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Maundy Thursday - April 18, 2019 - JT Kittredge

Good Evening.

There’s a lot going on in this service tonight: Agapé Supper, Foot Washing, Eucharist, and Altar Stripping. In each of those elements there’s much to explain or interpret or comment on. The other of the Holy Week services—Palm Sunday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil, and Easter Sunday—are similarly rich. However, somewhere years ago I heard that it was best in these heavyweight services to get out of the way and let the liturgy speak for itself. So, I’ll try to keep this brief.

I’ll begin by taking a step back and asking why we have these services, what they might offer us. For myself, they offer a way to enter more fully into the meaning of Christ’s Passion than sermons or books or podcasts could. I spend too much time living in my own head, and the Holy Week liturgies let me experience the Passion with my senses.

Here is where I find the idea of sacrament, as opposed to symbol, helpful. A symbol represents something, but sacraments, if you believe in them, partake in some way in the reality of the thing represented.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Catechism in the back of the Book of Common Prayer, but it’s a kind of Frequently Asked Questions for the Christian Faith, Anglican Edition. It’s well written, illuminating, and a great read during tedious sermons.

In answer to the question, “What are the sacraments?” it says, “The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.”

And to the next question, “What is grace?” it answers, “Grace is God's favor toward us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.”

So, is the Foot Washing we are about to enact together a sacrament? It’s not on the traditional list, and no one has elected me pope, so I’m not qualified to rule on that question. But if it is a sacrament, what is its inward spiritual grace? That’s also open to interpretation, but I suggest that it is to enter fully into what Jesus means when he says in tonight’s Gospel passage, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

It’s that passage, by the way, which gives us our name for this holy day; “maundy” comes from “mandatum,” the Latin word for commandment.

I think that the question of sacrament or symbol is best left to those you who are brave enough to come forward to wash and be washed. Are you conscious of grace? Do you feel changed? Because that’s one of the claims made of sacraments, that they actually change the person who receives them in some way. In some woo-woo, unmeasurable, imperceivable, yet real way.

Even if you don’t feel different, you may be different; the action of God is sometimes hard to discern. And the efficacy of a sacrament depends on God’s grace, not on ourselves.

Remember what the Catechism said, “unearned and undeserved.”

If you choose do to participate, you may find it awkward and even uncomfortably intimate. I usually do. You may find it actually more awkward and uncomfortable to let your feet be washed than it is to wash others. I think that there’s a lesson there, in that, while it may be “more blessed to give than to receive,” there is grace in being able to receive, as well. On the cover of our service booklet, it says, “Not to be served, but to serve.” I wonder if it should say, “To serve and allow ourselves to be served in love.”   

Sacrament or not, the Foot Washing is a powerful rite, but we shouldn’t let it overshadow what follows: the Eucharist. Even though we celebrate it together every week, tonight is its special moment: Holy Communion, the Origin Story.

What actually happens to the bread and wine during communion has occupied legions of theologians for centuries. Technical terms like transubstantiation, consubstantiation, trans-elementation, and sacramental union are thrown around. The Anglican tradition has contented itself merely with maintaining the doctrine of the “Real Presence” —that the body and blood of Jesus Christ are really present in the elements in some way that is beyond our understanding.  

There’s a quatrain that’s attributed to the founder of the Anglican Church, Elizabeth I:

Christ was the Word that spake it,

He took the bread and brake it,  

And what the Word did make it,

That I believe and take it.

When I repeated that verse to my partner, he responded, “In other words, ‘What he said!’” It answers none of the philosophical questions, which is precisely the point. The sacrament means what Christ meant it to mean.  The aspects of inward and spiritual grace ascribed to communion are manifold: forgiveness of sins, union with Christ, union with all Christians living and dead in the body of Christ, and a foretaste of the banquet of eternal life. I won’t try to expound on them, because I couldn’t do them justice, and because I would rather let the sacrament speak to you itself.

Instead, I will repeat an adage that I heard years ago from the priest Robert Rae and that has stayed with me since: “the most important acts of Eucharistic devotion are chewing, swallowing, and digesting.” I take his point to be that the power of Communion is not as a symbol, but as an act. It doesn’t happen in our intellect, but in our guts.

And I will leave you with another quotation I first heard a few years back that has also stayed with me. It was attributed to St Augustine, and I tracked it down to one of his sermons on the Holy Eucharist. Here it is, somewhat abridged, “If you, therefore, are Christ's body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord's table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! … Be what you see; receive what you are.”

In the name of Christ.