1999 04 – Holy Thurs (Prison Writings)
Cycle A B C
EX 12, 1-8. 11-14
1 Cor 11, 23-26
Jn 13, 1-15
1 Cor. 15:13-14
Frank Cordaro – March 4, 1999 – Yankton FPC
Holy Thursday – 1999
This is how YOU are to eat it: with your loins girt. sandals on your feet and your staff in hand; you shall eat like those who are in flight. It is the Passover of the Lord. Ex 12/11
Recent surveys of Catholics have shown a decreased understanding of what the real presence of Christ means in the Eucharist. One needs to be careful before drawing any clear conclusions from such surveys. So much depends on the actual questions in the survey and the biases of the research people doing the surveys. It certainly is true, from my own experience as a parish priest that people’s content knowledge of our Catholic Faith and tradition has diminished over the last 30 years. And this is a sad occurrence, one that deserves our attention and concern.
However, if behind the news stories regarding Catholic’s decreased understanding of what the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist really means, is the expectation that Catholics need to rediscover and define that real presence of Christ in the Eucharist in the pre- Vatican II terms of transubstantiation vs. transignification, I’d say it’s a poor idea.
I remember well the indoctrination I received in my 12 years of Catholic education regarding the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The overwhelming emphasis was placed on the elements themselves, the bread and the wine, rehashing the distinction between the Catholic and Lutheran theologies of the real presence. This emphasis left the whole question of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist in the elements themselves. Not that these elemental concerns are not important, but placing the issues of Christ’s presence solely in the concern of the bread and wine is tragically limiting and narrow.
When trying to explain the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, I prefer to address the issue by building on the Jewish understanding of the celebration of the Passover feast. For our Eucharistic celebration is built upon the Jewish feast of the Passover.
When Jewish people gather to celebrate the Passover feast every year, they are not merely coming together to remember a past event. Each year they celebrate Passover, they believe they are recreating the original experience of the Passover, of God’s liberating them from slavery in Egypt and making of them a free people and new nation. They believe they are literally reliving the very same historical event and, therefore, can claim the very same liberating experience and binding covenant with God.
When Jesus gathered with his disciples to celebrate his last Passover feast with them on the first Holy Thursday night, he indicated an entirely new covenant of his body and blood, born out of his death and resurrection. Each time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, we are literally recreating the same saving events of Jesus’ new covenant, making him truly present with us in his body and blood, through the bread and wine and the fellowship and communal love that it signifies.
On the night he was handed over, Jesus took bread and after he had given thanks broke it and said “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 1 Cor. 11/23-24
In the 2nd reading from 1 Corinthians, we are given the earliest account of the words of consecration that are used at the Eucharist. Ironically, Paul is recalling these words to shame the Corinthians. Paul has heard of problems in the way the Corinthians were celebrating the Eucharist. In those early years Christians celebrated the Eucharist in the context of a larger communal meal.
The way it worked in Corinth, at the larger communal gatherings of the Faithful, everyone would come to the gathering like we often do at big family reunions. Each family would bring their own supply of food. Each would eat separately and come together at the end of the meal for the ritual blessing of the bread and the wine, the sharing Jesus’ body and blood. In chapter 11 of 1 Cor., Paul is chastising the Corinthians because when they came together for the larger communal gatherings, the well-to-do Christians would feed themselves well, while the poorer members of the community would have little or no food to eat. Paul writes in 1 Cor. 11/29, “The person who eats and drinks without recognizing the body, eats and drinks a judgment on themselves.” In other words, if we neglect the needs of the poor and hungry people in our world, we are not truly recognizing the real presence of Christ in our Eucharist; in fact, we are bringing a judgment upon ourselves instead of a blessing.
Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciple’s feet and dry them with the towel around his waist.John 13/5
When John retells his version of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, there is no blessing of the bread and wine, no words of consecration, no invitation to “Eat my body”, “Drink my blood”, as is documented in the other three Gospels. Instead, John replaces the Eucharistic prayer with Jesus’ washing of the disciple’s feet. Scripture scholars tell us that John is trying to make a point here. Not unlike the problems Paul was addressing in the community in Corinth in today’s 2nd reading from 1 Cor., the community that John was writing his Gospel needed to be reminded that the new covenant and real presence of Christ that is signified at their Eucharistic celebrations was a new call to self sacrifice, unselfish love. It called for a new form of leadership exercised by example and service, not dependent on position, status or command. Clearly, the readings for our Holy Thursday services are telling us that when it comes to recognizing the real presence of Christ in our Eucharistic liturgies, it goes way beyond the elements of the bread and wine. Truly seeing and recognizing Christ in the Eucharist means being the living example of Christ’s self-sacrificing love and service in the world beyond our Church doors.
Theologized History: When the authors of the Gospels started to collect and arrange the stories and sayings of Jesus, the most developed and intact narratives about Jesus were the accounts of his last hours, his passion and death. Long before they reached the hands of the four evangelists the narratives of Jesus’ passion and death had already under gone extensive theologizing of the historical events. For the modem reader seeking an accurate historical chronology of Jesus’ last days, reading the Gospel accounts can be frustrating. The fact is we will never be able to reconstruct an hour by hour account of Jesus’ last 24 hours to the satisfaction of our 20th century investigative reporting standards.
Still, there is enough information given in the text, coupled with what we know of the historical political context of 1st century Palestine, to give us some basic facts and a fair idea of what actually happened to Jesus, if not an exact account of the desired details. What follows is a reflection on the trial accounts of Jesus, (The whole passion account deserves so much more attention than we priests tend to give them. With all the other distractions and obligations that take up our time during Holy Week and Easter, we rarely have the time to give them proper study.)
Jesus’ Trial: What actually happened? The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trials go to great lengths to show that Jesus was innocent, set up by his own people, the Jewish leaders, and condemned to death by a very reluctant Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator. In all likelihood, the Gospel’s characterization of the role of the Jewish leaders and of Pilate’s reluctant participation in Jesus’ condemnation, is more a reflection of the Gospel’s theological biases than what actually happened.
We Christians are fond of saying that Jesus was the innocent lamb that died for our sins. True as this statement may be, it is a theological statement. Criminally speaking, Jesus was as guilty as sin. If we can assume that that accounts of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (a major political street demonstration), and his Temple Cleansing (a direct illegal action that included destruction of Temple property), are based in historical events, then we can safely say that Jesus was rightly charged and convicted of rebellion and insurrection and that he was legitimately put to death. Given what we know historically at that time, the Romans used to crucify people routinely for doing far less.
There were no actual transcripts of Jesus’ trial kept. In all probability, there wasn’t much of a trial at all, none that we would have recognized. It is likely, however, given the things Jesus did in the city of Jerusalem, told his confrontation with the Temple authorities, that there was collision between the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem and the Roman authorities in getting rid of Jesus.
Jesus’ Trial: What the Gospels said:
Having just recently been in a trial in which I and my co-defendants were found guilty of a crime in which we did not contest the facts, but disputed the meaning and criminality of our actions, I found myself reading the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trails with new insights. It seems that the Gospel writers placed Jesus in a similar stand as our Gods of Metal Plowshares placed ourselves with the Federal Court in Greenbelt, Maryland, last September and January. The way the trial narratives are written up in the four Gospels, the actual trial; the court that determined Jesus’ guilt, was his session before the Sanhedrin. By the time Jesus is brought before Pilate, he was already found guilty of a capital offense. All Pilate had to do was sentence him.
Accounts of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin are recorded in the three synoptic Gospels. I find them very puzzling. In Matthew and Mark’s accounts, efforts were made to find witnesses to testify against Jesus. We are told all were found to be false and contradictory. Mark goes on to say some falsely testified, “We heard him declare, ‘I will destroy this temple made by human hands’ and ‘In three days I will construct another not made by human hands.’ “Mark 14:58. Matthew has two witnesses making the same charge (Mt. 26:61).
I found this testimony in Mark and Matthew puzzling because this is exactly what we Christians believe Jesus actually did. In fact, Jesus himself makes this claim in John 2: 19-22, immediately after he did the temple cleansing witness in John’s gospel. The above testimony was followed by the Chief Priest asking Jesus point blank, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Mark 14:60 (Mt. 28:63 and Luke 22:66). Jesus answers, “I am; and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” Mark 14:66 (Mt. 26:65 and Luke 2:69). This too, rings true to the Gospel understanding of who Jesus was.
Apparently, this testimony was all the Sanhedrin needed to find Jesus guilty of blasphemy and condemn him to death. Yet by the standards of the day, none of these charges would warrant a death sentence. Jesus is then taken to Pilate to be sentenced. As reported in all four Gospels, Jesus’ session before Pilate was more like a sentencing hearing than a trial to determine innocence or guilt. Pilate is characterized as complaining about being locked into a mandatory sentence that he knows to be unfair. This is the same position many Federal judges find themselves today, when they are forced to sentence people to long prison terms because of the mandatory sentencing guidelines in which they believe to be unfair. Like Federal judges today, Pilate had no other options but to sentence Jesus to death.
What we need to remember in all this is that the accounts of Jesus’ trials are written by Jesus’ followers, people who believed in him and the Truth he represented. They wrote their accounts based on what they believed to be the real (theological) reasons why Jesus was condemned to death. The Jewish authorities and the Romans probably thought they were working together to get rid of Jesus because he was a rebellious person who demonstrated outlawed behavior. It was only in the eyes of Jesus’ followers that he was condemned to death for being on God’s side and against the evil powers and principalities of his day. And the Gospel writers got the last word, the one that everyone believes; the side that made it in the New Testament.
This difference of perceived realities was very much evident in the Federal Court room in Greenbelt, Maryland, this past September and January when our Gods of Metal Plowshares folks were found guilty of a crime and sentenced to jail. As far as the Federal Government was concerned, we were guilty of destruction of government property, plain and simple, and were sentenced accordingly. But from our Gods of Metal Plowshares perspective we dared to expose the truth that our Federal Justice system and its courts are really agents and protectors of our country’s evil nuclear weapon’s establishment and the demonic powers and principalities that stand behind them. That is why we believe we were sent to jail. Guilty or innocent, truth or lies, it all depends on the eye of the beholder.. .and who gets the last word and who’s truth makes it in the final testament.
There are so many Easter texts to cover, I know I can’t do them justice in this reflection. What I will do is cover three points of interest.
Pilate told them. “You have a guard. Go and secure the tomb as best you can.” So they went under surveillance of the guard, after fixing a seal on the stone. Matthew 27:65-66
The things we can say and the insights we can gain about the events surrounding Jesus’ resurrection are inexhaustible. From all the cosmic and divine truths that flow from the Easter event, we must also add that it was an illegal, outlawed event. For when the State condemns a man to death and goes to the bother of killing him, he is supposed to stay dead. For the dead man to rise from the dead is to break the law.
To rise from the dead Jesus had to break Roman law. This is made explicitly clear in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew records that Pilate assigned Roman soldiers to guard Jesus’ tomb and had them place the seal of Rome on the stone. Who ever broke the seal of Rome on Jesus’ tomb, broke the laws of Rome and made themselves the enemy of Caesar. Who broke that seal of Rome on Easter Sunday morning but the resurrected Spirit of Christ? And I believe that the resurrected Spirit of Christ has been an outlawed Spirit ever since.
Then the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome, bought perfumed oils with which they intended to go and anoint Jesus. Mark 16:1
What is truly remarkable about the Gospel accounts of the Easter event, is that in all four accounts, Mary Magdalene and the other women are the first to discover the empty tomb and in the synoptic Gospels they are the first to proclaim his resurrection. John is the only one who has Peter and himself discovering the empty tomb with the angel and even then, Mary Magdalene is the first to come face to face with the resurrected Jesus.
The tradition of Mary Magdalene and the other women being the first to the tomb and the first to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection, had to be a well established and universally accepted version of the event by the time the Gospels were written; otherwise it would have made more sense for the Gospel writers to ignore it and tell how the male disciples were the first to announce Jesus’ resurrection. Because in those times, women’s testimony was not valid. Women’s testimony was not accepted in legal proceedings. That the tradition made it into the Gospel accounts at all gives weight to their historical validity. This tradition of the women being the first at the empty tomb and the first to proclaim the resurrection of the Lord, speaks loudly to us in our own times and in our own Church. The role of women in our Church’s leadership and ministerial positions is far from settled. Now is not the time to shut off discussion on this issue. If the faithful women who followed Jesus throughout his ministry, stayed with him right up to the cross and then were the first to experience the reality of the resurrection, had obeyed the social rules of their times and kept quite, the proclamation of the Easter event may have never made it past that first Easter morning.
If there is no resurrection of the dead, Christ himself has not been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is void of content and your faith is empty too. 1 Cor. 15:13-14
Apparently, the idea of a bodily resurrection was more than some Corinthians could bear. Paul writes to them in 1 Cor. 15, insisting on the necessity of a bodily resurrection or he tells them the whole of his message and their own faith in Jesus is utterly meaningless. If there is a stumbling block in our Christian belief system for our modem mind, it would have to be this idea of a bodily resurrection. I mean, how can there actually be a bodily resurrection given what we know about the physical body and what happens to it after death? Every school kid knows that the physical body after death breaks down into some basic elements. These elements are recycled into the earth’s bio-system. Some of this ‘stuff’ may even get beyond the earth’s gravity force and make it into outer space. It’s even possible that in time, some of the ‘stuff’ that currently makes up our bodies may be reused by another person’s body, some of the ‘stuff’ that currently makes up our bodies now, may have been part of somebody else’s body long since dead. So, how is it that all of us will experience a bodily resurrection when some of the same stuff that makes up our own bodies might have been used for somebody else’s body, too?
I don’t know. I can’t explain it. But what I do like about this bedrock belief of our Faith, is what it says about eternal life and what we have to look forward to. What it says to me is that when the time comes, nothing is going to be left behind (except for sin), everything will be made holy including our bodies. For me, this is a comforting and affirming thought. And for this, I am grateful.