April 12, 2001, Holy Thursday, Cycle C
I used to think it odd that on the day when we celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper that the Gospel reading the Church gives us is not one of the accounts of the institution of the Eucharist: Jesus giving his disciples his body in the form of bread, and his blood in the form of wine.
We do hear Paul’s account, which is the earliest written version, in the second reading. But the focus of both the Gospel and the liturgical washing of the feet we will have shortly, remind of us an aspect of the Eucharist that is too often pushed into the background: our response to the gift Jesus offers us.
Last Sunday I was privileged to bring Communion and some palms to a small group of women in a hospital. As we gathered in one of their rooms to receive communion, another woman came to the door and asked if she might receive communion as well. Something about the way she asked made me hesitate, and seeing my hesitation, she added that she was Episcopalian. I explained as gently as I could that I could not give her communion but invited her to pray with us. She declined. My heart ached at the reality of this separation that exists between our traditions, knowing that it caused this woman pain to be excluded. I heard later that she had commented to someone standing nearby that “Jesus would have understood”. I wrote her a note later trying to explain why the way Catholics understand Eucharist would make it a lie or a sham to invite those who are not in full communion with us to receive communion. I think today's Gospel underscores that Jesus wants us to understand the importance of the symbol in a sacrament being in line with the reality it symbolizes. That is why he tells Peter that he doesn't need to be washed all over. If we start playing loose with the symbols, pretty soon the reality gets blurry. Jesus never performed miracles for the sake of impressing people or demonstrating his power over material things. He only used miracles as a way of physically symbolizing a hidden reality. So he cured the lame or raised the dead as physical signs that he had forgiven their sins or that their faith had saved them.
The transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus is a physical symbol of the other transformation that takes place in the Eucharist. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1104-1109) expresses this other transformation as it describes the priest’s invocation of the Holy Spirit as the prayer for the full effect of the assembly’s communion with the mystery of Christ. The prayer of invocation asks “the Father to send the Holy Spirit to make the lives of the faithful a living sacrifice to God by their spiritual transformation into the image of Christ, by concern for the Church's unity, and by taking part in her mission through the witness and service of charity.”
As in any sacrament there is a movement of God towards us, the grace of the sacrament, and our response to that grace. In Eucharist we are not just celebrating an event that happened 2000 years ago; we are entering into a mystery that is present here and now. This mystery is the presence of Christ that is bringing about salvation here and now. As long as we focus only on the transformation of the bread and wine, there is nothing for us to do, no symbol of what is happening to us.
In a few minutes we will sing “We remember how you loved us to your death. And still we celebrate for you are with us here.” This is a special kind of remembering. It is not just looking at a mental image of what happened in the past. I like to think of this remembering as the opposite of dis-membering. We are re-membering, populating, adding arms and legs and eyes and ears and hearts to the Body of Christ, here and now. And those arms and legs and eyes and ears and hearts of Christ are to continue sharing in what we celebrate tomorrow: the dying of self for the service of others. It does no good for the bread and wine to be turned into the body and blood of Christ unless we too are transformed in the body and blood of Christ. And not in some ethereal, spiritual sense, but in the real physical sense of continuing the example of Jesus. The hymn We Remember continues, saying “Gather all your people, and hold them to your heart.” Where are the arms that will hold these people to Christ’s heart?
Our communion hymn is more direct, in remembrance of me, heal the sick, feed the poor, open your door and let your sister and brother in, always love. Without our response, our transformation into loving servants of each other, our celebration here is empty, lifeless. We just don’t get the grace that is offered. I like to end with a poem that says this so much better. It is by a Spanish poet, Antonio Machado (1875-1939), translated by Robert Bly. It is a dialog between the wind and the garden, called The Wind, One Brilliant Day:
The wind one brilliant day,
called to my soul with the aroma of jasmine
In return for my jasmine odor,
I’d like all the odor of your roses.
I have no roses, all the flowers
in my garden are dead.
Well then I’ll take the withered petals,
and the yellow leaves and the waters of the fountains
The wind left, I wept. And I said to my soul,
what have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you.
So that our gardens may not be dead and lifeless, let us re-member the mystery of Christ.