holy cross sermon for maundy thursday, year c, march 28, 2013

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

Today is Maundy Thursday, the first of the great “Three Days” that culminate with the empty tomb on Sunday morning. Today is the day on which we remember the events of that night before our Lord’s death on the cross. And that night, among his many words and deeds, two actions stand out as of very special significance: he washed his disciples’ feet, and he presided at the Last Supper, and so instituted the most central element of Christian life and worship: the Holy Eucharist, the mass.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul says:

…I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11.23ff)

There is an awful lot going on at the Last Supper. Even in these simple words and gestures of Jesus, his taking bread, giving thanks and blessing it, breaking it and distributing it to his disciples – and likewise with the cup – there is an ocean of meaning in these simple words and actions; and indeed oceans of ink have been spilled by very smart, very pious people, in wrestling with and explaining the Last Supper.

This year for Holy Week, I have been in the company of the Pope-Emeritus, Benedict, as I have been reading the second volume of his “Jesus of Nazareth” trilogy, in which the Holy Father explains his view of the significance of the events of that first Holy Week some two thousand years ago. So a good deal of what I will say comes from Benedict’s book, which I enthusiastically recommend to anyone who would like a deeper understanding of what our Lord did and said.

…the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

There is a big debate within modern Biblical scholarship about whether the Last Supper was a Passover meal. The debate here stems mostly from apparent discrepancies in the chronology of Holy Week in the synoptic gospels on the one hand, and that of John on the other. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus is crucified on the feast of the Passover. Whereas in John’s Gospel Jesus is crucified the day BEFORE the Passover, on the Day of Preparation – at the very moment when throughout Judea the lambs were being slaughtered in PREPARATION for the Passover feast. Both of these chronologies are THEOLOGICALLY true. Jesus is the Lamb of God, toward which the sacrificial lamb of the Law of Moses pointed – AND the Mass is our Passover, wherein we feast on the Lamb of God.

But the apparent discrepancy in the Gospels about whether the Last Supper was a Passover meal is itself instructive: the answer is both Yes and No. Following Biblical Scholar John P. Meier, Benedict says:

Jesus knew that he was about to die. He knew that he would not be able to eat the Passover again. Fully aware of this, he invited his disciples to a Last Supper of a very special kind, one that followed no specific Jewish ritual but, rather, constituted his farewell; during the meal he gave them something new: he gave them himself as the true Lamb and thereby instituted his Passover.

The Last Supper is something new and the beginning of something new. It is the fulfillment of the Passover of God’s people, inaugurated by Moses in Egypt, and as such the Last Supper is anchored in the Passover of the Jews. But it also looks forward to Good Friday and to Easter. It interprets and is interpreted by Jesus’ own Passover from death to life – his imminent crucifixion and resurrection. It is as though, at the Last Supper, Jesus is already sacrificing himself in the bread and the wine; he is already being broken and distributed, poured out for the life of the world, and so he is fulfilling the will of him who sent him.

Again, Pope Benedict:

Let us now turn to the words spoken over the bread…. [“This is my body which is given for you.”] When Jesus speaks of his body, he is obviously not referring to the body as opposed to the soul or the spirit, but to the whole, flesh-and-blood person. In this sense…: “Jesus’ interpretation of the bread presupposes the particular meaning of his person. [In taking the bread and saying, ‘This is my body… for you,”] [t]he disciples could understand that he was saying: this is I myself, the Messiah”.

But how can this be? Jesus, after all, is standing there in the midst of his disciples – what is he doing? He is bringing to fulfillment what he had said in the Good Shepherd discourse: “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (Jn 10:18). His life will be taken from him on the Cross, but here he is already laying it down. He transforms his violent death into a free act of self-giving for others and to others.

And he also says: “I have power to lay [my life] down, and I have power to take it again” (ibid.). He gives his life, knowing that in so doing he is taking it up again. The act of giving his life includes the Resurrection. Therefore, by way of anticipation, he can already distribute himself, because he is already offering his life – himself – and in the process receiving it again. So it is that he can already institute the sacrament in which he becomes the grain of wheat that dies, the sacrament in which he distributes himself to men through the ages in the real multiplication of loaves.

Jesus said, “I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer,” (Luke 22.15). This night is a gateway into the saving events of tomorrow. They prefigure them and are a proleptic participation in them. And not just tonight, but WHENEVER “you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes,” (1 Cor. 11.26).

So then: take this bread, all of you, and eat it. Take this cup, all of you, and drink from it, in remembrance that Christ died for you. Be united to him in ALL THINGS. Be consumed by the fire of God’s love. Remember that if you WILL, you too can become all flame (cf. Abba Joseph to Abba Lot). And DO NOT BE AFRAID. This supper says to you, to all of us: Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid of what is to come. Do not be afraid of the cross, of the place of the skull, of the ignominy and shame, of revulsion and persecution; do not be afraid of weakness, poverty, sickness and death. Rather, be nourished by Jesus’ broken body, and inebriated by his poured-out blood; be baked yourself into this loaf that is his body: do not be afraid of being broken and distributed with Jesus for the life of the world.

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

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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