Maundy (Holy) Thursday April 1, 2010

Exodus 12:1-14                                                                     

1 Corinthians 11:23-26                                                        

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

I’m embarrassed, really, looking back at myself as I was entering seminary. I was living proof of the old saying that God doesn’t call the equipped, God equips the called. I was kind of a religious prig. I was all excited that after a mere three years of education I would get to be called father, wear a black suit, and be regarded by everyone as holier than them. And especially I would get to celebrate Mass, where I would say the magic words of Jesus, “This is my body; this is my blood,” and the bread and wine would be transformed in Christ himself, his Body and his Blood. What power – power passed down to me through millennia of bishops laying on hands, power that ordinary people didn’t have.

As I say, this was I entering seminary. Three years of learning theology and liturgy, followed by nearly thirty years of priestly ministry, have changed things. Thank God! What I learned in seminary is that the Last Supper, which we commemorate tonight, wasn’t a Mass. It was (or maybe was not; scholars love to disagree) a Jewish Passover meal, taken by Jesus with his close circle of friends and followers. Only gradually after his death did memories of this meal, and of what Jesus did and said there, get transformed into a liturgy – the service that has come down to us as the Holy Eucharist.

At the beginning, it was just the followers of Jesus coming together on Sundays, the day of the Resurrection, to recount memories of Jesus, pray, and share a meal – a meal that included, but was not limited to, bread and wine. Someone presided as host at that meal – probably not just men, but women as well since women were prominent in the early Church. That someone may have led the prayers and said a form of the Jewish table blessing that invoked the memory of Jesus. But only over several generations did this get regularized into the pattern of ordained ministry that we recognized today.

Only in the late Middle Ages, as theologians became fascinated with what actually “caused” the bread and wine to be “transsubstantiated” into Body and Blood did the emphasis fall on those magic “words of institution”: “This is my body; this is my blood.” Originally, the whole prayer that we know as the Great Thanksgiving was regarded as consecratory, and the whole assembly of the faithful were regarded as celebrants of the Feast – not just the priest.

I lead you through this very abbreviated history lesson not to demystify what we do tonight, but to introduce its real holiness. For when we are finished praying the Great Thanksgiving, the bread and wine on this altar will be, in very fact, the real Body and Blood of Jesus. But this will not be because I have said any magic words or because my hands are more holy than yours.

It will be, rather, because all of us together have “re-membered” (reassembled and made present here and now) the ancient history of God’s saving work down through the ages, culminating in the life and death of Jesus, whom we recognize as Son of God. It will be because we have invoked the Holy Spirit – God’s active, living presence – to reveal to us, through the eyes of our faith, what has perhaps been there all along.

I say perhaps, because there are various permissible understandings here. The one I prefer myself is that what “happens” in the Eucharist is like splitting open a geode. You know what geodes are: those ordinary looking gray rocks which, when you split them open, reveal a core of jewel-like crystals in rich colors. What I see happening as we pray in the Spirit is that the “ordinary exterior” of life is split open or peeled back, to reveal the incredibly beautiful interior, which is Jesus Christ really present among us.

By “ordinary exterior” I don’t just mean the externals of the bread and wine. I think Jesus meant the bread and wine as signs or symbols of the greater whole of life – of all food, all drink, all Creation. God is present in everything, all the time. We are not to look elsewhere for him – high in heaven, in special holy people (especially those wearing black suits). The kingdom of God is among us. This is what is revealed as we celebrate the Mass.

One of the things I learned in seminary is that the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist – for this is the fancy name for what I’ve been describing – is not limited to the Bread and Wine. Christ is really present in the presider at the Table – which is something we clergy do well to remember as we order our lives. There are too many of us who don’t take their vows seriously. But perhaps most important of all, Christ is really present in the assembly of the faithful, the People of God – each of you and all of you together.

Entering seminary, I suppose I thought the greatest moment of my life as a priest would be when I said those magic words and transformed the bread and wine. But that’s not been the case at all. The greatest moment, week by week, is when I share Communion with you. That is one of the reasons I do prefer to have the altar in the middle, with everyone in a circle around it. Each one of you, as I put the bread in your hand, is in my eyes of faith transformed into Christ – the exterior fallen away, the true interior revealed. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, old or young, educated or not, successful or a failure in the world’s terms. Each of you stands there holy. And all of us stand revealed as the Body of Christ.

It is as St. Augustine said, in those words we recalled during Epiphany:

                        Behold what you are;

                                    may we become what we receive.

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