2 April 2015, Christ Church
I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread … (I Cor. 11:23)
“And when Jesus had given thanks, he broke the bread and said, ‘This is my body, given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’”
These words—the words by which Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, the mass—are so familiar to us that we tend to think of them almost as if they were scripted for him. Just as the celebrant will do here tonight, reciting words off a written page, at some unrecognized level we fall into thinking that Jesus too was playing a role, as if he were repeating lines like an actor on a stage.
I wonder, though, if there wasn’t a more urgent, even a more desperate dimension to what Jesus said and did? The gospels, after all, record over and over again how unable he had been to get the disciples to grasp the real meaning of who he was and what he wanted to teach them. Even as he tried to prepare them for going to Jerusalem, where he seems to know he will meet his end, the disciples continue to protest and chide him for his warnings, rather than walking with him toward his fate.
So at that last Passover supper, when Jesus shared a final meal with the disciples, perhaps he was in fact desperate to get them finally to catch on to the calamity that was about to happen. And so I wonder: rather than calmly taking a loaf of bread, a cup of wine, and offering them like a gracious host to his disciples—what if Jesus was in fact frantically trying to find something that would get their attention enough to get through to them.
What if, in one final attempt to open their minds, he grabbed the first thing he could find—bread, wine—and impetuously handed them to the disciples naming them body and blood? “This, this is my body, given for you! …. And this, this is my blood, shed for you!”
I don’t think such a picture of the last supper is entirely far-fetched. After all, in John’s account of that night (which we heard a moment ago), although he emphasizes the gesture of foot-washing rather than the meal itself as the means by which Jesus tries to communicate his commandment to love—even there, I think one can detect a similar sense of urgency to what we are imagining surrounded the last supper. Peter for instance resists being washed, but Jesus insists, rebuking Peter for his pride, all the while aware of the fact that his betrayer is in their midst. This is not a scene of convivial charity and intimate fellowship, but one of a teacher urgently intent on trying to make a point to his reluctant and slightly oblivious disciples.
Jesus wants them to understand that the world is about to change: that he is about to give them something which is both inexhaustible and completely gratuitous. He wants them to understand that he is giving them himself, his own life, his love: “Take, eat: do this to recall me into your midst. Drink this, all of you, for the restoration of your soul.” Feed on me, and you will never be hungry. Drink from my cup, and you will not thirst.
Have you ever noticed the pelicans here in the church? There are three of them: one is at the back of the church, on top of the baptistery; one is on the front of the tabernacle on the altar; and the third is at the foot of the stone crucifix above the altar. You may know that in the early Church, Christians adopted the pelican as a symbol of the Eucharist, for an ancient legend had it that a mother pelican, in times of extreme hunger or thirst, would pluck her own breast in order to feed her young with her own blood. The symbol stuck: Dante in his Paridiso refers to Christ as our pelican; Thomas Aquinas refers to the bosom of the Lord Jesus as like that of the pelican; even Shakespeare’s Hamlet sarcastically speaks of opening his own arms, “and like the kind, life-giving pelican, repast[ing his father’s friends] with his blood.”
The image of the pelican, though, is far from the quiet reassuring image we tend to project onto the Eucharist. The pelican plucking her breast to feed her young is an act of desperation, done only when all is depleted, and nothing else is available. It is a sign of drought, famine, hunger, thirst. So the image suggests something more frantic, more desolate, more sacrificial than the refined dignity with which we usually celebrate the mass. The pelican feeding her young suggests, in other words, the very kind of urgency that we have been imagining was present in the last few moments that Jesus had with his disciples.
So in grabbing whatever he could, whatever was to hand—bread, wine—what was it that Jesus so desperately wanted them to realize? Well, there’s the rub: in giving us something so ordinary and banal as bread and wine as the ultimate expression of what Jesus gives us in himself, he ultimately leaves open the question of what exactly it is. We can’t say with any precision exactly what it is that Jesus gives us, except to say that in giving himself for us, Jesus opens to us an inexhaustible source of spiritual sustenance to which we can return whenever we need it, and for whatever we need it to be.
That is to say, that in giving himself to us, Jesus doesn’t just give us one clearly defined thing, but rather he gives us what we need him to be for us, which will vary according to the time. At one moment, we need hope; at another, courage; at still another, forgiveness. We may come to Jesus seeking insight, or inspiration, or perspective. We may come to him in grief, looking for consolation and release. Jesus is all those things, because we are need of all those things. Like that old hymn puts it, we come “Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, and that thou bidd’st me come to thee, so Lamb of God, I come.”
So perhaps the bread and wine with which Jesus fed his disciples was offered as an impetuous, desperate gesture. Perhaps not. Perhaps it was after all more premeditated. Who can know? But we know this: it is what he gave us, in order that he might always and everywhere give us himself.
Dom Gregory Dix, the well-known Anglican monk and liturgical scholar, closed his great work on The Shape of the Liturgy with words that wonderfully evoke this boundless capacity of the Eucharist to give to us that which we come seeking to find in Jesus. He put it this way:
Was ever another command so obeyed [as “do this in remembrance of me”]? For century after century, spreading to every continent 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. People have found no better thing to do than this for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for the wisdom of the parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy or schoolgirl sitting an examination or for Christopher Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; for the settlement of a strike; for a child for a barren woman; for captain so-and-so, wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheater; on the beach at Dunkirk; 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 canonization of a new saint—one could fill many pages with the reasons why people 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.
Thanks be to God! Amen.
© Joseph Britton 2015