Homily for Maundy Thursday

‘This is my Body which will be given up for you.’ ‘This is the chalice of my blood, poured out for you’ Are there any words quite like these?

‘Hoc est enim corpus meum quod pro vobis tradetur…Hic est enim calix sanguinis mei…’ That’s how I heard or said those words for 37 years in the monastery.

‘To jest bowiem Ciało moje, które za was będzie wydane…To jest bowiem kielich Krwi mojej nowego i wiecznego przymierza.’ That’s how many of you here this evening know those words.

How many languages are they said in! How many places have heard them! How many times are they said each day! Have any phrases so filled time and space? Shakespeare wrote famous plays, translated into many languages, performed repeatedly all over the world. ‘To be or not to be; that is the question’: who doesn’t know Hamlet’s famous line? But it fades before Jesus’ words. There are no words in the world with such a charge, such energy, such ability to transform.

‘This is my Body which will be given up for you…This is the chalice of my blood, poured out for you.’

Tonight, we hear them again, as if for the first time. Spoken in that Upper Room in Jerusalem, while the high priests laid their plans elsewhere, as the oil lamps flickered and the disciples ate, aware something awesome was afoot. And what do they mean? When he took the bread, broke it, gave it, when he took the cup, and said those words, what was he saying?

Perhaps the Church, for all her two thousand years, has so far only touched their surface. Perhaps many more saints are needed for her to understand them more. Perhaps that is why there is such a thing as Church history, why the Parousia (the Second Coming) is delayed, so we may all have time to hear them and savour them. Perhaps that’s why each of us is given the years that we are.

What did he mean? What was he saying? Let’s say this: he was showing what would really be going on the next day, on the Cross. On the outside, the Passion looks like passivity. Jesus seems more acted upon than acting. He is arrested by the Temple authorities. He’s handcuffed. He is led here, led there. He’s betrayed. He’s denied. He’s questioned, interrogated, laughed at, beaten up, tried, judged, condemned. He’s handed over to the Romans, handed over to crucifixion. He’s led out, nailed, offered vinegar. He is not entirely silent, but largely so. The waters rise to his neck. His side is pierced. He’s declared dead and he’s buried. He’s no longer, as it were, the subject of the sentence; he’s the object. He’s no longer at the wheel; he has been bundled onto the back seat. But tonight in the Upper Room, on the eve of it all, he takes, he blesses, he breaks and he gives, and he says: ‘This is my Body, which will be given up for…this is the blood poured out for you.’ These few gestures and words enfolded his Friday in the Thursday. This was the real inside story of the Passion. It’s action. It’s a deed. It’s free and chosen and deliberately done. It is the giving of this body and the pouring out of this blood. It’s self-giving. It is a sacrifice. Made willingly, in obedience to the Father, effecting forgiveness of sins.

And not just any sacrifice. This is the sacrifice. This takes up and goes beyond the long harrowing history of human offering to God, often dreadfully perverse (think of human sacrifice). This achieves what ‘the gifts of your servant Abel the just, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek’ could only suggest. This is what the whole Temple worship of Israel, with its constant daily, weekly, annual animal sacrifices was straining to do, in the end ineffectively. This is now the Lamb of God in person, coming to take away the sins of the world. This is the true Passover that sets us free. This is what a Psalmist anticipated years before: ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me.’ Here is the true Suffering Servant, ‘bearing the faults of many and praying all the time for sinners.’ Here is the blood which seals the new covenant Jeremiah prophesied. This is the action that forgives sins, puts everything right again, restores right relationships, opens the new creation of Resurrection and everlasting Life. Jesus was saying all this when he said these words.

‘This is my Body given for you.’ ‘This is my Blood poured out’. Every time these words are said in his name, they keep their content. Every time we hear them, we can hear all this. We proclaim his death, as St Paul says. There’s a German poem with a famous line, ‘O tall tree in the ear!’ How can a tree be in an ear? By the sound of it, of course, blowing in the wind. And for us the Tall Tree of the Cross sounds in the ear when the wind of the Holy Spirit carries those words to our ears, to the ears of the heart. The Tall Tree sounds eternally in the ears of the Father as his risen and glorified Son stands before him in heaven, interceding for us, and the fruits of the Tree are forever falling invisibly into the world, a constant cascade of mercy. The Cross is the sacrifice that takes away the sins of the world and ushers in the new and eternal covenant. And the Mass, every Mass, re-presents that one sacrifice; it brings it to our ears and our eyes, plants the Tree in our 2018, in Aberdeen or wherever, in our lives. The Mass keeps the doors of the covenant open.

Tonight, along with the institution of the Eucharist, we remember that of the priesthood. The two are bound together. And saying those words of Christ at the Last Supper are the high point of any priest’s life. They proclaim the Lord’s death. And with his death, his Resurrection and Ascension, and Pentecost. And the forgiveness of sins and the new and eternal covenant. And his Coming in glory. What a thing to be able to do! What makes us human, the animal with a difference? Surely, language and speech. I’m never more human than when saying the human words of the Word of God. I’m anointed by ordination to proclaim the Gospel. When do I do it best? Saying those words over the bread and the wine. Like Isaiah, I’m a man of unclean lips. I’ve said many things I should not have said and will answer for. I’ve not said things I should have said, and will be judged on that as well. But, by his mercy, I can atone for my sins every day by saying his words. So please pray for us priests and pray that young men will come after us to lift up the Cross over all of us.

This is my Body…. What did he mean? His meaning was love. What was he saying? I love you. In the old English marriage vows was the phrase, ‘With my body I thee worship’. Spouse says it to spouse. In the Eucharist, Jesus says that to us, each of us. He affirms our ‘worth’. He takes the bread and he takes the wine, and he thanks and blesses the Father, and he says to us who listen, You are worth everything to me. I, who belong completely to the Father, I am all yours too.

St Teresa of Calcutta once wrote this to her sisters: “Jesus wants me to tell you again, especially in this Holy Week, how much love He has for each one of you—beyond all you can imagine. I worry some of you still have not really met Jesus—one to one—you and Jesus alone. Have you seen with the eyes of your soul how He looks at you with love? Do you really know the living Jesus—not from books but from being with Him in your heart? Have you heard the loving words He speaks to you? Ask for the grace, He is longing to give it.” Yes, let’s ask for it tonight. Ask it in his Eucharist, the Body given, the Blood poured out.

(St Mary’s Cathedral, 29 March 2018)


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