We have entered the second pandemic Holy Week. Tonight we will embrace the sacred mysteries of the Triduum. This year, knowing a bit better what to expect, I felt we could not manage the Maundy Thursday foot washing, so are instead turning to the alternative gospel provided in the Book of Common Prayer: Luke 22:14-30. This passage focuses on the institution of the Holy Eucharist.
During this continuing time of isolation, we are reminded more than ever that Jesus inaugurated the Eucharist as a sign of unity and community. So many of us have had to fast from Eucharist for this past year, making it even more important to commemorate the gift of the Holy Communion as a means of strengthening fellowship in Christ. And God knows, many of us are weary of the precautions that are required to starve this pandemic of vicitms, but now is not the time to surrender our efforts to keep each other safe. Perhaps a reminder of the gift of communion will help renew our flagging resolve.
Communion is a radical act to remake the social order, and to draw us together toward each other and toward God without respect to ANY differences. We are reminded of this in the gospel passage, when, amazingly, a disagreement breaks out among the disciples right after they have participated in this sacred fellowship with Christ. Jesus says, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.”
This is sacrament: a making holy of ourselves regardless of place, rank or time. And tonight we will be called to remember the grace of the sacrament of Holy Communion that we received as a gift of Jesus even before his Passion, death, and resurrection. We were given this gift for our benefit, and for the benefit and service of the entire world—no exceptions.
What we see in the scene from Luke is that Jesus shared with his apostles the meal, and the bread and the wine—and at first all the disciples can think about is who if the greatest and most powerful among them. Likewise, in 1st Corinthians, the same letter in which Paul describes the Eucharist, Paul is forces to chastise the church there for attempting to use the agape meal and the Eucharist as ways to “Lord it over each other.” The Eucharist is meant to bring us into one body and instill us with one spirit- the spirit of fellowship and redemption. Thus, on Maundy Thursday, we—together, as a community of faithful seekers– memorialize the gift of the Eucharist, and the gift of self-denying servanthood to others that provides the entryway into the Three Days.
The Maundy Thursday liturgy moves us from a celebration of servanthood to, as in the conversion scene in John Masefield’s great poem of redemption and repentance, “The Everlasting Mercy.” Written in 1911, the poem begins by bluntly depicting its main character and narrator Saul Kane as a drunk, a cheat, a liar, a person who used people without conscience, and it did it so forthrightly that some critics called the poem “filth.” Yet even as Saul Kane loathes himself and those around him, he experiences a conversion that reorients him from selfish debauchery to wonder, awe, and gratitude at the love and presence of Christ in his life. He sees Christian symbolism in a simple gate to a field, the furrows. He feels clearly the presence of Christ alongside himself and everyone, even the farmer named Callow trudging dutifully behind his team of horses pulling the plow. The poem ends with a plea to Jesus to plow his heart as thoroughly as Callow and his team are preparing the fallow field. Saul kneels in the mud, his heart open to God, and entreats Jesus to making him a fertile field in God’s kingdom:
O Christ who holds the open gate,
O Christ who drives the furrow straight,
O Christ, the plough, O Christ, the laughter
Of holy white birds flying after,
Lo, all my heart’s field red and torn,
And Thou wilt bring the young green corn,
The young green corn divinely springing,
The young green corn forever singing;
And when the field is fresh and fair
Thy blessèd feet shall glitter there,
And we will walk the weeded field,
And tell the holden harvests’s yield,
The corn that makes the holy bread
By which the soul of man is fed,
The holy bread, the food unpriced,
Thy everlasting mercy, Christ.
— John Masefield, from “The Everlasting Mercy”
Saul is converted from an angry misanthrope to a transformative certainty of his interconnectedness with all his fellow-townspeople, many of whom he once held in contempt, as well as with creation as a whole.
As we gather together on Maundy Thursday, even if virtually, may we too see our lives as blessing, as reflected in our relationship with each other and with God through the mediation of the gospel of love Jesus brings to us. Awed and grateful, may we take and present the gifts of bread and wine, gifts that, as the liturgy reminds us, “earth has formed and human hands have made.” May we think of the young green wheat singing in the field, gathered and made into the tangible proof of Christ’s everlasting mercy as it is blessed and shared from the altar. As it is made into the stuff of redemption and reconciliation, may we too become the servants of Christ’s gospel. And may we join in the song of gratitude. Together.
Thus encouraged and fed, may we seek to serve each other, especially in this time of pandemic, as the highest use of our precious lives, embodying Christ’s love for the life of our neighbors.
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a writer, musician, and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts daily prayers, meditations, and sermons at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.