Today we are accustomed to celebrate the institution of the eucharist, but this year, that is a little difficult. We are not gathered around one table with one loaf of bread. This corona virus appears to have taken charge, and it seems that evil has, in a rather decisive way, triumphed over good. We live, for all intents and purposes, in a eucharistic famine.
But that’s to miss the forest, because one very large and important tree is shrouded in a thick and soupy fog. Zoom out your spiritual lenses with me about half way—just far enough so you can recognize the forest.
Today is only incidentally (but importantly) about the remembrance of the Last Supper; today is only incidentally (but importantly) about remembering Jesus’s washing feet before that Supper. For today is the beginning of three days, during which the people of God are, as Bishop Sandy Hampton used to pronounce it, re-membered into the Body of Christ through Jesus’s resurrection. This is a three-act play, and we know how it ends: love triumphs over death; Jesus rises from the dead. Death is trampled by death. This is no funeral for Jesus. It is a long and somewhat ponderous (and thus very real) entry into transformation. It is a long procession (and this procession is always longer than we want it to be) into resurrected life. NEVER FORGET THE THIRD ACT!
To get to the third act, we have to attend to the second act: Evil does what all bullies do: it crushes good. Our self-centeredness, our hatred, our greed, our desire to be great again, and again, and again, murder Jesus. BUT NEVER FORGET THE THIRD ACT!
And tonight is the first act. We share bread and wine with each other, and we will join in Jesus’s act of servanthood, and we will watch in the garden and turn our backs, and fall asleep, and at the end we come to realize the answer to the hymn’s question:
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!
’Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
I crucified thee. (Hymnal 1982, H158 v. 2)
But today is not the ending; it is just the first act. AND NEVER FORGET THE THIRD ACT!
From the perspective of the third act, today can be about the sacrament of immortality, the bread and wine of the eucharist, just as much as it is about the darkness and bloody sweat of the garden. But we miss the ending of the play if we focus only on the first instance of THE Sacrament. What we see—if we zoom our lenses out to their widest extent—tonight is the creation, or maybe the realization, of all sacraments. The bread and wine we ate and drank at the beginning of this liturgy wasn’t the eucharist, but it was bread and wine reaching towards its goal in the third act (remember Jesus and his two friends on the road to Emmaeus?). Every loaf of bread, every bottle of wine, longs to become the body and blood of Christ. (And if we look through the lens of the third act, that bread and wine already has become the body and blood of Christ, for it is now part of your body, and your body IS the body and blood of Christ through your baptism.) SO NEVER FORGET THE THIRD ACT
So it is with the foot-washing we will do in just a moment. Much of the church, quite properly, regards that this particular sharing of service is a sacrament on the level of baptism and eucharist. Every act of service is an “un-forgetting” of Jesus’s driving out the money changers in the temple (and that attack on evildoers is probably what got Jesus arrested in the wee hours of tomorrow morning). St. Gregory of Nazianzus, preaching in these three holy days 1650 years ago said:
If you are a Rachel or a Leah, steal whatever idols of your father you can find; so that you may destroy them.
If you are a Simon of Cyrene, take up the Cross and follow.
If you are crucified with Him as a robber, acknowledge God as a penitent robber.
If you are a Joseph of Arimathæa, beg the Body from him that crucified Him, make your own that which cleanses the world.
If you are a Nicodemus, the worshipper of God by night, bury Him with spices.
And if you are a Mary, or another Mary, or a Salome, or a Joanna, weep in the early morning.
Be first to see the stone taken away.
(Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 45 Peri Pascha, 21, 24)
Our Syrian Christian brothers and sisters pepper their prayers of blessing with “now show us ...”. Let’s make that custom our own: “Now show us, O God, that our gathering over Zoom is the first course of the banquet together with Jesus that will never end!”
REMEMBER, GOD IN YOU IS THE THIRD ACT!