Holy Week 2019


Although there have been many attempts to understand the trade-off between piety and solidarity, notably by socio economic historians such as Weber, Fanfani and RH Tawney, it is difficult to avoid the general conclusion that the lurch in the 16th Century from public to private religiosity caused a deterioration of socio economic solidarity: in the late Medieval Western Church the punitive Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 would have been inconceivable. And so profound was this shift that it gripped the whole of Western Christianity well into the 19th Century and persisted in the Roman 'catholic Church until the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.

Thus, I was brought up in an ethos of personal piety without any mention of what later became known widely as "Catholic Social Teaching", where the Eucharist was a profoundly personal, almost erotic, experience which grew out of a certain understanding of Saint Thomas Aquinas. It was, therefore, quite a shock when I first read Liberation Theologians who made a direct connection between the liberation of Exodus, re-enacted at the Passover, and the institution of the Eucharist; that, far from being a matter of personal piety, the central function of the Eucharist is its expression of human solidarity. Quite apart from the far from intractable problem of whether the Last Supper was an actual Passover meal, we know from 1 Corinthians 11.17-22 that the Eucharistic meal was improbably and unconventionally egalitarian, following the tradition of improbably shared meals in the Gospels and confirmed in Acts 2.42-47 where the breaking of the bread is directly linked with holding all goods in common. In this respect, we are heirs to the tradition of socio economic justice in the Jewish Law and then proclaimed by the prophets; and that tradition is firmly based on the Exodus experience, on the liberation from domination, on the rule of Law.

It is always interesting, in that context, how often, when we hear the words "the rule of law", we think of criminal law, or the laws governing the relations between citizens and the state or between disagreeing citizens, and how little we think of the "rule of law" in terms of socio economic justice. But we are supposed to be a people of justice, delivered from the slavery of sin by the death of Jesus whose broken body was pre-enacted in Eucharist.

It is for this reason that the Eucharist cannot be limited to the personally pietistic: the 16th Century might have altered the balance of our perceived obligations from the public to the personal but we know too much now about inter dependence and about the way other people endure their lives to be able to escape from our obligations as liberated, Easter people; and, in any case, if we see the Eucharist in the full life of the Old Testament there is no avoiding the conclusion that liberated people, both with Moses and in Christ, have a common heritage and a common purpose, a common history of pain and a common joy in liberation. Our seat at the Lord's Table, re-enacting the Last Supper, surely began when the Chosen People sacrificed the first Passover lambs before walking dry-shod through the Red Sea.