April 5, 2007, Holy Thursday, Cycle C
Do this in remembrance of me.
The Triduum readings are filled with parallels. Most of the obvious ones are the parallels that either the Gospel writers or Paul make between passages from the Hebrew Scriptures and what is taking place during the three days of Jesus' suffering, dying and then rising from the dead. Tonight we have the parallel between the first passover meal eaten by the Hebrews as they prepared to flee Egypt to freedom and the one that Jesus shares with his disciples before he dies on the cross to free us.
There is another parallel within the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper that I had never really focused on until I read a book by a wonderful poet and Dominican nun Elizabeth Michael Boyle. That is the parallel between the two main actions of the Last Supper that are told by John's Gospel on one hand, and all three of the synoptic Gospels on the other. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke the focal point of the Last Supper narrative is the blessing of the bread and wine and then its transubstantiation into his body and blood by Jesus. We hear an early scriptural account of this narrative in that second reading from Paul's letter to the Corinthians. Paul's account has Jesus say twice, "Do this in remembrance of me." And that important instruction is remembered each time we hear the words of consecration at Mass.
John's Gospel, which we heard a few minutes ago, has as the focal point of the Last Supper a different action: Jesus' washing his disciples' feet as a way of teaching them how to be a disciple of Jesus. Jesus explicitly tells the disciples that what he has done, they are to do as well. In other words, "Do this in remembrance of me."
What makes this parallel so interesting, as Sr. Elizabeth Boyle points out is that from the very earliest times in the church, these two parallel actions from the Last Supper have been treated very differently.
The sharing of the bread and wine as Christ's body and blood has been understood fairly literally. The signs and symbols of that action come down to us today in the Eucharist without change. The bread is Passover bread, unleavened bread made from wheat and water and nothing else. The wine is the fermentation of crushed grapes. The roles too have been somewhat literally understood with the one who speaks the words and effects that transubstantiation is the priest, one who has been ordained to act in the person of Christ. The words that we will hear in a few minutes at the consecration are the words that Jesus spoke.
On the other hand, the foot washing story has been transmitted with a very different understanding. From the very beginning, this story was understood much more metaphorically. The signs and symbols have been adapted to all sorts of human situations. We have no record of the early disciples of Christ gathering together for ritual foot washings. They did not and we do not understand the role of the one who serves to be reserved only for those who have been ordained to act in the person of Christ. And so we would see the carrying out of Jesus' directive to do as he has done in the foot washing ritual in the care of the sick and homeless and those who need help with basic human needs.
Our literal understanding of the institution of the Eucharist has given us a very rich and meaningful understanding of the sacramental priesthood. But tonight I would invite you to reflect on that story in a more metaphorical way. Not as a substitute for the more literal understanding but in addition to. Let us see if looking at it anew can give us a perspective that calls us to action in our common priesthood.
Using the parallel of the foot washing story, in which we clearly see Jesus, by his example, inviting all of us to be servants, to tend to the needs of those around us, to what does Jesus' actions in the institution of the Eucharist invite us? Sr. Elizabeth Boyle suggests that he commanding us to put our whole being, body and blood, into being disciples. In more mundane parlance, Jesus is inviting us to put some skin in the game. To be a disciple means more than just acknowledging Jesus as Savior; we must put our whole being behind that belief. As the Cardinal reminded the priests of the Archdiocese in his homily at the Chrism Mass on Tuesday, one cannot follow Jesus from a safe distance. Peter tried that on the night Jesus was arrested and found out around the fire that one cannot do that. To help our reflection, I would offer you the words of our communion hymn tonight. I would hope that you would listen to the words as you come up for communion or as you stand while others are receiving.
It starts out addressing the literal understanding of that story:
In remembrance of Me, eat this bread; in remembrance of Me, drink this wine.
In remembrance of Me pray for the time when God's own will is done.
Then it moves to the more metaphorical understanding:
In remembrance of me, heal the sick; in remembrance of me, feed the poor.
In remembrance of me, open the door, and let your brother in, let your sister in.
In remembrance of me, search for truth; in remembrance of me, always love.
In remembrance of me, don't look above, but in your heart, look in your heart for God
Do this in remembrance of me. Do this in remembrance of me.