Maundy Thursday - Reflection

'when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, 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 11:24-25

Perhaps the most moving Maundy Thursday service I have taken part in was in Lancaster Prison some years ago. Prisoners are not always very good at reading, so I was always looking for visual ways to engage with the gospel stories. When I thought of how to celebrate Maundy Thursday I immediately thought of doing an actual footwashing, kneeling and washing the feet of those who had come to the service. Then I realised what would be involved, and recoiled from the idea – partly because the washing would involve real smelly feet – prisoners in those days only got one shower a week – and it would involve kneeling at the feet of some pretty unsavoury characters. The moment I realised I didn’t want to do it, was the moment I realised I just had to!In hot, dusty Palestine Jesus would have washed really smelly feet, and it was not for me to judge the men I was serving or think myself better than them. I too am a sinner, and Jesus would have knelt to wash my feet. And Jesus washed Judas’ feet – it did make me wonder how Judas must have felt, with Jesus kneeling at his feet, when he had just betrayed him for a stash of cash. As it turned out, it was a most moving service – held in an upper room at the top of the Norman keep of the ancient castle. And there were exactly 12 prisoners who came…and several of them asked me afterwards, ‘Which of us was Judas?’ After I had washed their feet we went on to share holy communion together. Foot washing and sharing holy communion were both different ways of placing ourselves in the upper room, acting out our place as a disciple of Jesus.

Our first reading this evening is the earliest account we have of the Last Supper, written a good ten years before Mark, the earliest of the four Gospel. Notice how Paul claims to have received this account from the Lord himself – meaning that it was transmitted to him by the early apostles who were actually there v23. The meal is associated with the betrayal: ’on the night when he was betrayed’. Verse 24 ‘when he had given thanks’ the word ‘to give thanks’ in Greek is eucharisto, which is where we get the title ‘eucharist’ from. But a few verses earlier in 11:20 he has called it the Lord’s Supper ‘it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat’. And in 10:16 he calls it a ‘communion’‘is it not a communion in the Body of Christ?’ – so all three titles for the sacrament can claim to be biblical. And different names have come to prominence at different times for different reasons – Thomas Cranmer used the title ‘holy communion’ because he wanted to make receiving communion the climax of the service, rather than the priest offering a sacrifice, which was the climax in the medieval church - so much so that so long as the faithful saw the consecrated host they didn’t need to receive it. And the title Eucharist became more popular in the 1970s, to inject a note of joy into the service, in reaction to the rather austere focus on sin in the prayerbook liturgy. ‘Giving thanks’ refers here to both saying grace before meals and the blessing said over the cups of wine in the Passover celebration. In family meal times and at the Passover it is not the food that is being blessed, but God who is being blessed for his gift of food and wine. ‘This is my body which is for you’ – a lot of weight has been put in doctrinal discussions on the little word is, as in the Latin ‘hoc est corpus meum’, as if the word ‘is’ somehow defines the particular way in which Christ is present in the sacrament. However Aramaic has no such word as ‘is’, so in the original Jesus would have simply said, ‘this my body’, 'this my blood' – and the hearer would interpret the words accordingly.

In Passover the focus of the liturgy is to enable the participant to enter into the experience of being there with those Israelites who ate the first Passover, it is about participatory involvement. The Jewish Mishnah says that in every generation a man must so regard himself as if he personally came forth out of bondage in Egypt. Looking at holy communion through the eyes of the Passover we see that Jesus instituted this sacrament not so that we could argue about what happens to the bread, but so that we can place ourselves in the Upper Room with Jesus. In place of the words of the Passover ‘This is the bread of affliction that your fathers ate…’ Jesus declared, ‘This is my body, which is for you.’ And whereas at Passover the family were exhorted to do this to relive the events of the Exodus, Jesus declares, ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ It is in this context that Paul adds his own words in v26, ‘For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’ In other words each participant declares in the breaking of bread that Christ died, and in eating the bread and drinking the cup declares that Christ died for me; I appropriate his death for me; I take Christ as mine, even as I take and receive broken bread and wine poured out. Last Maundy Thursday all churches were closed. Many of us have felt acutely the pain of not being able to eat the bread and drink the cup during this pandemic, and even though all our churches are now open it may still be some time before we can receive the cup as well as the bread. So now as we come to receive this sacrament tonight we place ourselves in the Upper Room with the first disciples. We receive the body of Christ because we are the body of Christ gathered, and because we are called to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world. As the prayer of St Teresa of Avila puts it:

Christ has no body but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which He looks with compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good. Yours are the hands, with which He blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are His body.

Amen. (from Archdeacon Mark).