Holy Thursday – April 13, 2006
Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14
First Corinthians 11:23-26
THIS DAY SHALL BE A MEMORIAL FEAST FOR YOU, WHICH ALL YOUR GENERATIONS SHALL CELEBRATE (Exod 12:14)
The feast of Passover is one of the most significant feasts in the Jewish calendar. It is the feast when the Jews celebrate being freed from slavery in Egypt and the beginning of their being a people and a nation set apart as God’s chosen ones. This Holy Thursday’s first reading from Exodus comes at the time in the story when the Jewish people ate their first Passover meal. By the style and manner in which it is written, it is clear that the text is not a direct account of what happened at that first Passover meal, but an already established instruction on how to celebrate the yearly Passover meal. When the author and final editor of Exodus came to this part of the story, they simply inserted already existing instructions on how the feast was to be celebrated.
The most important thing to remember about this feast of Passover and its relationship to our Holy Thursday celebration is that when Jews celebrate the Passover meal every year they believe they are not simply remembering an important event in their history that took place over 3000 years ago. They believe that when they are celebrating the Passover meal they are literally incorporated into the very first Passover, experiencing the same liberation the original Jewish community experienced back in Egypt 3000 years ago. They become one and the same people.
When I was attending St. Anthony’s Grade School and Dowling Catholic High School in Des Moines in the years before the 2nd Vatican Council, I remember what we were taught about the real presence of Jesus’ body and blood in the Eucharist. All of our attention was directed to the elements of the bread and the wine. Our discussions centered on how the bread and the wine could be the body and blood of Jesus. I remember well the hours we spent distinguishing the difference between the Catholic (‘transubstantiation’; i.e., the reality of the bread and wine is changed into the reality of the sacramental body and blood of Christ) and the Lutheran (‘consubstantation’; i.e., the reality of the bread and wine continue to exist alongside the reality of the sacramental body and blood of Christ) understandings of the real presence of Jesus in the blessed bread and wine.
Our Catholic point of view was backed up by how we celebrated Mass. The altar and the priest were separated from the people by a communion rail. When the canon of the mass was said, the priest had his back to the people, he only spoke in Latin and everyone’s focus was on the elements of the bread and wine. When it came time for communion the people could only receive the bread and it was placed on the tongue. The hosts were made in such a way, thin and small, that they could be swallowed whole, almost immediately after receiving. We were taught never to chew the host lest we hurt Jesus … and God forbid that the host fall on the floor! Only a priest could pick it up and the area on which the host fell had to be cleaned thoroughly! (Pre-Vatican II Catholic joke: It takes a greater act of faith to believe that the wafer is bread than it does to believe that it is the body of Christ!)
The problem with placing the focus of the discussion of the real presence of Jesus in the elements of the bread and the wine is that we end up with a very limited, narrow and unbalanced understanding of what the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is all about.
Reframing the question of the real presence of Jesus in our Eucharist in light of a Jewish Passover perspective might be a better way to understand what the real presence means for us. The first thing we need to know is that the first mass that was celebrated either as a Passover meal or as a meal on the day before Passover. The new covenant that Jesus started on Holy Thursday replaced the old covenant of the lamb’s blood from the Passover feast. Though the two covenants are radically different, the understanding and meaning of what happens at their celebrations stays the same. The Jewish people believe that whenever they celebrate the Passover meal they are literally incorporated into the historical reality of liberation from slavery in Egypt as if they were among the original Jewish community in Egypt. Every time we celebrate Eucharist and receive Christ’s sacramental body and blood, we participate in the saving events of Christ’s death and resurrection.
“THIS IS MY BODY THAT IS FOR YOU. DO THIS IN REMEMBRANCE OF ME” (1 Cor. 11:24)
This text from 1 Cor. 11:23-26 is the earliest account of the Eucharistic liturgy that we have in the New Testament. By the style and form of the words and phrases it is clear these are not Paul’s words but a text that came to Paul intact as words already being used by Christian communities in celebration of the Eucharist. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians about A.D. 55 roughly twelve years after Jesus’ death, which means that believers in Jesus were repeating these words very early in the formative years of the church.
What I find most telling about the text is not the verses themselves but the context in which they are found. Paul is reprimanding the Corinthians for neglecting a basic and central Christian duty directly connected to the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. Apparently, there were social and economic divisions among the Christians in Corinth. When they gathered to celebrate the Eucharist, the rich would bring a lot of food to feed themselves while the poorer members had little or no food and went away hungry after the celebration (1Cor 11:21). Paul used the very words used by the early church to stand as a judgment on the rich Christians who left the service full while their poorer brothers and sisters went away hungry.
This section from Paul’s letter is pointing to a very important aspect regarding the Eucharist. It not only feeds the spiritual needs of the believer and makes them one with the Lord in body and spirit, it can also serve as a judgment on any believer who receives the Eucharist yet lives life contrary to the ethic of love upon which the Eucharist rests.
This is heavy stuff. It raises lots of questions in my mind, especially for those of us who live in a country of such wealth and privilege. Paul is telling the rich believers in Corinth that they are responsible to feed their hungry brothers and sisters or have the Eucharist they receive stand as a judgment on them. We in the USA live in a country where a third of us are overweight, another third are obese while half the world goes to bed hungry. In our Global Food Economy these sobering realities should make us Catholics pause every time we receive the body and blood of Jesus at mass.
THEN HE POURED WATER INTO A BASIN AND BEGAN TO WASH THE DISCIPLES FEET (John 13:5)
True to the character of John’s Gospel (which is very different from the other gospels in many respects), when it comes time for the account of the Last Supper there is no blessing of the bread and wine. Instead, chapter 6 of John’s Gospel serves as his discussion of the Eucharist. Rather than having Jesus consecrate the bread and wine at the Last Supper, John has Jesus acting out in a symbolic way what he expects his disciples to be about after he is gone. John has Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, a gesture of servanthood. It was a shock to Jesus’ disciples. At first, Peter was not going to let Jesus humiliate himself in such a way!
Clearly, Jesus was making a point. Through his explanation, Jesus told his disciples if he, who is their ‘teacher’ and ‘master’ washed their feet, they should in turn wash each others’ feet. The foot washing not only reflected the ‘service’ Jesus is about to perform in his death, it also sets a pattern for relationships among his disciples in the age that follows his death and resurrection.
It is a sad commentary on the Catholic Church that we find ourselves in the midst of an unfolding priest shortage which has become a crisis. Many viable parishes are being forced to close and many more do not have a resident priest. The availability of the Eucharist is being curtailed because of a lack of priests. The root of the problem stems from our Church’s ordained governing structure’s institutional commitment to a narrow theological perspective that is more concerned with who can preside at mass than why we have presiders at all. We do not have a vocation crisis in the Catholic Church; we have a leadership crisis. The example of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples is as instructive today as it must have been when John wrote his gospel.