It is a beautiful experience to come together on this evening, to share the supper of the Lord. It is meant to be simple, peaceful, calm, gentle, non-violent. The whole ritual says that. It involves the body. It is the washing of feet. It is receiving the body of the Lord in our hands in Eucharistic communion. It is a moment of love. It is sharing the gift of peace with one another.
I know it is the prelude, the vigil if you like, of Good Friday. I know there is, later this Thursday evening, a night of abuse and torture in wait for Jesus. But somehow if we focus on that too soon, it takes away from the beautiful mood of Holy Thursday itself. This liturgy asks us to stay in that mood.
Have you ever thought of the difference between torture and the Eucharist? They are at opposite ends of the same spectrum. They are ways of using the body.
In torture, some power, exerted by a human being, forces another human being to be powerless, defenceless, and helpless: torture is the manifestation of power over another human body. It gives pain, and demands submission, it makes a person a victim; it can and does kill. It makes the victim ‘worship’ so to say, the power that victimises… It is indeed a horrible kind of ‘liturgy’. It is at root a fanatical thing. It is often said that there can be ‘just war’ which at times demands that we are justified in doing things like that. But that is not justice at all, there is no such thing as a truly just war… the very idea is an offence against the dignity of the body.
In Eucharist, at the last supper in a special way, Jesus himself is powerless, defenceless, and helpless. He cannot and does not use force to protect himself. Not even twelve legions of angels. Instead, he offers and gives himself. He says, here I am, take me, take my body; here I am, share me, share my life; here I am, give me to one another. There is no demand on him to do that. There is no submission to some power that makes him do so. There is no power. There is no victim. Eucharist is an atmosphere that is strangely different from power.
I think it is a pity that at times in the past the Eucharist has been interpreted as a kind of re-enactment of power over Jesus – God’s power, the devil’s power, human political power, even the power of (our) sin. It was seen as a symbol of his death. The two consecrations were thought to symbolize the separation of his body from his blood. I am glad we are now able to see this as violent, and to think much more wholesomely and much less violently about the Eucharist…. especially on this Holy Thursday evening.
This raises bigger issues. There has been a whole spirituality in the past that wanted to accept pain and even torture (it was called mortification or penance) in order to win God’s love: it assumed that God didn’t love us until we did something like that. It went on to propose that we accepted all this kind of thing to prove to God how much we loved God. When people who were brought up to think like that came to Holy Thursday evening, they liked the liturgy, yes, but they had another thought – over the next day or two they would have, they thought, to do some extra penance, etc, to make up for what they still hadn’t done to win God over or tell God they really wanted to be on the right side of God.
I think we can say that in our own time, this fantasy – I will call it a fantasy – is being replaced by a much more wholesome dream. The core of it is that God loves us first: we don’t have to seek God, or live in dedicated and often renewed attempts to find God; God has already found us, claimed us, and flooded us with God’s Love. God did that when God created us and God has never ceased doing it. All we have to do is be eternally and lovingly grateful. But that is only the beginning. There is also a positive, peaceful, gentle humanness that has found us first, before we have tried to make up one for ourselves. It too is pure gift of God. It has caught up with us in our times. It means we can look at our lives, our psyches too (with all their problems), as gift – not as something to be changed by hell or high water, but as something to be enjoyed and shared with others. There is a lot of healing and sanity in that. More still, there is an ordinaryness in our way of living, a normal kind of social reality that gives us a chance to live without bending our natures to the demands of any institutional system or set of directives, spiritual or otherwise. All in all, there is a salutary humanness around, that gives us the gift of a God happy with us and making us happy, a psyche happy with itself and making us healthy, and a social environment enabling us to be content with simple things and being part of the happiness of other people. Maybe we could say that God no longer prefers us to be frustrated, but wants us to be content in and with a contented God. Where this will take us in the future, or those after us, we don’t know. We know that for us this Grace has indeed come. Things like mortification, etc, or any approximation of torture or harm to the body for whatever pseudo religious purpose, just don’t fit in. We would rather show God, and so offer God, our grateful love for God, our powerless but contented psyches, our bodies at peace, physically and socially.
Somehow, I think, this is what we sense on Holy Thursday night. As long as we don’t get sidetracked into strange ‘Bad Friday’ feelings. I think they are a temptation, and it is more than ok to bypass them. So what about Jesus? Didn’t the power of evil lie in wait for him and get him? That is one way, a familiar way, of interpreting what happened. But it is not the only way. Maybe he was caught up humanly in circumstances and situations that he couldn’t get out of without using excessive power of his own – which would have been out of character for him to do. Maybe it was a case of some people around him being threatened by his sheer presence and lack of political ambition – maybe they were at root jealous of him. I am trying to say that it was a human matter, and yes, he faced it as humans might do, and it lead to his dying a human death at the hands of other humans who did not understand him. I think that is a more gentle reading of the events of these days. Someone has said that he died because he was so human…. I like to think he saw things much like that, and so was able to enter into the mood of Holy Thursday evening without too much anxiety.
So let us not get too ‘Good Friday–ish’ at this Holy Thursday Eucharist. Tonight’s liturgy is one of the most gentle and beautiful we can ever be part of. Let’s be grateful. Let’s enjoy it peacefully and powerlessly.
Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. Where there is charity and love, God is there.
Mandatum novum do vobis…I give you a new commandment, love one another as I have loved you.
Let’s savour it.
Have you ever tried to say what ‘being human’ really means? Have you ever felt overwhelmed when someone gave you a real gift (maybe, the gift of unsolicited forgiveness, or the gift of making a sacrifice for you that was not demanded of them)? Have you ever sensed that an event was happening for you, an event that was not part of the ‘program’ of life – not in the usual give and take of things, not part of the ups and downs of ordinaryness? Have you ever tried to tell anyone what ‘an experience of your God’ is really like? If you have, you know, with certainty beyond the sureness of most people, that there is something beautiful in life that is beyond the things we usually call sublime.
Somehow or other, I think, with many today, that people are waking up to this. They have a new sense of ‘being human’. For them it has become something sacred. What has done that to it? Love. The human has been sacralized in a new way by a new kind of Love. It is Love that gives a different meaning to everything. It is re-enchanting the world. It is letting us become optimists.
Certainly, our old world has fallen apart. Traditions have been deconstructed. The philosophy and the politics we used to have don’t speak to what is happening. People are beginning to look at the simple world around them as the place where they and everything else can and will be transformed. When persons love one another, they would die for one another (as they wouldn’t die for their homeland, or their church). Love has become free. Free to give new meaning to everything. Reason isn’t ruling any more. Life isn’t a matter of rights (or wrongs). The cosmos isn’t run by a remote control God. Theology is too dull to say what – or who – God really is. God is (in) Love. In love for all of us. Here. Now.
This is the whole message of Christianity. Christianity, because of Jesus, believes in a world changed by Love. In that world, there is no discrimination. There is no class distinction. All are in communion. In the communion of Love. Christianity says that world is truly coming.
Christianity goes on and tells us that what initiates that new world, is Love. It advocates a culture of Love. It teaches a code of loving. It means patience, and forgiveness, and non-violence. It is a refusal to use the tools of violence to get something done (or even to support the inherited structures of ‘the church’).
Our call is to live that dream in a largely loveless land.
There are political implications. Jesus lived that dream, and he died because loving like that made him vulnerable to those who could not and did not love like that: the system went for its gun. Jesus died for that Love. That Love itself could not die. Resurrection is the first fruit of its inability to die – it is the first fruit of Love. That means more than saying that in the end Love is possible. It means saying – with certainty – that here and now that Love is a fact that cannot be denied.
The result is happiness – the ancients called it beatitude. It is blessed. The characteristic of that beatitude is abundance. There is no scarcity of Love. It is more than all we touch.
And yet, because it is like that, it shows us how poor we are. It shines on our poverty. We are not big enough, we are not good enough, for Love….When Love presents itself to us, it heightens our sense of our poverty. Yes, we should be loving, yes, we are poor. That is the point of Love. It is big enough for our littleness, it is rich enough for our poverty. We need not, and cannot, offer it anything but our impossibility to handle it. Love will handle it. The Abundance is filling our limitations. The new world is dawning.
A Christian is someone who has met one. They have met Jesus, together. They have been at the Lord’s Supper. They are here on Holy Thursday.