Thursday, April 1, 2010

Holy Thursday

Lent ends this afternoon, and the Easter Triduum of Christ crucified, buried, and risen begins this evening. The first day of the Triduum (Christ crucified) begins with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening and ends with the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion on Friday afternoon. Fittingly, we begin the Triduum (as we will likewise conclude, on Sunday) with a celebration of the Eucharist. Together tonight, for what St. Paul called the Lord's Supper (what elsewhere the New Testament calls the breaking of the bread), we recall Christ’s death and so encounter the Risen Christ and experience new life - as St. Paul famously found new life when he encountered the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus and was introduced to a new kind of community in Christ.
St. Paul’s letters are the earliest New Testament writings. So his was the first written account of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples on the day before the Passover - an otherwise ordinary meal dramatically transformed by Jesus’ words and actions into the Church’s first Lord’s Supper, at which, offering his body and blood to his Father, Jesus gave them to his apostles to eat and drink, and enjoined them and their successors in the priesthood to offer them in turn.
In telling this story, St. Paul was telling the Corinthians something they already knew. I received from the Lord, he writes, what I also handed on to you (1 Corinthians 11:23]) Why remind them about something apparently already commonly known? Until 1969, this reading at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper was longer and incorporated the complete context, which we need to recall. When you meet in one place, Paul wrote, it is not to eat the Lord's supper, for in eating, each one goes ahead with his own supper, and one goes hungry while another gets drunk. Do you not have houses in which you can eat and drink? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and make those who have nothing feel ashamed? What can I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this matter I do not praise you (1 Corinthians 11:20-22). Paul concluded with an ominous warning: whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord (1 Corinthians 11:27).
First-century Christians had no churches yet. They met in homes - presumably those of their more prosperous members, who had large enough homes to accommodate a group. So, like the Last Supper itself, the 1st-century Eucharist seems to have been celebrated as a domestic meal. Some people, however, started eating early. It has been suggested that perhaps the rich didn’t want to wait for the poorer people who couldn’t come until after work, and left little or nothing for the poorer latecomers! Obviously, the social arrangements of secular society had not disappeared, just because they had become Christians! Then too – then as now - the widespread tendency (even among supposedly religious people) to admire the rich & cater to their whims with servile adulation was already probably well in evidence. (In the 18th century, Adam Smith called this nearly universal tendency to admire the rich and despise the poor “the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments."
St. Paul certainly understood that social and class distinctions were an integral part of Roman society – as they are in all societies. He was not asking his hearers to pretend that the laws of economics had suddenly been repealed and such distinctions had ceased to exist or were somehow of no importance in the world; but he was insisting that those distinctions have no significance whatever within the community of Christ’s Body. We may well live in a world where such distinctions matter, but we simultaneously inhabit another order of relationships. It wasn’t our natural, social, political, or economic relationships that preoccupied Paul, but our religious relationship - as adopted children of God the Father, brothers and sisters in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit - which makes everything else different.
The New Testament accounts of what Jesus said and did at the Last Supper connect it directly to Jesus’ sacrificial death: as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes ([1 Corinthians 11:26). Just as Jesus’ death decisively transforms our relationship with him, all our other relationships within the Body of Christ, his Church, must also likewise be transformed.

Hence the emphasis - throughout Church history - on the Eucharist, not only as a sign of unity in the Body of Christ but as an agent of that unity. Whether at the macro-level of the Universal Church or at the micro-level of a single parish community, this has obvious applications for our life together as Christ’s Body, the Church - for which (as St. Paul reminds us) we will have to answer. To the extent that our factions and conflicts contradict who and what we claim to be, in whatever way our behavior towards one another conceals rather than reveals the face of Christ, then the word of God may seem silent (precisely when and where it most needs to be proclaimed) and the love of God may appear absent from the very world Christ sacrificed himself in order to save. St. Paul’s warning to the Galatians to stop biting and devouring one another (Galatians 5:15) applies to us in the 21st century as evidently as it applied to the Church in the 1st century.
Yet even without any identifiable ill will, it is division – not unity – that remains fundamental to the human condition. Social, economic, ethnic, linguistic, national, and generational divisions form the structural fabric of human relations. Again the point is not to pretend that such divisions do not exist, but to recognize the challenge – to us - to live as changed people because we share in the one Body of Christ.

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