Sermon: March 24 (Maundy Thursday)

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Do this in remembrance of me, he says. But, why? Why this business with the bread and the wine, the eating and the drinking?

The obvious answer, often given, and true enough, is that eating and drinking are central to life. We need food to survive, and “This is my body” is the denouement of “One does not live by bread alone”. In the Eucharist, instituted on this night so many nights ago, we feed on God who sustains us. The symbolism is as plain as the wafer itself.

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We also need each other, and at his table, Christ brings us all together in himself, we who are so many. (Pardon, for a moment, an excursion into autobiographical indulgence.) My first time in an Anglican Church, it was an 8am BCP service, and terribly unfamiliar, both the liturgy and the people. There weren’t many of us, a half a dozen at most. I was the youngest by about a half a century, and stood out like…a Malaysian Chinese lapsed Pentecostal in a choir stall of respectable, White, anglo-Catholic women in their Sunday best. We had nothing in common, they and I, and yet there we were, standing and bowing and kneeling together, crossing ourselves together, me mimicking them, feeling less lost and more found with each moment and movement. And then we were at the altar rail together, the faithful ladies of All Saints’ Anglican Church, Dunedin and my uncertain self at the end, and I watched them close their eyes and open their lips, and then and there I knew that they were home, and so was I, so exposed and vulnerable did they—did we—allow ourselves to be: eyes closed, mouths agape, looking like fools. Like fools, half-expecting the wine to taste of silver or blood, and yet struck, surprised, by the strong, sweet headiness of the liquor when the chalice is finally presented. The Eucharist is not like a shared meal, so much as the other way around: all the best meals are, like the Eucharist, occasions for creating families ex nihilo.

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The body of Christ, the priest said to me, and I believed her, as if I’ve believed it all my life. It is a crazy thing, though, by any measure of crazy things. It is exactly as crazy as God becoming a human being: born wet and wailing as all babies are, and then battered and broken and murdered, a political criminal on trumped up charges, like too many young men and women still are. The body of Christ, this flimsy piece of bread.

Priests are not, I think, meant to have favourite parts of the Eucharistic liturgy, but I must confess that I do, though favourite is probably the wrong word. It’s that moment, during the Agnus Dei, when we take the consecrated host in our hands, and snap it in half. There is, of course, no sense in which we are in that moment breaking or re-breaking the physical body of Jesus: and yet, of course, this is, in our hands, the body of Christ, broken for the sake of the whole world.

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Do this in remembrance of me, he says, to us for whom his body is broken and his blood is spilt. He says it to us, who in our feckless faithlessness fail to keep watch, who betray him and deny him and abandon him in the darkness, our bellies still full of the bread and wine, immortal food from his own hand. 

There is a caricature of Christianity—Catholicism in particular—in which Christians are, on one hand, steeped in guilt, and on the other, cheaply exculpated by bits of liturgical technology. It has always seemed to me that, in some ways, we have the opposite problem: for so many of us, our moral senses are dulled against the gross injustices in the world, and our feelings of responsibility or obligation are likewise diminished, desensitised by the enormity of the problems, perhaps, or just as part of the detached cynicism that, for whatever reason, seems to characterise our age. The Church has penitential seasons, and in a callous world, this is no bad thing. And as for liturgical technology: as you will be told by any cleric at St Mary Magdalen’s, we go to confession not to be forgiven, but because we already are. And to repeat an old theological cliché, forgiveness is free, but far from cheap.

When Jesus washes his disciples feet, it is, as we know, a sign of love. The son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. But there is something else going on. Jesus washing the feet of his disciples should remind us of the time when his own feet were washed. The fragrance filled the house when Mary of Bethany poured the perfume on his feet, and wiped them with her hair: let her alone, Jesus says to Judas who criticises her for wastefulness, let her keep it for the day of my burial. Mary’s act too is one of love, but for Jesus, it is also a preparation for death. To have our feet washed is, likewise and like our baptism, a dying to ourselves, for the sake of the world.

So it is also with the bread and the wine, in which we are ourselves offered as a living sacrifice, bound up in that—as the old words have it—one full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, who is Jesus Christ, our Lord. In breaking bread together, we pledge ourselves to be broken for one another and for the world; in sharing wine together, we drink from the bitter cup of Christ’s own suffering. Just as his resurrection life is ours, so too is his earthly life and ministry, even his wounds, even unto death. Make no mistake: there is nothing cheap in our receiving that free and gracious gift that is our Lord’s body and blood.

Why do it then? There can, I think, be no justification, except the rejection of the economic logic of balancing costs and benefits, and the certainty that there is truth to be found in these symbols, even if they are truths that bring tears of anguish before they bring tears of joy.

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Do this in remembrance of me, he says, in remembrance of him, to whom we belong forever, even though we stumble and fall from the weight of our own egos and insecurities, even though we are cowards and traitors, even though we abandon love for safety. And for certain we will do all these things, and more: stumble, fall, cower, betray, abandon. Not because we are, as they like to say, “only human”, but precisely because we are insufficiently so. And so it is that Christ, who is the very meaning of humanity, calls us to join him at table, to sup with him at this banquet first prepared this very night so many nights ago, world without end. Do this in remembrance of me, he says. Why? Because it is here—where we who are many eat and drink together; where our notions of power and glory are subverted by the Word made flesh, made bread, broken; where we are ourselves broken, spilt, and consumed—(it is here) that we discover what it means to be truly human. Do this in remembrance of me, he says, and I don’t think we need to be told twice.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.