The Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ
June 2, 2013
Newton College alumnae reunion
We have spent these few days together getting caught up on each other’s lives – on 50 years of joys and sorrows, of amazing accomplishments, of choices made and roads not taken. Could any of us have imagined when we left this college how our lives would unfold? In my wildest imagination, I never would have guessed that I would be preaching here today, especially on such an important feast in the church – the Body and Blood of Christ.
Many years ago I read a book by Gregory Dix called The Shape of the Liturgy, a very long and erudite history of the Eucharist by an Anglican liturgical scholar. At the conclusion of the book, around page seven hundred something I think, the author shifts from liturgical history, archeology and philology to spirituality. He quotes the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, “Do this in memory of me,” and then he poses an intriguing question:
Was ever another command so obeyed?
Dix paints an amazing picture: Century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country, to every race on earth, this action of Eucharist has been done in every conceivable human circumstance and for every conceivable human need, from the heights of power to places of poverty and despair, for royalty at their crowning and for prisoners going to the scaffold, for the wisdom of the government of a mighty nation, for a frail old woman afraid to die, for Columbus setting out to discover the new world…and by people across the centuries like ourselves, marking births and marriages and deaths and mostly the ordinary time of our lives…and sometimes falling sway, and coming back, and leaning on the faith of others in the darker times.
The Eucharist has been celebrated by innumerable millions of entirely obscure faithful women and men like you and me, people with hopes and fears and joys and sorrows and sins and temptations and prayers every bit as vivid and alive as yours and mine are now. On a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailing, the followers of Jesus have done just this for the remembrance of him. This is an extraordinary picture of the Eucharist that binds us together, one with another and with Christians of every age, of every place, race and tongue, of every way of life. The Eucharist has been like a wave of grace rolling over the community again and again across the centuries of Christendom, hollowing out spaces for the divine in the midst of the everyday. “Do this in memory of me.” Was ever another command so obeyed?
But after pondering Dix, I realized that when I considered that Last Supper of Jesus and his friends there was another question on my mind. When Jesus said “do this in remembrance of me,” what did he mean by this? What is it that we have been asked to do? Surely not just the Jewish pattern of the meal, though we know a lot about Jewish rituals, the blessing of bread, the number of cups, the style of blessing said over both. Surely it is something more. What are we being asked to do? to be? to embrace? to celebrate? What commitment do we make when we say Amen?
Do this in memory of me…but what is the this?
Have you ever considered that the Last Supper was precisely that – the Last Supper was the last? The Last Supper was the last of countless of Jesus’ meals recorded in the Scriptures. Jesus never played the pious ascetic, keeping away from celebrations. He loved a good feast. He would have loved our celebrations this weekend! He used the image of feasting as a metaphor of the reign of God…a great banquet. It was said of him: “This man is a glutton and a drunkard.” It was even more shockingly whispered behind his back: “This man sits down at table with sinners, with the morally dubious, with the outcasts of society, with those living on the fringes.”
On nearly every page of the Gospels there is a meal or a reference to food. Jesus calls out to Zaccheus, “Get down from that tree. I’m coming to your house for lunch.” There is the story of Simon who threw a dinner party but was an inattentive host, and of the woman who slipped in to minister to Jesus as he sat at Simon’s table. There is the story of Peter’s mother-in-law who is cured, only to get up and wait on them. There is the Syro-Phonecian woman who would not take no for an answer, who spoke about crumbs that fell from the table and who expected—and received—more than crumbs from this man.
There are the feeding miracles which tell us something of the utter lavishness of God and how everyone will receive enough and there will still be something left over for another day. There are parables of feasts, of great abundance, of jockeying for places at table, of appropriate attire, of filling the room with those drawn from the highways and the byways.
And even the risen appearances of Jesus include meals. “Peace be with you,” Jesus says. “What’s for dinner?” On the shore, in the upper room, on the way to Emmaus, they recognized him in the breaking of the bread. How do you recognize someone? Even at a distance, you recognize someone for the timber of their voice, or the way they gesture, or the slight tilt of the head so characteristic of them. The disciples recognized Jesus for what was most characteristic of him: they recognized him in the breaking of the bread.
What is the this that we are to continue? It is the whole life and ministry of Jesus at table. Jesus shared life with an astonishing assortment of people. Everyone was welcome to sit with him, to tell stories and to break the bread. Jesus’ ministry of table fellowship is a ministry of universal reconciliation, no exceptions. The Last Supper gathered up the attitudes and values of Jesus throughout his life. He opened his table – and his heart – to everyone. He offered hospitality to all. He was at home with all manner of people. He knew the human need for nourishment of body, mind and spirit and he was present to the other, always present, welcoming, reconciling, offering meaning, offering life.
Do this in memory of me.
Embrace my attitudes and values as your own. Love those I love and be my heart to them. Welcome the stranger, the one on the margins, the disenfranchised. Become vulnerable with one another. Nourish one another’s bodies and spirits. Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep – both here at home and half a world away – those who mourn their children in Newtown, Connecticut, those who are starving from the drought in Africa and suffering the scourge of war in Syria, those who are caught up in trafficking around the globe or denied asylum here at home, those who have lost those they love and all they owned in fire and flood, earthquake and tornado. Make a habit of roaming the globe with the Heart of Christ so that you do not remain distant from the joys and pain of the world. Send those waves of grace once again across continents and cultures to bathe our world in the love and mercy of Eucharist. Do this in memory of me.
And perhaps today, at the close of a weekend filled with so much remembering – of joys and sorrows, of choices made and roads not taken – we could bring all of it to the altar. We gather up our memories, our histories and our hopes – we gather up all the dying and the rising that has been our lives – and join it to the death and rising of Jesus which we celebrate in a special way today. Let the power of Eucharist be for us, too, a wave of grace, transforming us just as surely as the bread and wine into the Body and the Blood of Christ for the life of the world.
Kathleen Hughes RSCJ