It is a well-known fact that Anglo-catholics love parties. Many of us make all sorts of weird and wonderful commitments for Lent, no doubt inspired by sound Tractarian piety, sacrificing those things on which we gorge ourselves when nobody is looking, or indeed when they are, setting aside some of the luxuries of this life, to focus on
Tonight we celebrate once more, as we do daily in this church, the foretaste of that Anglo-catholic soirée par excellence – the heavenly banquet which is the reward of the faithful, where the canapés never run out, the cellar is never dry, the company simply divine. Here tonight we feast on Christ himself, the Bread of Life; we slurp the new wine of the kingdom; we are spread liberally with full-fat grace. Tonight we are united with Christ, as at every celebration of the Eucharist, as though for the first time – all that has been passes away, and we are renewed through his mercy, and restored to his Body. This night, we start the long journey to Easter morning, which is full of all the emotional heights and depths of human existence, but we do not start with a sermon from Our Lord, instructions or some great fanfare, we start with a dinner party.
Last summer, I spent nearly eight weeks studying in Jerusalem, during which time I lived with some Jewish students. We became great friends in that time, and shared a number of Shabbat dinners together. The weekly Shabbat dinner, something akin to our ‘Sunday Roast’ tradition, bears some of the marks of ritual and symbolism which are central to the Seder meal, the first meal of the eight-day Feast of the Passover, the observance of which is commanded in the passage from the book of the Exodus which we just heard. Sat as we were in a modern apartment block in the twenty-first century, sharing bread and wine and other kosher delicacies, it was easy to imagine what that Passover was like in Jerusalem with Our Lord and his friends.
When we celebrate this sacred meal in the fashion to which we are accustomed, it can be easy for us to forget the party which is its real setting. We can easily isolate the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood from the historical and universal event which is its proper locus. We must recall the upper room, the glass and concrete tower block of modern Jerusalem, the party, the friends, and there find ourselves alive with Christ; and in the uniting with him in his body, find ourselves united to his whole being, undergoing all that the saviour undergoes, as the great sacramental mystic, St Nicholas Kabasilas wrote. It is not enough to simply receive the Sacrament as an objective reality, the Body of Christ turned into some kind of ‘grace pill’, but in the receiving of the Sacrament, we must unite ourselves wholly to the life of Christ.
In this way the Sacrament, as the whole of the life of God With Us given to us, should be deeply unsettling; for the Life which is given to us, the Life whose Spirit dwells in the Church, and to which we are conformed, is not the life of a revelling care-free party-goer. The Christ who ever-lives in the sacraments, and supremely in this Sacrament of the Altar, is the Christ born in a cow shed in a back-water village, forced into exile as a refugee, pursued and persecuted by the religious establishment, executed under the Roman governor by popular demand. The Christ of the Sacrament whom we worship as Eternal High Priest and King is the same Christ who feeds the hungry, who heals the sick, who comforts the sinner, who admonishes and exhorts, who wanders in the wilderness, who laughs at the wedding and weeps at the death of Lazarus. It is this Christ to whom we are united in the Sacrament; this Christ whose life we share.
Union with Christ, then, belongs to those who have undergone all that the saviour has undergone… Kabasilas understood that the power of the sacraments lies in their ability to conform those who participate in them, as both recipient and conduit of grace, to Christ in a real union. There is no religious legalism here, but all the informality of a party. Through the sacraments, and daily in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, we are made to be one with this Christ, sharing in all that he has done for us, becoming not merely like him, but really him in his Body. If we treat the sacraments as something separate from complete life in Christ, as some snack for the journey or points on a score-card with St Peter at the pearly gates, then we will fail to undergo all that Christ has undergone, we will fail to die his death with him and be raised to life in him, we will miss the point of the Incarnation, and reduce it to a distant memory of something we once heard about.
This union with Christ of which Kabasilas writes, and in which we participate in the Church through the sacraments and through the ordering of our lives at times such as this, is one which St Paul knew well. He writes in his letters time and time again of the intimacy of his relationship with Christ, such that he is able to say that it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. Something of the oneness which Paul experienced with Christ comes through in that passage from 1 Corinthians read earlier, the passage which recalls the institution of the Eucharist, and is probably our earliest reference to it, written some time in the mid-50s AD; for he makes an extraordinary claim: I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you. Of course, Paul never met Jesus in any every-day sense, yet he considered that he received the Eucharist from him. The mystical union which Paul enjoyed with Christ was so real, that he could claim to have received the institution of the Eucharist personally, and has the authority to pass it on to his communities. Paul had undergone all that the saviour had undergone through union with him: Paul was crucified with Jesus, alive again in him, living as him.
And that’s why the setting of the institution of the Eucharist in this liturgy, on this night, is so essential to remember. The perpetual source of our unity in Christ, our participation in the Sacrament of the Altar, is set in a party-gone-wrong. This Maundy Thursday night, a guest usurps the host; he who is ritually impure, contaminated by sinners, presumes to do something new at this Passover meal, taking the ancient meaning of the Exodus, God’s liberation of his people from captivity, translating it to himself; he who reclines at table as one amongst friends, though undoubtedly an unusually charismatic figure, stops the dinner party where it is, to perform an act of self-debasing service; Jesus, who is the Eternal Word of God among humans, taking upon himself the role of a servant, and washes the feet of his friends.
It must have been something of a scandal for Jesus to get down on the floor, and start washing their feet. Feet are, after all, one of the most intimate parts of the body, at least in the Old Testament, where ragal (foot) is often used as a euphemism for the genitals. Jesus was making two statements in his actions: one of humility in doing the duty of a domestic servant, presumably to the dishonouring horror of his host and certainly to the shock of his disciples, and one of great physical intimacy – nothing is beyond the touch of God. But this behaviour also requires a surprising degree of humility and trust from that group gathered for the dinner in Jerusalem, and from those who participate in our liturgy tonight. To offer oneself, the intimacy of our own physicality, to Christ, in order that he who is Lord over all creation may wash and wipe our feet, requires us to be like him, united to him. In this sacramental moment, done in memory of him, like the Eucharist, we encounter Christ’s life wholly, and we are made to be one with him, sharing his flesh, and undergoing all that he has undergone.
The setting of that first Eucharist was a scandal. The supper itself was scandalized by Jesus’ seizing the Exodus narrative and making it his own. The dinner was brought to an abrupt halt by the scandal of the somewhat presumptuous guest taking it upon himself to wash the feet of his friends. The Sacrament is a scandal to us in the proper sense of the Greek word which means a thing which makes us fall – it is nothing less than the broken body of the Christ who caused the upset at the dinner party, and whose whole life is united to ours as we undergo all that the Saviour has undergone. The scandal of the Sacrament becomes ever more apparent to us in these days of the Great Triduum: right now, it’s all glorias, white vestments and light; soon it will mean abandonment, darkness, silence and tears. As Christ prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, as the Sacrament waits for us on the Altar of Repose, this Church which is the visible sign of his Body, the sacrament of our community life together, is made desolate. All that adorns it in beauty and reminds us of the heavenly banquet to come is seized; the table which is the symbol of Christ, the real altar of our salvation, is made naked before us, the sanctuary is abandoned to Death.
Maundy Thursday should cause us great discomfort, because it presents us with another one of those dichotomies which are at the heart of the Christian gospel. Tonight we have all the joy of the party and all the emptiness of death. In this Sacrament of the Eucharist we have a real foretaste of the heavenly banquet, a momentary glimpse of what life in Christ will be like; we are fed with the bread of life and the cup of salvation as we journey towards the Eternal City; and as we are ever-more conformed to him. But this life in Christ is not all gin and lace and canapés; it is affliction, abandonment, darkness and desolation; it is undergoing all that the saviour has undergone; it is the long, agonizing trudge through the filthy streets of the earthly Jerusalem, to the Cross of Calvary, which is the throne of Eternal Life.
 Kabasilas, N. The Life in Christ. Trans. C. de Catanzaro. Crestwood, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. (1974). 2.1.
 Galatians 2.20.