On The Edge II: Hope

Thursday 21st April 2011
Maundy Thursday
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Blessing of the Oils, Foot Washing and Eucharist

I can still feel the shock when the priest put the host into my outstretched hand and then pressed hard upon it until it broke in two as she said: "Body of Christ, broken for you!" It was the sheer physicality, a truly, deeply sacramental moment which took away all the familiar emotions when receiving spiritual 'comfort food'.

This is that kind of night which combines the institution of the Eucharist in bread and wine with the blessing of the oil - that other element central to Judaism - the oil of comfort, healing and hope, and ending with Apostolic disarray; and all the tangled business of salvation in the balance.

From the point of view of the Apostles, these were bewildering times. It looks as if they had more or less barricaded themselves into the "upper room" where they ate a meal of fellowship and foreboding in the course of which Jesus - not for the first time, his followers must have noticed - departed radically from Jewish tradition, establishing a rite whose meaning would only become clear after the Resurrection in quite astounding words: "This my body" and "this is my blood".

So how are we supposed to react to this ultimate theological and liturgical schadenfreude? My answer is that we should live absolutely in the present, in the pain and the doubt, but also keep the future in view, the future of hope in the sacramental elements of bread, wine and oil. For although our immediate attention is drawn, through the new commandment, to love; this is our night of hope. Incidentally, we usually separate the Eucharistic elements from oil but I can't help thinking of the oil and wine poured by the Samaritan into the wounds of the traveller.

There is utter genius in the contrasting attributes of the Eucharistic element: bread stands for solidity and solidarity, for wholesomeness and reliability, for storage and sustenance; wine stands for risk and volatility, for good cheer and for ill temper, for an easing of self control, for uncharacteristic frankness but also for self indulgence and degradation. Those lists are too long to sort into tidy Packages but they represent not only our human strengths and weaknesses but also the salient virtues of Jesus and how he was assaulted for them.

It is difficult to know what the Apostles made of the events of the evening except that their fear and bewilderment was far more obvious than any comfort or inspiration they might have taken from the foot washing and the Eucharist. It is easy to see why.

But we must not make the same mistake. In spite of the terrible events in the Garden of Gethsemane, the environs of the High Priest's House and Pilate's Palace, this is a day of hope: the hope in the washing of feet, the comfort of oil and the sustaining spiritual food of the Eucharist.

This is no time for an extensive theological disquisition on the Eucharist and, after decades of study and wondering, I am beginning to be deeply suspicious of any mechanistic understanding of what happens. It seems to me that what is left to us after the Institution of the Eucharist is the guaranteed, true presence of Jesus with us and within us which constitutes the bedrock of our hope of a timeless life with God our Creator.

But this hope can only be realised when we have taken ourselves to the ultimate encounter with Jesus as he took himself to his ultimate encounter in obedience to the Father. In the institution of the Eucharist Jesus challenged those present to take him at his word; and he challenges us now to take him at his word, to recognise, in the power of the Spirit, the presence of Jesus with us in Word and Sacrament until the end of time.

As in his life Jesus emptied out his Godhead in an act of unique and supreme kenosis, so, as he approached his bodily death, on the edge of space and time, he bequeathed his kenosis in the Eucharistic act, giving himself to us, asking only in return that we should accept the gift of his very self in hope.

But there is a price for hope and that is the recognition of our own brokenness. Hope isn't really genuine if we think that we can go through life and death in a permanent state of self confidence and self assurance. This is not to say that we should court unpleasantness or pain for its own sake; but if it is to be truly hope enhancing, our encounter with ourselves must be stringent; we, too, in imitation of Christ need to undertake  our own painful, painstaking, inexorable kenosis, not only in the vulnerability of making space in love for all those around us but also making space for Jesus, in our brokenness, to come into our lives, replacing the baggage of our possessions and our history with an absolute openness to hope.