A Night With a Difference

Homily at St Philip Evans for Maundy Thursday, 2017.

“Why is this night different from all others?”

Earlier this week, Jewish families around the world gathered to celebrate the Passover together. The youngest child able to speak would ask that question, and the father of the household would answer by telling the story of the first Passover, the story we heard part of in our First Reading.

The Jewish household would remember how, when they were slaves in Egypt, they were commanded to slaughter the first Passover lamb, and place its blood on their doorposts. Then they were to roast the lamb and eat it. Only those who had eaten of the lamb and marked their homes with its blood were protected when the Angel of Death passed over Egypt that night.

“Why is this night different from all others?”

We gather as a Christian community to celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, remembering how Jesus and his disciples gathered to celebrate a Passover meal. If you had lived in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, you would have witnessed thousands of families bringing their lambs to the Temple that day, to be slaughtered. It is said that the lambs would be hung, to bleed out, on a crossbar, and then skewered from head to tail to be roasted… the skewered lambs would look very much as if they had been fixed to a cross. (See this example.)

We are not told whether Jesus and the disciples had a roasted lamb at their table – the Bible only speaks of bread and wine. But lamb was present – Jesus himself, declared by John the Baptist to be the Lamb of God. That night, as St Paul reminded the Corinthians, he would take the cup of wine, and declare it to be his blood, which was to be shed for many. The following day, not a wooden doorpost, but a wooden cross, would be stained by the blood of this Lamb. Upon that Cross, the Firstborn Son of God would fall victim to the plague of death.

In the Jewish religion, it was strictly forbidden to drink blood, for blood represented life. Even for the first Christians, when they considered what Jewish laws new Christians should have to keep, abstaining from blood was one of the four laws they retained. Yet the Lord Jesus commanded us to drink his blood, in the form of wine.

Only those who ate the Passover lamb – save perhaps infants too young in the household marked by blood – would be protected from the plague of death. Just after feeding 5000 people with loaves multiplied abundantly, Jesus said “if you do not eat my body and drink my blood, you do not have life within me”. So although we are forbidden to drink the life of any mere creature, we are commanded to drink the blood of Our Divine Lord; we, mere humans, to drink the life of heaven and consume the bread of angels.

“Why is this night different from all others?”

We’re going to do something in this parish tonight we haven’t done before.

Tonight, we are going to bless wooden crosses which from now on will be worn by the extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion on duty at Mass. We’re doing this for a very practical reason – if a minister on duty is delayed and arrives late, that person can see on arriving if a substitute has taken the last cross and relieve them of it. But when we decided to give our ministers some insignia, we chose a very particular source for these crosses. This wood is tainted – it is stained by sin. It comes from wooden moulds used to make concrete blocks – blocks which form a wall separating communities from one another in the Holy Land. Some of the local people rescue this wood and carve crosses from it, trying to bring some good from a work of division. In this way, material used in the construction of an oppressive barrier is being employed by local craft workers to create a symbol of the triumph of life over death and of love over injustice. This wood is both shameful and redeemed.

A wooden cross with a Celtic-style ring around the joining of the barsThese insignia are in the form of a circle on a cross. We might think of it as a Celtic Cross. But since our ministers give us the Body of Christ in the form of a small round wafer, the circle might also remind us of Christ’s Body, hung on the Cross for our salvation – just as those ancient lambs were mounted on cruciform spits to be roasted for the Passover meal.

“Why is this night different from all others?”

After the death of the Firstborn, Pharaoh King of Egypt sent the Jews out on their journey into the wilderness. God would provide for them, in the wilderness, manna from heaven, honey-sweet bread which was a foretaste of the Promised Land.

Perhaps the world we live in today feels like a wilderness. Acts of terrorism and conflicts between nations are never far away. The manna from heaven was God’s promise that he would provide for his people as they journeyed towards their Promised Land.

This is our security. Will we go to heaven because of the good works that we have done? No. We who are followers of Jesus will go to heaven because we have the life of God within us; we have feasted on the Bread of Life and drunk the Cup of Salvation.

Tonight Jesus challenges us all to perform good works which make this life a little more like Heaven. But he also points us to those two days in history when wood was stained with blood so that God’s people would be saved from Death – that first Passover, when the firstborn sons of Israel were spared, and Good Friday, when our debts were paid and the price of our sin paid by the precious blood of the Lamb of God. Eat the flesh of this Passover Lamb. Drink the Blood of the Saviour who died for you. Rejoice, for when you hear the words, “The Body of Christ”, “The Blood of Christ”, hear God’s tender voice: “This is how much I love you.”

Much of tonight’s homily is based on Brant Pitre’s book The Jewish Roots of the Eucharistas was the teaching about the shewbread in my Christmas Sermon.

Join the “Serve One Another” Society

Homily at St Philip Evans for Maundy Thursday, 2016.

coffee-cupWould you like it Regular, Large, Extra-Large, Skinny or Superskinny? Fries, mash, or side salad? And which dressing will you have with that?

Choice. It’s all around us. As consumers, we’re told that we can have things the way we like it, when we want it. It’s part of the self-service society we now live it. At the supermarket, we can self-scan. At the airport, we can self-check-in. Shopping on-line, we can see a bewildering array of options and choose exactly what we want. It makes things cheaper for the companies, because we are doing more of the work ourselves. But this also comes with a price. That price is a kind of loneliness and isolation – and it sells us an illusion, the illusion that we are self-sufficient.

Sooner or later, most of us will need help. If we live to a ripe old age, we might need someone to cut our nails, manage our mobility or even provide all-round nursing care. As Christians, we will need to resist the temptation to say “I can do it myself, thanks” and receive the help on offer with good grace.

But Jesus wants us to do more than that. We don’t just help each other when we can’t manage. We help each other because we are one body with many parts, and the Church works best when allow ourselves to serve one another. There’s a cost to this too – if you let someone else help you, chances are you won’t get everything just the way you like it.

When I first became a priest, I learned quickly never to say “no” to offers of help if there was any way I could make use of that help. I also learned that while I could do things my way, it’s always best to let other people do things their way. Unless some important point of Health & Safety or Safeguarding is at stake, trying to make other people do things my way is a hiding to nothing!

Simon Peter is appalled when Jesus wants to wash his feet. But if Jesus is going to do it at all, then he should wash all of Simon’s body, right? No. Jesus does things differently. He wants to wash our feet and Peter learns to accept that with good grace. The Church is not part of the self-service society; quite the contrary. Jesus invites us to become the “Serve One Another” society. And that’s going to be messy. None of us will get things just the way we like it. But none of us is in charge of the Universe, so that’s OK.

Recently, the Gold Group, our parish “family group of families“, came to me with an offer. Could they serve coffee after Sunday Mass once a month? Of course, I said yes. It’s not going to be Starbucks or Costa. You won’t have all the options from Grande thru Superskinny. But it will be a chance for us to get to know each other better. For some months now, we’ve been praying “Invite me, Lord Jesus, to know you better through the people of my parish.” From next month, he will be inviting us to do just that once a month, over a drink in the Hall. So even if it’s not a convenient time, even if it’s not your favourite drink, I invite you tonight to make a decision. Each month, stay and be part of coffee time. More than that, offer to help out, or even to start Saturday evening coffee.

We don’t do a social gathering after Mass just because we enjoy it – we do it because our parish only becomes a strong parish when we network with one another. Moses told the Israelites to come together in one house where two families were too small to eat the Passover on their own. He commanded us to “wash one another’s feet” – but what he meant was we should find ways to serve one another which make sense in our own society. If we gather together, if we serve one another, if we get to know each other better, our parish will become what Christ is calling us to be.

“Copy what I have done,” said Jesus. It didn’t come with options – in fact there is only one option, regular. How regular? Eat this and drink this communion – every Sunday. Coffee after Mass, one Sunday per month. Your priest washing feet at Mass – once per year. So let those chosen for the footwashing come forward now.

Recommended: A TED talk on the perils of too much choice.

Do this, and remember!

Homily at St Philip Evans for Maundy Thursday, 2014.

Do this, and remember what God has done for you!Children around the table at a Passover Seder meal

Each of tonight’s readings from the Bible contains a command to “Do this, and remember.”

On Monday evening this week, Jewish communities around the world celebrated Passover. They gathered in their own homes, placed a symbolic meal on the table, a young member of the family asked, “Why are we doing this?”, and an elder told the story of how the Jewish people were able to leave Egypt because the homes marked with the blood of a Lamb were protected.

For well over three thousand years, Jewish families have done this in obedience to God’s command, which we have just read from the Book of Exodus.

Do this, and remember what God has done for you!

Each day, in Catholic Churches throughout the world, priests take bread and wine, and repeat the words of St Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, as he himself passes on what he learned from those who were with Jesus at the Last Supper. When we receive Holy Communion at Mass, we not only keep the Lord’s command to “take this and eat it,” we also re-tell the story of how Jesus died as the Lamb of God, the one sacrifice which makes up for all the sins of humanity. “When we eat this bread, and drink this cup, we proclaim your Death, O Lord, until you come again.”

Do this, and remember what God has done for you!

During the past year, Pope Francis has given us many powerful reminders of what it means to love our neighbours. He washed the feet of a Muslim woman last Maundy Thursday. His first official visit was to a camp for asylum seekers at Lampedusa. He invited homeless men to share breakfast with him on his birthday. He has challenged all of us to be a Church for the Poor. In doing this he has made a strong statement of the same kind which Our Lord made when he washed the feet of his disciples. We are to pour our lives out in service of others, following these examples.

Do this, and remember what God has done for you!

But… we must beware of becoming complacent consumers. If we are not careful, our religious duties become things we can “get done” once a week by going to Church. We go to Sunday Mass, receive Holy Communion, put some money in the CAFOD envelope or wall-box for Bulawayo, and contribute a few tins in the Foodbank.

To be sure, these are excellent things to do! But they are the easy part of our faith.

When Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, he reminded us that the true test of our faith was not what we give at the convenient times we choose, but how we help the needs of those whose paths cross ours in the most inconvenient ways. The true test of our love of neighbour is how generous we are when we stumble across the needs of others in our daily life.

The Jewish passover meal takes place in the family home, with each family member playing their part. Each Catholic home is also called to be a “domestic church,” where the great events of our faith are to be remembered as part of grace before meals and bed-time prayers. The true test of our love of God is not only that we come to Mass once a week, but that we invite God into our homes each day.

The command to “do this” is not one we can completely fulfil in Church tonight. At each Mass, the priest reminds us to “Do this in memory” of Jesus, and the Deacon sends us out to glorify the Lord with our words and actions. The Lord’s command is not carried out in its fullness until each and every worshipper lives it out daily in prayer and in works of charity. Tonight, together, we will remember the Lord washing feet, receive gifts for the Foodbank and celebrate the Eucharist. But tomorrow, and in the days to come, the responsibility is yours, to fulfil the Great Commandments to love God and love your neighbour. Each of one you will do it in your own way, but God trusts us so much that he has given the same command to each one of us:

Give thanks that Jesus has forgiven your sins and bought for you eternal life. Know that you, too, are called to be a Good Samaritan. Do this, and remember what God has done for you!

A Night to Remember

Homily at St John Lloyd, for Maundy Thursday, 2013

Jesus knew that his time had come to depart from this world. Another way of translating the Bible into English says that Jesus “showed the full extent of his love”; yet another, that he loved his disciples “to the very end”.

There are times in life when we have to say “Goodbye”.

When we recognise that an ending is approaching, we pay more attention, and some of the rules which otherwise apply can be set aside. Friends spending a day together might hug at the end, though they would not dream of cuddling otherwise. A fond farewell can be a precious memory which lasts a lifetime; an awkward farewell can sour the memory of a good relationship.

A time of parting is a moment when it becomes appropriate to let down our guard, to express love in a deeper way then we do in our ongoing relationships. I have always cherished the memory of a day after my final exams as an undergraduate, when I took a walk in the park with a close friend and we found ourselves holding hands. She was never my girlfriend, but because it was a parting, there was something beautiful, appropriate, and unforgettable about this moment of closeness before we went our separate ways.

Jesus is about to leave his chosen Disciples, and chooses to leave them with something to remember. Three of the Gospel writers explain how Jesus took the familiar passover ritual but gave it an unexpected twist – henceforth the unleavened bread would be his own Body, and the cup of wine, his Blood. Tonight, St John focuses on the humble action of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet in the same way that a household slave would have done. We might hear echoes of this in current political commentary about whether NHS nurses are keen to provide basic washing, feeding and toileting for less able patients. In one action, Jesus teaches us something about humility and something about service.

I wonder what the lesson might be for you?

In your life, is there someone who needs you, but whom you have been avoiding, for fear of what they might ask?

In your life, is there someone whose presence you take for granted, but who might really appreciate an affectionate word or gesture?

In your life, are there duties of care which have become routine or burdensome, which need to be approached with a renewed decision to make present the love of God?

I know that sometimes churches use this Maundy Thursday service as an opportunity to invite all the parishioners to take part in some symbolic action of mutual service. I’m not going to do that here and now, because the “director’s instructions” in the Missal ask us to use this special time in the year to re-enact what Jesus did at the Last Supper – washing the feet of the men he had chosen to be his leading disciples. Part of the power of the symbol is that it is a man serving men – one woman tending to another’s body would not be such an unusual sight.

Liturgy is normally about taking part, but this one action is different. For most of us, we will be spectators, not participants. This is deliberate – because you are invited to watch and remember. Watch, and try to understand what message Jesus is giving us. Watch this action as if it were a visit to your best friend, dying of cancer, or the last glimpse of your sister on the day before emigrating to Australia. Watch this action as if it were the last request of a condemned man who is to be executed in the morning – for this is exactly what it is.

Remember, says Jesus. Remember to be humble. Remember to serve one another’s needs. And remember that tonight I am to give my very body to be broken for the sins of the world. FIRST understand – then go out from this place and imitate this in your life.