Good evening on this Maundy Thursday, the first evening of the Easter Triduum, the three holiest days of the year and (tonight) the beginning of the Passion and Resurrection story. Maundy means “command” in Latin (as in our word “mandate”) and refers to Jesus’ command in our reading that we love one another.
Tonight, just after this homily, we’ll celebrate the Institution of the First Eucharist at the Passover Supper of Jesus and the disciples on the night before he died. Then we’ll take the remaining consecrated wafers, symbolizing Christ’s presence, and we’ll place them in the chapel for those who’d like to “keep watch” through the night--as Jesus asked the disciples to do in the Garden of Gethsemane after their meal.
One of the most extraordinary things we do here at St. James is decorate the chapel like a garden. I’ve never seen anything in any church I’ve been in as beautiful as this, and I want to mention briefly that, all these years--I think almost 50 years--our Louise Clark donated and helped arrange the flowers for the altar. This year her children gave them in her memory since she’s no longer with us. She’s definitely here in spirit, though, and always will be. (If you watched the video tribute I uploaded earlier today, Louise may now be more famous for her lamb cakes than this altar. But this is but one more extraordinary thing she left us.)
We don’t know how the earliest Christians carried on the Last Supper in the years immediately following this first night. From our New Testament and other early writings, it seems that for them it was more like a meal--an actual meal, perhaps with a ritual moment of breaking bread and drinking wine in Jesus’ memory. Church communities being what we are, always striving but far from perfect, we have records of them arguing quite a bit over these meals: who brought what, who consumed a lot but didn’t contribute. Some were failing to take others’ dietary needs into account. Others came but refused to eat. Or came and ate only what they brought, not sharing it with the group.
I have to think that coffee hour (the “8th sacrament”) developed as a place where all those issues could be worked out, separate from the Eucharist. We can have debates over food and hospitality at the latter; but there needs to be a coming together in Jesus’ memory and in reenactment of that night that is as free as possible from all the things that can get in the way of our seeing each other equally as children of God, valued and loved every one the same as the next, no more, and no less.
We come up here, and we all kneel. We all take from the same cup. We’re given the same wafer. Stricter priests than I am make everyone kneel down and get up together across the altar rail. This isn’t about grabbing your host and getting on with it; it’s a communal act. We wait for each other.
It’s an enactment that is (I believe) a real taking in, with this wafer, of God’s grace. Episcopalians believe in the Real Presence. Something mystical is happening here, something that transforms us inside; I truly believe that. But it’s also an act that, in just doing over and over, has the power to shape who we are and how we act towards others outside of this space.
Waiting. Kneeling. Shoulder to shoulder. Sharing. No one consuming more or less than the next person. Eating with strangers. Receiving grace (so we can turn around and give grace). Learning simply to receive. To be. And the best part: anyone can come up here--anyone. And you will kneel next to them, and you will be no better or worse in that moment (or ever in God’s eyes).
The Presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church Michael Curry, whose family was part of the Great Migration of African Americans from the southern states to the north--in their case, Rochester NY--tells a story in his memoir “Love is the Way” about how his father came to be an Episcopalian. It was before he was born, before his parents were even married, and they went to his mother’s Episcopal church in Chicago. He writes:
“They were among the few Black parishioners in the pews that day. My father was amazed, but dubious, when it came time for Communion. The priest welcomed everyone to receive the body and blood of Christ--and from a single communal chalice! This was the 1940s. Jim Crow was alive and well. It was the North, but segregation and separation of the races was still the law of the land … My father hung back as my mother went forward. He wondered if the priest would really offer her the common cup. And if he did, would others continue to drink from the same cup? He held his breath. And as the cup was passed, the next person did drink. And the next. And the next. When he told that story, he would always say, ‘Any church in which Blacks and Whites drink out of the same cup knows something about the Gospel that I want to be part of.”
What we do here is extraordinary in ways we seldom really appreciate, and it has implications far beyond this rail. Who you are here [pointing to the altar rail], you’re meant to be out there [pointing outside]. The church has thought about all this. Jesus thought about all this. And that’s why we’re here this night, celebrating still this life-changing, world-changing, ritual. Amen.