His Father “let this cup pass from me” as Jesus sweats blood and tears in agony at Gethsemane.
Ironically, the events in the Upper Room as described by St. John’s Gospel do not include the Institution narrative found in the other Gospels, which is what we did hear in the reading from 1 Corinthians, to remind you:
I Corinthians 11: 23-25; “The Lord Jesus, on the night in which He was betrayed took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said ‘Do this in anamnesis of Me.’ In the same way also He took the cup…saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in anamnesis of Me.”
How often have we heard these words repeated at each Eucharist, but in spite of the familiarity of the words they still ring out on this special night—
MY BODY, BROKEN FOR YOU.
MY BLOOD, SHED FOR YOU.
DO THIS, IN ANAMNESIS OF ME
Words are almost unnecessary when we are confronted with the ACTION of the Eucharist: TAKE, BLESS, BREAK/POUR OUT, GIVE, but words are also the earthen vessels which contain a treasure more precious than words can ever express.
MY BODY, BROKEN FOR YOU
Our Lord identified His body with the bread of this supper, bread which must be broken into pieces before it can be consumed:
- BODY in Hebrew meant much more than our physical bodies, it meant our self-identification, our “is-ness.”
- Jesus is thus saying to His disciples and to us “I give you, my beloved ones, my true self, my personhood, in a self-offering for you—I give you my very self so that you can be nourished.”
- Even as we cannot survive for long without food, so we cannot survive spiritually without our Lord’s constant self-giving to replenish us.
- BROKEN bread means bread that is no longer complete, whole, entire—its integrity must be sacrificed if it is to be our food; even so Jesus sacrifices Himself—His identity, His self-respect, his entire-ness, so that He can nourish us.
MY BLOOD, SHED or POURED OUT FOR YOU
Jesus identified His physical vitality, His life, with the wine of this supper, wine which must be poured out to quench our thirsty souls.
- BLOOD in Hebrew was believed to be the fluid of life: Jewish law forbade the drinking of blood—God alone could give life and consume it.
- Jesus is saying to His disciples and to us, “I give you my very life force—the blood of God’s covenant with His people—that you may be-at-one with God [for is not the meaning of the blood covenant the at-one-ment of God with us?] That the blood which pulses through my veins may also animate you, and make you of one blood with Me.”
- POURED OUT blood is no longer self-contained, its integrity must be sacrificed if it is to be shared around the Table; even so Jesus sacrifices his life-blood, He pours it out, so that our thirst may be quenched.
THE PARADOX OF THE NEW COVENANT
But is this not a paradox—that Jesus’ body must be broken so that our bodies might endure, that Jesus’ blood must be poured out so that our life’s blood may continue?
C.S. Lewis would call this divine paradox the “deep magic,” the hidden mystery by which the cosmos is animated and directed.
The rituals which we enact tonight are of a primal, existential nature—
- SACRIFICE – from the earliest days of human awakening it was obvious that one did not get something for nothing, that there was a price to be paid for our existence.
- “I went to a Catholic wedding…and I was gripped by the experience! It was all new to me, and very fresh! I saw the altar, the wine and the bread. I saw the links with the classical world of bloody sacrifice. And I saw that what had been added by Christianity to the old idea of appeasement of the gods was this endless message of LOVE, of CARITAS, man to man. Not that Christianity hasn’t done harm, but that the Christian idea of love, added to the Roman idea of law…is what has made Western Civilization [great]!” NEWSWEEK (Nov. 16, 1981, 110) QUOTE: S. Naipaul, Hindu Journalist
- This sacrifice, offered “once and for all” on the wood of the cross even as it is offered tonight on the wood of the Table at the last Supper, is at the very center of the “deep magic” of life—our life and the world’s life.
DO THIS, IN ANAMNESIS OF ME
“Do this…” is self-evident, but “in anamnesis of me” is not so.
- ANAMNESIS is a Greek word which means far more than our concept of remembering some past person or event; it literally means to bring the past in our experience of the present.
- What we do tonight on our altar is not a visual aid to remind us of what once happened, but a bringing of that event into our own experience here and now—Jesus’ last supper is our supper, His washing of His disciples’ feet is the washing of our feet, His presence with them is His presence with us—here and now.
- The Maundy of tonight, the mandatum (command) of Our Lord, is that we discern his presence in the breaking of our bread and in the washing of our feet—His presence in the elements of bread and wine, and His presence in the lives of each of us.
But there is a “catch” to this deep mystery.
- The sacrifice of Our Lord—His body broken, His blood poured out—also becomes our sacrifice, as St. Paul says it, or as the BCP states it:
- “Here we offer and present unto Thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto Thee…”
- We, too, come to this Table to offer ourselves to God for the life of the world.
Evelyn Underhill expressed it better than I can in her poem Corpus Christi:
Yes, I have understood
How all things are one great oblation made:
He on our altars, we on this world’s rood.
Even as this corn,
We are snatched from the sod,
Reaped, ground to grist,
Crushed and tormented in the mills of God,
And offered at Life’s hands, a living Eucharist.