Maundy Thursday

Perhaps one of the very few texts more familiar than this past Sunday’s Christ-hymn from Philippians is this one, rehearsed in Christian congregations whenever Holy Communion is celebrated.

April 21, 2011

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Perhaps one of the very few texts more familiar than this past Sunday’s Christ-hymn from Philippians is this one, rehearsed in Christian congregations whenever Holy Communion is celebrated.

Here, again, Paul passes on a piece of tradition already formed in the nascent church, almost certainly echoing words that are already set: “he took, he gave thanks (Greek eucharisteo, from which we have the English word ‘Eucharist’), he broke;” “this is my body;” and “do this in remembrance of me.” These “words of institution” are required in many denominations in order for Communion to be valid, and present by longstanding tradition (nearly as inviolable!) in most others.

Beyond the use of these words, though, perhaps no practice of the church is so widely debated as the celebration of Holy Communion. (Or should we call it Eucharist? or the Lord’s Supper? or the Mass? or the Divine Liturgy?) Who is the proper celebrant? Is the bread leavened or unleavened? Wine or unfermented juice? How should the congregation receive the elements? When should children begin receiving Holy Communion? How often should the ritual be celebrated? Is the table open to all believers, or restricted to those in a particular Christian tradition or even to members of the local congregation? And beyond these and other questions of practice lies a host of theological debates concerning the manner and effect of Christ’s presence in the meal. It is tempting to lapse into cynicism here; the one celebration that is supposed to unite all members of Christ’s family has, instead, served to divide us again and again.

The words of our hymns, liturgies, and statements of faith and practice notwithstanding, most of us rarely experience Holy Communion in the way we experience a meal. There is certainly not enough to eat and drink to satisfy hunger. The bland tastelessness of the Communion wafer used in some traditions is often a theme of ecclesiastical jokes. Maundy Thursday, though, provides us with an opportunity to ground our ritual once again in its origin in the meal of fellowship Jesus shared with his disciples.

Being primarily liturgical, this particular text tells us very little about that meal. We have fuller accounts in the Gospels, although only the Synoptics repeat the tradition referenced here, while the Gospel of John tells the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet without mentioning a command to the disciples to eat bread and drink wine in memory of him. Like the shepherds and the wise men at the Christmas stable, however, we unite the traditions in our celebration of Maundy Thursday, so that the humble servant of all is also the Christ whom we remember in the ritual meal.

On this occasion, then, it is appropriate to explore what the epistle text does not tell us explicitly, the context of the narrated event. The very brevity of the text suggests the intimacy of a simple shared meal. No emphasis is placed on the feasting; we only know that they ate because there is “after supper.” Nor do we have any real sense of what was on the table, past the simple bread and wine. We do not have the Passover setting narrated in the gospels. Nothing suggests that the food itself is the primary focus. Rather, the sense is that an ordinary meal, necessary for the nourishment of the body, becomes a locus of fellowship between Jesus and his disciples.

Note that the text does not say that where there is fellowship, there must be an absence of conflict. Paul’s recital of the tradition begins ominously, “On the night he was betrayed…”, and Paul uses the tradition in his letter is to address conflict in the church, conflict arising from their common meal. In our efforts to be “nice” to each other, or “tolerant” of other views, we too often pretend that conflict does not exist, and so fail to deal with tensions that can come to permeate everything that we do. True Christian fellowship does not ignore the presence of conflict, but seeks creatively to confront it and transform it into mutual respect and understanding.

Jesus takes a loaf of bread, pronounces a blessing over it, and distributes it to the disciples with strange words about the bread being his body and an admonition to “remember.” The disciples eat (presumably–although the text doesn’t mention it!), taking their Lord’s body into their own. Then comes the cup, with similar odd pronouncements that the wine is Jesus’ blood and that they are to “remember.”

It is difficult to say whether the last verse of the text (verse 26), about proclaiming the Lord’s death with every rehearsal of the ritual meal, is part of the tradition that Paul repeats or his own commentary on the tradition. It emphasizes the oddness of the story as a narrative: the disciples presumably do not know that they are “proclaim[ing] the Lord’s death” the night before it happens, but already Jesus speaks as if it is already completed: “Do this in remembrance of me.” When we not only celebrate the meal as a ritual, but also re-enact its setting in the Passion narrative, as we often do on Maundy Thursday, we put ourselves in that same strange place with the disciples. We pause for a moment in anticipation of what we already know. Jesus will be crucified, he will die, and he will be raised by the power of God. But for a short time we linger on the other side of those events, and ponder what it means to have fellowship with Christ and with one another.

We pause to remember, as Jesus commanded us. But what is it that we remember? How to celebrate the ritual properly? All the words of the creeds we recite? Whether we have bought enough bread, prepared the wine according to our congregation’s usual practice, and set up everything so that (hopefully) no one will complain about the service?

On this evening, most clearly of all the church year, we remember that we are part of a story. It is the story of Jesus’ life, and in particular his Passion, his crucifixion and glorious resurrection, re-enacted in our lives during the events of the week. But we also remember that we as Christians exist in fellowship with Christ and with one another. In holy imagination, we sit around a single table and receive nourishment from Jesus himself. We look into one another’s faces and see joy and pain, worry and anticipation. And together we tell the story that unites us, beyond all our differences of faith and practice: we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.