Lectionary Reflection: Holy Thursday

Exodus 12.1-4, (5-10), 11-14; Psalm 116 1-2, 12 – 19; I Corinthians 11.23 – 26; John 13.1-17, 31b – 35.

One way to think about these readings is to assume that we hear them at a Holy Thursday Eucharist, the first of the three central days of the church year, the first of the two central Eucharists of that year.   In this, as with all Eucharistic celebrations, we are gathered to listen to and proclaim God’s word as well as to thankfully call upon the Spirit to transform us and our gifts into Jesus Christ’s body and blood as unsurpassable nourishment for our journey toward God’s new heaven and earth.   In this light, how do the readings shape what we do here?

It is understandable that traditions that so gather (whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Evangelical) might find these readings relatively self-evident.   They rehearse the origins of Passover, and Paul’s Jesus at the last supper before he died, and John’s Jesus washing of our feet, climaxing in the mandate to love one another (John 13.25).  Nonetheless, those accustomed to these readings also need to hear how different these readings seem from what we today gather at the Eucharist to do.

For starters, we do not seem dramatically poised with roasted lamb, bitter herbs, and unleavened bread before a bloody liberation from tyranny, as Israel was at the first Passover.   We can and should interpret this figurally, spiritually – as I will later.  But isn’t doing merely this to admit that any similarity between Israel’s actual Passover drama and us is distant?

And even the reading from Corinthians sounds different.   Granted: at every Eucharist we regularly remember with Paul Jesus’ words and deeds at his last supper before his death.  But it is important to notice how different from Jesus’ last supper are the circumstances to which Paul applies Jesus’ words and deeds.   That is, Paul has learned that his Corinthian community has been gathering for the Lord’s supper in a way that leaves some hungry, while others get drunk.   As Steve Fowl has pointed out, they are reproducing the very social divisions this Supper was designed to obliterate.  It is not really, Paul concludes, the Lord’s supper they celebrate.  The Corinthians’ Lord’s supper was apparently a regular practice – very unlike the annual Passover, or Jesus’ once-in a lifetime supper before his death.   Even though this is the only place in Paul where we have this sort of discussion of the Lord’s supper, Paul can be characterized as the first liturgical reformer, using Jesus’ words and deeds to correct the “evolving” Corinthian practice.   Paul is a reminder that most of what we do at the Eucharist is not what Jesus did at his last supper; most of what we say and do is given to us by traditions of Eucharistic practice throughout the ages, constantly debated and reformed.[1] But there is an added point about the second reading: we today are not a community split into those hungry and those drunk, against whom Paul reminds the Corinthians of the tradition of Jesus’ words and deeds at his last supper before his death.  No one on this Thursday night will eat their fill while others go hungry, or get drunk while others are thirsty.  Whatever the gaps in our Eucharistic practice (and surely we have our social divisions to which I shall return), they are not these.

And, perhaps most startling, John’s last supper — unlike Paul and the Synoptics — does not include Jesus’ words “This is my body” and “This is my blood”.   Instead of these words, John famously narrates Jesus washing a few of the disciples’ feet in the midst of the supper, with Peter’s dissent.   Although this Holy Thursday night we will wash each other’s feet, at our more ordinary Eucharists we eat the bread and drink the cup without interrupting the meal with a foot washing.   Given John alone, why not wash each other’s feet every day, and celebrate Jesus’ last supper before his death once a year?

The readings seem very different from what we do here and now – and every Lord’s day.   Unless we hear the differences, we will not listen for the ways the readings speak to us.   Noticing the differences may enable us to think back over the readings in reverse order, from John through Paul to Exodus.

Historians debate the issue, but I see no way to make sense of John’s footwashing without assuming that John’s community celebrated a Lord’s supper, with or without the Synoptic words of institution.[2] It is “during supper” (13.2) that Jesus interrupts the supper to wash the participants’ feet.   John’s footwashing does not replace Jesus’ words and deeds.   Instead, John uses Jesus’ footwashing to enact and interpret Jesus very words.   That is, the Synoptics each include stories of the disciples bickering about who is the greater among them.   We have these arguments among ourselves today.  I do not want to suggest that our arguments over the ordination of women and gays are mere bickering.  The various sides regard each other as (like Judas) betraying or at least (like Peter) denying Christ.  But these arguments among us over how to be the greatest are perhaps closer to our problems that the Corinthian problem of drunkenness and hunger at the Eucharist.  And John’s response to such bickering is simple.  Determine who can best wash your feet.   Do you really want to do that ,or have that done to you? Or love one another?

John shows rather than states these connections.  Several chapters earlier,  John gives the “Bread of Life” discourse in which Jesus, with reference to the multiplication of the loaves and fishes rather than Jesus’ last supper, teaches that “I am the bread of life” (6.35) and “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” (6.54-55).   This bread and cup turn us into the body of Christ.  For John this means that we wash each other’s feet as a response to the Lord who has become a servant to wash our feet.  To be this body is not to sculpt ourselves into the passing male or female or transgendered body-images of our culture but to be a body at the service of other bodies.   This footwashing is what Christians traditionally called “spiritual communion”.   It does not take the place of sacramental communion but is what we aspire to in order for the sacramental communion to bear fruit.   Jesus gives us his body so that we can become his body. And we eat this bread to become his body.

Just as John uses Jesus’ footwashing to interpret the last supper, Paul uses Jesus’ words on the night he was handed over and handed himself over to address the seemingly very different Corinthian circumstance of gathering for the Lord’s supper while letting some go hungry and permitting others to get drunk.   We could say that the Corinthians had figured out one way not to wash each others’ feet.   Some would go hungry, while others were drunk.   I mentioned earlier that this is not our problem today.   But there is little doubt that every Eucharistic community has social divisions – - and not only divisions about who is the greatest among us – that are blocking us becoming the body of Christ this bread is trying to turn us into.  Paul offers some liturgical instructions.  If satisfying ordinary hunger is at stake, eat at home.  Wait for each other – do not get too far in front of the whole body.  Examine yourselves.  But do not turn inward to do this: discern the whole body, your neighbors near at hand.  All good advice.  But remember that Paul began by admonishing the Corinthians for not keeping the very Jesus-traditions Paul had given them.  Paul’s liturgical instructions are entirely in the service of remembering Jesus’ mandate to do this in remembrance and expectation of Jesus.  This is the Lord’s supper, not ours.  Are we becoming Christ’s body?  If not, Paul says, we eat and drink unto our own self-condemnation.

But neither John nor Paul would have us end on a note of self-condemnation.  Only now are we in a position to interpret, or re-interpret, Israel’s Passover.  The Christian Passover must be read in the light of Paul’s tradition of Jesus’ last supper as well as John’s.  The bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ (Paul), and we are becoming just that as we love one another (John).  But we are doing so on an unfinished journey.   It is the Passover reading that assures that we keep Jesus’ body and ours in motion.  Passover remembers the Exodus; we remember the crucified Christ.  But Passover remembers only as it also looks forward.  We must not separate the Passover account we just heard from where it is headed – into the wilderness, then to Sinai, and only then to the promised land. Jesus’ wilderness, figuratively speaking, is our Good Friday (when we are nourished by the bread but not the Eucharist that makes the bread the body of Christ) — and Holy Saturday (when, except for Viaticum, we do not even eat the bread).   So we are nourished to endure life’s griefs as well as its joys, to survive in the wilderness as well as flourish in the promised land.  We are nourished on the crucified, risen, and coming Jesus Christ.

[1] As Benedict XVI once put it, “The Last Supper is the foundation of the dogmatic content of the Christian Eucharist, not of its liturgical form” (“Form and Content in the Eucharistic Celebration” in The Feast of Fools. Approaches to a Theology of the Liturgy, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006 [German 1981]), p. 40.

[2] I think here of John Paul II’s and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s  2001 affirmation of the validity of the Anaphora of Addai and Mari, where the words of Eucharistic Institution are present “not in a coherent narrative way and ad litteram but rather in a dispersed euchological way, that is, integrated in successive prayers of thanksgiving, praise and intercession” (Pontifical Council for Promoting Christina Unity, “Guidelines for Admission to the Eucharist between the Chaldean Church and the Assyrian Church of the East,” 20 July 2001 at Vatican.va


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