Thursday, April 9, 2009
Back in the mid -70’s just after I left the convent, a group of friends from the parish I attended would meet on Maundy Thursday at a wonderful French restaurant a block away from church. All of us were very active in our parish. Mary Margaret was in charge of lay readers. I taught in the parish and directed the guitar service, Kathy taught church school and another was active in the women’s group. It was a huge congregation—7,000 families, and only 3 priests to serve us.
We knew if we were going to get anything out of Holy Week, we would have to infuse the liturgy with meaning. So we would break our Lenten fast with a sumptuous meal. We would order a bottle of wine to share. We always had an extra chair at our table reminding us that this meal was special. It was not just a night on the town. This was a meal to which Christ was invited.
This was long before I began to understand my vocation to the priesthood. No one “celebrated” this meal. It was an agape—a love feast to which we invited our Lord, broke bread, blessed our food and one another, ate superbly and shared wine. Then we would walk to the church to celebrate the Maundy Thursday service.
Maundy comes from the word maundatum in Latin. It means law or commandment. In the Gospel appointed for today we hear Jesus giving his disciples a New Commandment. After he had washed his disciples’ feet, Jesus instructs them with a New Commandment—“Love one another.”
Often we get fixated on the washing of feet or the institution of the Eucharist at the Maundy Thursday service. But it is this New Commandment that is important. At our pre-mass agape my friend and I celebrated our friendship—our love for one another. We tried to imitate Christ’ Last Supper by asking for his presence. And we were reminded in those actions that how we lived together respecting each other’s gifts, sharing each other’s lives, laughing with one another was a response that to that love that Christ had offered us from the Cross.
Here at church in this celebration of this Holy Meal, the Communion with our God, we not only remember what Jesus did, we are invited by Christ to share in HIS meal. We feast not merely on bread and wine, or on veal piccata or coquille saint-jacques. We feast on the body and blood of Christ, our Lord. We take the One who would show us the Father into us, not just for sustenance but for strength to live out this law of love.
The Eucharistic meal—and Eucharist means thanksgiving is our offering to God and God’s offering to us. It is an invitation by God to step beyond our own limitations. It calls us to find within ourselves the grace that God gives to love more than would be humanly possible by emptying ourselves in order to love others. This act of taking bread, blessing, breaking and giving it signs that we can let old slights and bitterness go, we can begin anew with relationships. The grace of this sacrament empowers us to not cut each other off or dismiss one another. The grace of this sacrament opens us to respect those with whom we share the bounty of the earth. The grace of this sacrament raises our eyes to those around us who are suffering. The grace of this sacrament fills us with hope that what we do in the name of Christ will manifest Christ’s saving message that we are loved and that we can love others. The grace of this sacrament opens our hearts to those whose hungers cannot be satisfied by the stuff of this world and calls us to share the joy of God.
Throughout this Lenten season we have looked at our baptismal promises. As a response to the gift of eternal life given to us in baptism, we promise to live among God’s people, share in the liturgy of the Church, proclaim the good news, serve one another and strive for justice and peace. Baptism is a sacrament—that outward and visible sign of God’s grace-- that we do only once and then remember it. Holy Communion is the sign by which we can remember, we can respond, we can be about the loving one another. The regular reception of the Eucharist helps us to realize that all meals shared are Last Suppers, not mere feeding troughs. They are times for expressing our care for one another. In the celebration of Holy Communion can we realize that even a quarter-pounder and a Coke can be a divine touch when we share them in love.
I love the way this parish has dinners for the greater population of our area. We invite people into our parish home and feed them because Christ taught us how to love each other through the meal. I often worry that our falling into habits of eating on the run tears at the fabric of our society in which we are intended to enjoy one another at meal time, to eat and drink and be merry with one another. Meals together need to be that reminder of the New Commandment. Our hustle-bustle lives often take away the real sense of community or communion with one another. And most of all it wears at our basic communion with not only one another, but with God too.
Holy Communion not only reminds us, but the grace of the sacrament—of Christ present in the act—allows us to refocus ourselves on the New Commandment that we live out because Christ gave his Body and Blood for us. We celebrate this night not merely to walk in Jesus’ footsteps, but to recognize that our footsteps are guided by Him. We celebrate this night to remember that it is through our reception of the Body and Blood of our Savior that we participate in the life, death and resurrection of Christ and though it we live in him and through him.
The early Christians referred to Holy Communion as the mysterium trimendum. The Greek Orthodox refer to the transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ as mystery. Lutherans refer to it as the sacramental union of God and humanity. Episcopalians call it the Real Presence. However we name it, the sharing of bread and wine in the name of Jesus Christ is a participation in God’s work in this world. It is life-changing. It is nourishing; it is mundane and sacred at the same time. It bridges what it means to be created and what it means to be cherished. And it is the simple act of a man 2,000 years ago who wanted to share his love for his friends that has been passed on to us by ages of those who have shared in that love.
Holy Eucharist is the oldest uniquely Christian ritual we have. By 50 CE it is already a regular rite in the Christian community. In a mere 20 years after our Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection, the breaking of the bread is part of the life of those who followed the way of Jesus. When we share in this meal we stand upon the shoulders of generations who have taken, blessed, broken and given of bread and wine in the name of Christ. This act binds us to those generations just as it binds us to those generations who will follow after us.
And so we celebrate tonight this simple act of sharing bread and wine. It is layered with all the ways that we live out our faith. It is layered with history and tradition. It is layered with mystery and awe. It is layered with desire to serve and desire to receive. But it is supported in one simple commandment—Love One Another. AMEN