holy cross sermon for maundy thursday, year a, april 17, 2014

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

Tonight there is a twofold significance to the liturgy. It is firstly the Mass of the Last Supper – our commemoration of the institution of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. We remember tonight that, in the words of the old Anglican liturgy,

in the night that Jesus was betrayed, he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: Take eat. This is my Body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.

Commenting on the institution of the Eucharist, the great liturgical scholar Dom Gregory Dix asked, in a famous passage:

Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because [a] father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to [superstition] because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc—one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei—the holy common people of God.

“DO THIS in remembrance of me.” Indeed, never was a command so obeyed. Never was such obedience so extensive. Two thousand and some years on, day by day, and on this altar again in a few minutes, we will “do this,” by way of remembering his death until he comes again.

Saint Paul asked the Christians in the town of Corinth:

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. (1 Corinthians 10.16f)

The Eucharist – the mass – is not simply one thing among many things that Christians do. It is THE thing, par excellence, that Christians do. It is in a very real sense what makes us Christians, because it is the means by which, as Paul said, we participate in the Body of Christ. It is how we commune with Jesus. It is the way that he comes to live in us, and we in him – the way, again as St. Paul says, that “your life is hid with Christ in God,” (Colossians 3.3). And this constitutes our salvation: our life being “with Christ in God.”

So we celebrate, preeminently, this night the institution of the Eucharist, the thing that God himself gave us to make all of this happen, to make it real. But it is all underwritten by an anterior reality, and that anterior reality is the divine love. And this is the second thing that we remember tonight. Indeed we cannot have the one without the other.

We read that, after the Last Supper…

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded. (John 13.3ff)

And Jesus said to them: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” (ibid. vv. 34-35).

We have been recreated by the love of God. That is the reason that Jesus came into the world; that is the reason that he suffered and died: because God loved us. And BECAUSE he loved us, he was unwilling to allow violence and alienation and loneliness and disease and bereavement, and all the whole host of darkness and evil, to have the upper hand. That is why Jesus came. That is why he was born, why he suffered, why he died. And that is the victory of the resurrection. And on account of this love Jesus gave himself to us in the Eucharist – the means of perpetuating his presence with you and me, whom he loves, until he comes again and finally takes us to himself.

Being suffused in that love, being appropriated and re-formed by it, is what makes Christians different. And that elicits something from us. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” (John 14.15). Because of our participation in the divine love, because our life is now “with Christ in God,” we have to LIVE differently. The world’s standards are no longer our standards. Jesus himself is now our measure. We are to be conformed to him, to live as he lived. And that means, too, that we are to love one another, as he loved us. St. John said, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death,” (1 John 3.14).

Tonight we celebrate God’s gift of life and love, and we remember the purchase-price: the life of God’s only Son. And in gratitude for this gift of life, we should all renew our commitment to God and resolve more faithfully to embody his love – by dedicating ourselves to God’s service in the Church, and to living as Christ lived, on behalf of others.

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

Published by Fr George

Fr George is the priest-in-charge of Holy Cross Dallas

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