The Eucharistic Exodus

Sunday 7th April 2019
Year C, The Fifth Sunday of Lent
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
2 Chronicles 35.1-6; 35.10-16
Luke 22.1-3

I was brought up in a pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic religious ecology which consisted almost entirely of Papal dogma, Magnificent ritual the Four Gospels and the Epistles of Saint Paul. Outside very sketchy Old Testament stories of Noah and Moses, with vivid coloured drawings and sparse text, I knew nothing of the Old Testament; and, indeed, I did not get to grips with it until the turn of the Century when I began to study it intensively.

Naturally, the study of such a massive corpus of sacred writing underlying our Christian tradition taught me many things but the one key message for me was that the Eucharist, far from being an intensely personal, pious ritual was in fact an emphatically public, political act. Oppressed peoples, notably African Americans and their preachers and Latin Americans and their Liberation Theologians, appealing to the story of Exodus, knew this but the physical proximity of the Vatican to the Italian Communist party had warped its judgment such that terrible injustice was tolerated for fear of an even greater evil. Nobody knew precisely how many people Stalin had sent to their deaths because of their Christian faith (or for any other reason) and we had not reached a time when we could laugh at the picaresque machinations of Don Camillo and Mayor Pepone, as America's Senator Joseph McCarthy scourged supposedly dangerous Communist adherents, the recent followers of America's Second World War ally.

Nonetheless, the treatment of the Eucharist as a personal matter renders it, ironically, ultra Protestant, sealing a quasi erotic relationship with Jesus; but my discovery of the connection between the Last Supper and the Exodus story changed all that.

It might be objected immediately that although the Synoptic Gospels say that the Last Supper was a Passover Meal, the Gospel of John says it was not. The issue is further complicated by the judicial impossibility of Jesus being condemned and executed within 24 hours which Jewish Law forbade. There is a hint of a clue in our Reading from Luke's Gospel where we see the unlikely figure of a man carrying water. What kind of man would do that? Well, as it turns out, a community of celibate Essenes, not dissimilar to those who lived at Qumran, would have to fetch their own water; and, further, Professor Colin Humhreys who combines an unlikely expertise in astronomical measurement with theology, has shown that the problem with the Gospels was that they were using different calendars and that the Essenes used a third calendar. He thus concludes that Jesus held a Passover Meal in an Essence House on Wednesday evening, with Jesus being arrested early on Thursday, tried and found guilty on that day, but condemned and crucified on Friday.

However that may be, the central theme of the Last Supper, Passover Meal or not, still stands. Jesus was consciously following in the Exodus tradition, cited in our Reading from 2 Chronicles, when he undertook to free the Jews from their collective sin and an ultimate time of trial with the forces of evil "according to the Scriptures" and he then promised that his own followers would likewise be both freed from sin and then spared from the ultimate trial which is why, incidentally, the translation of "spare us from the time of trial" as "Lead us not into temptation" in the Lord's Prayer falls far short of the climactic reality.

Thus, Baptism, in creating us as Disciples, in succession with those at the Last Supper, frees us from the consequences of worldly Sin although, of course, it does not mean that we never sin, individually or collectively by commission or omission; the problem here, magnified to terrifying proportions in the Middle ages, leading people to be baptised on their deathbeds, is the confusion between human Sinfulness, from whose consequences Jesus set us free, and human frailty in making wrong choices which we call sins.

Baptised Disciples of Jesus, freed from the consequences of human Sinfulness, we corporately affirm our liberation in our communion with Christ in the Eucharist. This is not an individual ritual of piety but a public affirmation that we share in and are committed to promote the Gospel, the Good News. Thus, it turns out that the historical dispute about the nature of the Eucharist between Medieval Catholicism and 16th Century Protestantism was no more than a dog fight in a cul de sac; the major dispute, running across all the denominations of Western Christianity, has been between the pietists and the evangelists, the protectors of the Good News and its promoters, reflecting not a little the conundrum in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose whether the librarians were protecting information for the people or from the people.

Today is what is traditionally called "Passion Sunday", effectively the last day before Good Friday on which we can preach the Cross of Christ Crucified. So let me end by trying to fit all the pieces into a coherent whole: the death of Jesus on the Cross in solidarity with our created imperfection (or Sinfulness) was a necessary precursor to his conquest of the consequences of that imperfection in that his Resurrection, conquering death, also conquered death for us as the consequence of our imperfection. Why God should have given us free will whose consequences required the death of God in human form to correct matters is the greatest mystery of the whole Christian enterprise. Nonetheless, our Baptism in discipleship confirms us in the fruits of Christ's death and Resurrection and our Eucharist proclaims to the world what we share and what we wish for the whole world.

That, admittedly, is a great deal to take in, but  if the only thing we take away from this reflection is the idea that the Eucharist is, above all, part of our public mission and not simply an aid to our private piety, we will have made some progress along the missionary road which began with the first sacrifice of the Passover lamb and the passage of the Chosen People dry shod through the Red Sea.