Exodus 12:1-14/Psalm 116:1, 10-17/1 Corinthians 11:23-26/John 13:1-17, 31b-35
This evening we enter the highly charged atmosphere of the great three days, the culmination of our year: the Triduum. We celebrate events that have changed the history of the world and now change us. Today is “Maundy Thursday”: “Maundy”, from Latin “mandatum”, mandate or commandment. We hear the new commandment from the lips of Jesus, the “mandatum novum”: “love one another”.
His words come in the midst of a tense and complicated drama: a final meal together, conspiracy and betrayal, some unsettling words about body broken and blood poured out, a disciple reclining in the bosom of Jesus*, a puzzling ritual of a kind of baptism of feet, agony in a garden, an arrest, a trial…
There’s so much happening this evening to reflect on. But the blood of martyrs has been much on my mind lately, which leads me in the direction of the Eucharist, the body broken and the blood poured out, our sacred meal. The martyrs on my mind are those of recent days: Iraqis, Pakistanis, Egyptians and others who have been persecuted and even put to death in the most barbaric ways because they were Christians. And only just today, the massacre of 147 Kenyan university students, mostly Christians, killed for being Christian. We grieve for them and all those affected by this horrific violence.
The Eucharist is tremendously complex: multi-layered, multi-faceted–of fathomless depths, actually. There are lots of ways of thinking about it and lots of ways in the doing of it, but, essentially, in our sacred meal Jesus has left us a way to be in touch. We can touch it, we can see it and smell it and chew and taste it. When we taste and touch and see the bread and wine, we taste and touch and see the body broken and the blood poured out in a sacramental way.
In a sacramental way, there is one body broken, one blood poured: the one and only body and blood of the one and undividable Jesus Christ. Looking at the Eucharist with every day eyes, we might see more than one loaf of bread and more than one cup of wine on the altar. But, seeing in another way, we see that there is only one bread and one wine—the same bread and wine as at that table in Jerusalem so long ago, and the same bread and wine of every Eucharist ever since. In a sacramental way, the bread that I eat is the very same bread that you eat; my sip of wine is the same as your sip of wine, in this sacramental sense. They are both the one body and the one blood.
The sheer mystery and magnitude of what happens in the Eucharist may be why the Gospel of John gives no details of what happened at that table—perhaps the writer felt it was too special, too sacred to expose in writing (lest it fall into the wrong hands?). There are indirect references to the Eucharist in John’s Gospel—just no account of Jesus’s own words at the Last Supper. We’re told about the washing of feet, but around the Eucharist there seems to be a protective veil.
In the Eucharist we are put in touch with Jesus Christ himself, Alpha and Omega, the Word, the Logos of God, through whom all things came into being. And we are put in touch with all human beings down through history who have been in touch with the Body of Christ. “One with each other, Lord, for one in thee, who art one Savior and one living Head.” [Hymnal 1982, #306] In the Eucharist we are intimately connected with all those in Christ, all who comprise his Body: past, present and even yet to be.
We comprehend this but dimly most of the time, and in public worship we are often distracted. Is it in a mystical way that we come to understand, or is it the work of the imagination? Or is it both or something else? I’m not sure.
When we receive the bread and wine we receive the body and blood of Christ and it is the same body and blood received by the martyrs. And, in a sense, the bread and wine we consume is not only the body and blood of Christ, but the body and blood of the martyrs—and, for that matter, all who belong to Christ. The wine we drink is not only the blood of Golgotha, but the blood drenching the sand of ancient arenas where Christians were put to death. The wine in our chalices is the blood poured into the surf on that beach in Libya where 21 Christians were beheaded just a few weeks ago. And the blood of those young people killed earlier today. One with Christ and in Christ, we are one with them.
But what of the perpetrators of these atrocities? What is the mind of Christ regarding evil doers? I know what I think, I know what I feel about those who slaughter innocent people—I know what I think and feel. I would impose some sensible limits on the mercy of God; I would temper God’s mercy with my sense of justice and outrage. But what is the mind of Christ? I think we know, though we may not want to know.
The one who washed the disciples’ feet, leads us into the way of perfection. He says, quite incomprehensibly to me at times like this: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you [Mat. 5:43]; Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing [Luke 23:34]; love one another. Be perfect, he says, or, more closely translated, you will be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect [Mat.5:48]. You will be perfect… When it comes to those who kill innocent people because of their religion, I have to confess I am not very far along the way of perfection.
The best we can do is to follow him, setting out on the way, though we may have far to go. The journey into the heart of love begins with small steps–small steps taken by ordinary feet. The journey into the infinite mercy of Christ begins with the first small steps of washing the feet of our neighbors—literally and figuratively. So we set out on our way, undeterred by the violence of this world. We join him in baptizing one another’s feet that we, too, may “walk in love as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” [Eph. 5:2].
The Martyrs pray blessing upon our baptizing; they pray blessing on our journey into the very bosom of love himself, though the way be dangerous. All the children of God who have gone before us, and to whom we are so mysteriously united, pray blessing upon our journey. They bid us join them there in that place of journey’s end, in that place where we shall at last need no commandment to love one another, in that place of love’s perfection where it is always Easter morning.
So, come one, come all—any who wish! Time to prepare our feet for the journey.
* εν τω κολπω
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