On Holy Thursday we contemplate the institution of the Mystical Supper – we realize that Christ gave His Body and Blood for the life of the world so that we can partake of salvation! The institution of the Eucharist by our Lord is something we not only think about, but actually receive when we come to the Liturgy this evening.
O how manifold and ineffable this communion! Christ became our brother, partaking of the same flesh and blood with us, and through them became like us. Through his blood He has redeemed us for Himself as true servants. He has made us His friends (cf. John 15:14-15) partaking of this blood He has bound and betrothed us to Himself as a bridegroom his bride, and become one flesh with us. He feeds us not only with blood instead of milk, but with His own body, and not only His body but also His Spirit. In so doing, He always preserves undiminished the nobility given to us by Him, leads us towards greater longing, and grants us to fulfill our desire, not only to see Him but also to touch Him, to delight in Him, to take Him into our hearts, and for each of us to hold Him in our inmost selves.
Come, He says, those of you who have set your heart on eternal life, eat My body and drink My blood (cf. John 6:53), that you may not only be in God’s image, but, by clothing yourselves in Me, the King and God of heaven, you may be eternal and heavenly gods and kings, feared by demons, admired by angels, beloved sons of the celestial Father, living forever fairer than the children of men (cf. Ps. 45:2), a delightful dwelling place for the sublime Trinity. (St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, pp. 464-465)
“For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)
On Holy Thursday, our Lord instituted the Eucharist, blessing the bread and wine, declaring them to be His Body and Blood and giving them to His disciples at the Mystical Supper. As is normative in the Church, our commemoration of the Lord’s Last Supper with His disciples makes Christ present for us today. We are with the disciples contemplating the Mystery which Christ places before us: the bread and wine of the Passover transformed into His Body and Blood. In a prayer from the Didache, a late First Century Christian document, we find the following prayer of the Eucharist:
“As this broken bread, once scattered over the mountains was gathered into one,
So gather Your Church together from the ends of the earth, in your Kingdom.
Yes, to You be glory and power
Through Jesus Christ, for ever and ever.
We give you thanks, O holy Father,
For Your Holy name
That you have caused to dwell in our hearts,
For the gnosis, the faith, and the immortality,
That you have granted us through Jesus your servant,
Glory to you through the ages!
You it was, O all-powerful Master,
Who created the universe, to the praise of your Name:
Of Your Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant! Holy Week is not focused only on past historical events, it is focusing on our relationship today with Jesus Christ our Lord. We live in Christ in the present, not in the past.
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)
“In all of these savings deeds, God stoops down to His people. All that the Scriptures say about God’s walking, descending, bending down, being with, helping, bringing to birth, carrying, and so on, are simply different ways of describing God’s gracious condescension. Because man will not bow down to God, God, in His infinite humility, bows down to man. On the night He was betrayed, Christ set aside his garments, and stooped down to wash the feet of a man who would deny him three times (Jn. 13. 4-6). That’s how God was with the people of Israel. That’s how He is with everyone.” (Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra , The Way of the Spirit, p 301)
God is humble, and humbly serves us. God the Son became a servant in order to serve and to save us. He washes His disciples feet as an act of humble service before offering His life – His body and blood- for the salvation of the world. He serves us His Body in the Liturgy, the institution of which we celebrate on Holy Thursday evening. St. Ignatius of Antioch says:
Christ offers Himself up to become the Bread of Life.
“I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. . . . Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (J0hn 6:51-56)
Christianity is a religion of both anticipation and fulfillment. The Old Testament anticipates the New. Our life in the Church anticipates our life in the Kingdom of God which is to come.
“When the disciples asked Christ where they should prepare the Passover meal, they were of course talking about the Jewish Passover. And that was what they prepared. ‘Whereas our Passover, the Christian Passover, has been prepared by Christ. And He has not only prepared it, but He Himself has become the Passover.’ At the Last Supper, Christ celebrated both the Jewish and the Christian Passover, ‘both the Passover that was the type and the Passover that was the reality. Christ was doing exactly what an artist does when on the same canvas he first draws an outline and puts in the shading, and then adds the actual colors. At the very same table, He both sketched out the Passover that was a type and added in the true Passover.’ (St. John Chrysostom)” (Hiermonk Gregorios, THE DIVINE LITURGY: A COMMENTARY IN THE LIGHT OF THE FATHERS, p 3)
God had placed the first humans He created in a garden filled with luscious fruits to be eaten at will. Food was thus given as a way for us to commune with our Creator. At the last supper, we see fruit – the grape – now crushed into wine – being transfigured into the Blood of Christ. The world crushes the grape to make wine; Christ uses the wine to restore us to health. Food becomes communion with God again.
“Before Christ was crucified, He celebrated the Divine Liturgy (c.f. Luke 22:19-20) – the remembrance of His Passion on the Cross. And He commanded us to celebrate it in the same way: to recall those things that seem ‘to betoken weakness, namely the Cross, the Passion and death’. Why, we may ask, when Christ said, ‘This is my Body, this is my Blood’, did He not add ‘…which raised the dead, which healed lepers’, but only ‘…which is broken for you, which is poured out for your sake’? Why does He not recall His miracles, but rather His Passion? ‘Because the Passion was more necessary than the miracles… His Passion is the very cause of our salvation…. Whereas the miracles took place in order that it might be believed that the Lord is truly the Savior.’ (St. Nicholas Cabasilas) Miracles are a confirmation of Christ’s divinity; the holy Passion offers us salvation and Christ the Savior.” (Hiermonk Gregorios, THE DIVINE LITURGY: A COMMENTARY IN THE LIGHT OF THE FATHERS, p 72)
Salvation gives not just sanity to our minds, or eternity to our souls, it brings healing to our bodies as well. And not only to our bodies, but all of creation is transformed by the death and resurrection of Christ through whom the world was created and redeemed.
“We must not forget that this commemoration is a commandment. At the Last Supper, when Christ imparted the mystery of His Body and Blood to His disciples, He commanded them to continue to ‘do this’ in commemoration and declarations of Him and His New Covenant with man. […]
While there are many and diverse themes running through the hymns of Holy Week, one theme that may get lost because we focus on the events in Christ’s last week of life on earth leading to His crucifixion is the call to us to imitate Christ in service to others. While we find emotionally powerful meditating on how Christ’s suffering saves ME, the hymns speak to us about what it means to be a disciple, a Christian, a follower of Christ, namely to love the other. The crucifixion is not about self love or saving myself, it is about self sacrifice for the salvation of others. Christ actually said very little to us about forming sentimental or emotional attachments to or fixations on His life or His suffering. He does however at the Last Supper wrap himself in the towel of a servant, wash His disciple’s feet and then tell us to imitate Him in serving others. This is a major part of Holy Week, and at one point some considered foot washing to be a sacrament in the Church. It is a sacrament, which like baptism, is lived out daily far beyond the bounds of the liturgical ritual.
Consider for example the Holy Tuesday Aposticha hymn:
LET US WORK ZEALOUSLY FOR THE MASTER,
FOR HE DISTRIBUTES WEALTH TO HIS SERVANTS.
LET EACH OF US ACCORDING TO HIS ABILITY
INCREASE HIS TALENT OF GRACE:
LET ONE BE ADORNED IN WISDOM THROUGH GOOD WORKS;
LET ANOTHER CELEBRATE A SERVICE IN SPLENDOR.
THE ONE DISTRIBUTES HIS WEALTH TO THE POOR;
THE OTHER COMMUNICATES THE WORD TO THOSE UNTAUGHT.
THUS WE SHALL INCREASE WHAT HAS BEEN ENTRUSTED TO US,
AND, AS FAITHFUL STEWARDS OF GRACE,
WE SHALL BE ACCOUNTED WORTHY OF THE MASTER’S JOY.
MAKE US WORTHY OF THIS, CHRIST OUR GOD,
IN YOUR LOVE FOR MANKIND.
The hymn calls to mind Christ’s Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) in which the servants are expected to do something with the gifts, wealth and resources the master gave them. The hymn also ties in St. Paul’s discussions on the gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4:11-14). Thus in the midst of Holy Week, we are reminded of our responsibility as Christians to serve one another, the Church and the world itself. We are not called merely to contemplate the life and work of Christ – we are called to imitate Christ through the work that we do to His glory. We are called to use the gifts and wealth that God has bestowed upon us in service of others. That is a lesson of Holy Week that can be lost while we are so busy thinking about what Christ has done for me. (We would do well also to remember Christ’s parable of the Last Judgment which we read as part of our preparation for keeping Lent). Consider the Holy Thursday Matins hymn known as the IKOS:
Let us all approach the mystical table in fear
and receive the Bread with pure souls;
and let us stay with the Master so that we may see
how He washes His disciples’ feet and wipes them with a towel.
Let us do as we have seen Him do,
submitting to one another and washing one another’s feet,
for Christ Himself thus commanded His disciples.
But the servant and deceiver Judas did not take heed.
[Take special note: Judas did not take heed to the lessons being offered by Christ at the Last Supper! Certainly we are being warned not to be like or imitate Judas. We are to imitate our LORD Jesus Christ and be a servant instead of being self-serving.]
The liturgical commemoration of the Mystical Supper and the washing of the disciples’ feet in the hymns does not just focus on the historical events but calls us to imitate Christ in becoming servants one to another. The hymns remind us not to get lost in the beauty of the services or in contemplating past history, but to learn the lessons offered to us by Christ about being servants and to get up and imitate Him in our relationship to the Church and our fellow Christians. [Unfortunately, in current Orthodox liturgical practice and in many Orthodox parishes the commemoration of the Mystical supper and the foot washing (done at Holy Thursday Vespers) is given secondary status as the pious focus has become the crucifixion of Christ as commemorated in the Holy Friday Matins service – a piety which seems more Western and Protestant than Orthodox. It is Western piety, particularly Protestant, which places almost exclusive emphasis on the crucifixion of Christ as being the act of salvation. This emphasis is true to Western Christian theology’s focus on justification and the substitutionary death of Christ, but totally downplays the incarnation and ignores salvation as the union of God with humanity. It turns a blind eye and deaf ear to the theology of the incarnation, to sacramental theology and to salvation as deification. But I digress.]
One final hymn from the Aposticha of Holy Thursday:
INSTRUCTING YOUR DISCIPLES IN THE MYSTERY, LORD,
YOU SAID TO THEM:
MY BELOVED, SEE THAT NO FEAR SEPARATES YOU FROM ME.
THOUGH I SUFFER, IT IS FOR THE SAKE OF THE WORLD.
LET ME NOT BE A CAUSE OF SCANDAL TO YOU.
I CAME, NOT TO BE SERVED, BUT TO SERVE,
TO GIVE MYSELF FOR THE REDEMPTION OF THE WORLD.
IF YOU ARE MY FRIENDS, THEN IMITATE ME.
LET THE FIRST AMONG YOU BE THE LAST.
LET THE MASTER BE LIKE THE SERVANT.
ABIDE IN ME AND BEAR FRUIT, FOR I AM THE VINE OF LIFE.
The hymn calls us to imitate Christ in servant leadership, in humility, in bearing spiritual fruit (see also my blog Hierarchical Power: Self-Appointed Tyranny? Which likewise looks at some hymns from Holy Week). The hymns do discuss the historical events of Holy Week, but don’t direct our attention to the past, but rather tell us Holy Week teaches us how to live in the present: as imitators of Christ. Sometimes Orthodox are tempted always and only to look to the past, or to look to the future Kingdom of Heaven. But our hymns tell us not to be so heavenly minded so as to be of no earthly good, as Oliver Wendell Holmes quipped. Rather we are to live the divine presence today in our lives as we related to others. We are called not just to meditate on Christ’s life, but to imitate it. Tradition is not a focus on how things were done in the past, but is a living Tradition – it tells us how to live in the present to prepare ourselves for the future.
On Holy Thursday we commemorate the Last Supper, the Mystical Supper, which Christ held with His disciples. This is the institution of the Holy Eucharist, our union with the Incarnate Lord.
“This food we call Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake except one who believes that the things we teach are true, and has received the washing [Baptism] for forgiveness of sins and for rebirth, and who lives as Christ handed down to us. For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Savior being incarnate by God’s work took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of prayer which comes from him, from which flesh and blood and nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus.” (St.Justin the Martyr 150 A.D. in Alkiviadis C. Calivas’ book Essays in Theology and Liturgy Volume Three – Aspects of Orthodox Worship, pg.164)
Reading through the four Gospels, one can see that the original twelve disciples are not sinless, perfect or infallible. On the most basic level one of the Twelve denies Jesus and one betrays Him. More frequently they don’t understand Him, and by the end of Mark’s Gospel they all have abandoned Him.
“Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they sat at table; and he upbraided them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.” (Mark 16:14)
Jesus does upbraid and rebuke the glorious disciples for their failures. On one occasion, quite famously, Jesus called Peter, the head of the Apostles, “Satan.”
“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.’ (Matthew 16:21-23)
Jesus was not afraid to severely rebuke the Apostles when they failed, in order to teach, correct and exhort them. Are we not to imitate Christ? An errant Apostle is to be rebuked and straightened out by Christ, whose Body we are. The successors to the Apostles are not greater than the Twelve.
One of the most heart-wrenching scenes concerning the Apostles, comes from the Last Supper.
“And when it was evening he came with the twelve. And as they were at table eating, Jesus said, ‘Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.’ They began to be sorrowful, and to say to him one after another, ‘Is it I?’” (Mark 14:17-19)
“Is it I, Lord?”
None was totally sure of himself. They were each terrified by the possibility that they would be the one who betrayed Christ. Note: they don’t deny the possibility. Because they each have to ask, they each recognize they could do it, or perhaps, had already considered it.
Those first disciples at least had the humility and self awareness to question themselves regarding the accusation from Christ that one of them would betray Him. As true disciples of the Master, they were humble, and had learned introspection; they each knew the value of self examination, truthfulness and repentance. Each recognized that one of them could and would betray the Lord was realistically a possibility. Each honestly wondered about himself.
“…and as they were eating, he said, ‘Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.’ And they were very sorrowful, and began to say to him one after another, ‘Is it I, Lord?’” (Matthew 26:21-22)
They were sitting with Christ, eating with Him, and yet admitting to themselves and to Christ: they could not only fail Him but even turn against Him. What does it take for an Apostle, or their successors, to recognize that one of their own will or has turned against Christ?
The 12 Apostles could be humble and recognize that each of them could fail Christ, betray Him, or sin against Him. They were not hierarchs who do not or cannot admit error, sin, failure or foible. They did not circle the wagons around each other, self defensively and in opposition to Christ or the world. How terribly awesome that self admission, the heart of a penitent: “I can betray Him” – I, the Apostle, one of the chosen Twelve. They were afraid, but not of what people would think of them, nor of making a mistake, or admitting they were wrong. They were afraid because they admitted to their own self-willed sinfulness.
“’For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!’ Then they began to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do this. A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.” (Luke 22:22-24)
Just one second after pausing to recognize that one of them would betray Christ – again, they don’t deny that this could happen, they are trying to figure out which one of them would do it – they begin to argue among themselves which one of them was to be regarded as greatest! They obviously are already jockeying for power and prestige, each already forgetting his terrifying realization of the last minute that he might betray Christ. Jesus immediately and once again rebukes their failure and wrong attitude.
It is how the Christ speaks to one who strays from being a disciple. It is how the Body of Christ is to imitate Him. Rebuke the disciple who strays, and recognize that the one who betrays Christ and the Apostolic fellowship, disciple though he be, has left the fellowship, like Judas.
The arrest means Canadian authorities believe the allegations have sufficient merit to warrant a trial. The OCA’s Synod of Bishops had in their recent meeting (November 15-18) also approved a commission to look into these allegations.
However painful such a story is for the Church, the Church as an institution was called into existence to deal with sin in the world by our Lord Jesus Christ. The purpose of the Church is to deal with sin and sinners, and now we will see how the Church, with its very human leaders deals with sin and sins, not only in the world, but in the Church.
While news within the church of allegations of misconduct comes as a shocking surprise and is often met with incredulity, I am much reminded of the Gospel lesson of the Last Supper as recorded in Mark 14:16-23 (and the parallel account in Matthew 26:19-30):
And the disciples set out and went to the city, and found it as he had told them; and they prepared the passover. And when it was evening he came with the twelve. And as they were at table eating, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” They began to be sorrowful, and to say to him one after another, “Is it I?” He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with me.For the Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it.
Images of the last supper resonate with us not only because of Holy Thursday and iconography but more because of Holy Communion which we receive each week. We understand the event of the Mystical Supper to be one of high points of the liturgical remembrance of Christ during Holy Week – for Communion becomes our real participation in the life of Christ, in His death and resurrection as members of His Body.
In the midst of this Mystical and sacramental participation in Christ, we see the Twelve Disciples one by one verbalizing the fear of their own hearts: “Is it I, Lord?!?” For Christ informs them around the Eucharistic table that one of them is going to betray Him. Each disciple does not express the firm conviction and disbelief, “No! It is not true, don’t say that, Lord.” They each do not ask, “How can you say that, Lord?” Rather each one asks aloud, “Is it I, Lord?” Is it I, chosen apostle, one of the Twelve, who will betray you? They each knew themselves.
What a scene! The chosen and holy apostles each is able to vocalize that dreaded fear, “Is it I who will betray you, Lord?” For each in that moment realized the truth and the depth of his own heart: for each it was a possibility. We each need to think about this truth before we rush to judgment or lose all faith in the Apostles or the Apostolic Church. “Is it I, Lord, who can betray you?” “Is it I, Lord, who does betray you by my sins?”
We deceive ourselves if we believe that church leaders are sinless for “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). All includes priests, bishops, apostles, and saints. We each stand in church as sinners, perhaps penitents, perhaps seeking forgiveness and mercy, perhaps redeemed by Christ, but sinners nonetheless.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)
This is the reality the Church claims to believe. It is not for nothing that before receiving the Eucharist we recite in the creedal prayer, “Neither like Judas will I give you a kiss.” The incredible truth about us as disciples is we are human and we are capable of betraying Christ – not only that, but betraying Him by the kiss of peace. We do contemplate Judas each Holy Week as well, as a reminder of what it is to be human.
The reality of humans, the reality which God so grudgingly acknowledges in Genesis 6:6 and 8:21 in the story of Noah and the great flood, is that there is evil in the heart of humans even from when we are young.
We are created in God’s image and likeness, capable of bearing God in us, capable of theosis. We also are beings in whose hearts evil can and does dwell. Both are the truths about humanity, and both are supposed to be included in how the Church sees itself, its members, and the world. In the Church we deal with truth, even when it is painful and cuts to the heart. “Is it I, Lord?”
Tonight we commemorate the Mystical Supper – the last meal Christ ate with His disciples before His death and Resurrection. We call it the Mystical Supper because Christ gave the bread and wine of the Passover Meal new meaning and importance by declaring we are to eat this meal in memory of Him, and by saying the bread and wine have mystically become His Body and His Blood. We tonight enter into that story as the other disciples of Christ – we too are invited to the Mystical Supper, to the table with the other disciples, invited by our Lord Jesus Christ. We are not simply remembering a 2000 year old historical event, nor are we merely re-enacting it. Rather we are “remembering” the event. How can we “remember” something we weren’t there to witness? Because the remembering of the Liturgy places us in the event. We are receiving this Body and Blood of Christ with the first apostles, not in the upper room, but in the Kingdom of Heaven. We join the Communion of the Apostles whose icon is ever before in this church. We are receiving the Body and Blood of the risen Lord – we already know the resurrection, we are not pretending to go back to a time before the resurrection. Time is not of the essence in the mystical celebration of an historical event. We enter into the Gospel story fully knowing the end of the story. We know what the disciples did not know, but we don’t go back in time to a date in which we too don’t know that is to happen. The Gospel writers wrote the story years after the Resurrection and the Gospel narrative assumes we have a knowledge of the Resurrection. The Gospel writers, the Gospel we read, and we ourselves all see the story of the Mystical Supper from the vantage point of Knowing Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord. The Gospel narrative didn’t end with the crucifixion of Christ, nor was it written before the Resurrection was known and proclaimed. So we see the story, hear the story and participate in the Last supper as believers in the Resurrection. The only Christ we know is the Risen CLord. We know what even the chosen 12 Disciples did not know on the night that Jesus was given up, or rather gave Himself up for the life of the world. Our faith in Jesus Christ risen from the dead brings us to the same table as the original 12 chosen disciples. Our faith brings us into the Gospel story and places us in the presence of all of these who have believed. Our communion is not only with Christ, but also with His chosen 12, with Mary His mother, and with all the martyrs and saints who have believed throughout history.
We are not re-enacting the events of 2000 years ago. We are not trying to walk along and experience what Christ experienced, or what the disciples experienced.
Christ for us is always the RISEN LORD. We are not searching for the historical Jesus, for we believe in the RISEN Lord. The Gospel lessons were written by those who already knew and believed in Christ risen from the dead.
We view all of the events of Christ’s life from the vantage point of the resurrection, of God’s victory over sin, death, Satan and all evil.
We don’t pretend that the suffering of Christ is unbearable. For we know the Gospel Story of Christ through our faith in Who He IS, not through who what the disciples didn’t understand of failed to believe. Though it is true that our reaction to the Risen Christ may be the same incredulity and misunderstanding that the disciples themselves demonstrated.
We now stand with all those who believe in the resurrection of Christ. We stand tonight with those who know who Jesus is – the Christ, the Son of God, risen from the dead. The details in the 4 Gospel accounts do differ at points, but the faith of the Evangelists in Jesus Christ as Lord, risen from the dead, is one and the same in all 4 Gospels. Our experience is of this same Jesus Christ. The details of what happened are not quite as important as the truth about who Jesus is, and who we all receive into our hearts and lives when we believe in Him, when we hear proclaimed the Gospel, and when we receive Him in the Holy Eucharist.