Thursday, March 20, 2008

Maundy Thursday: Mass and Priesthood

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“For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.” 1 Corinthians 11:26

We gather on the Thursday of this Holy Week to begin recalling the central mysteries of our redemption—the betrayal, death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. A few weeks ago, I was looking ahead at my books on ceremonial about the liturgies of Holy Week, and I came across a curious thing. I don’t recall many ceremonial directives about sermons in there. But there was one for one day this week—Maundy Thursday. It read, “It is proper that, at the usual point, a sermon should be preached on the Holy Eucharist and the priesthood” (E. C. R. Lamburn, Ritual Notes, 11th Ed., p. 320).

I thought I might do just that, for an understanding of the Eucharist and the priesthood seems essential, not only for grasping the truths about this night, but also for grasping the meaning of the redemptive suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. One thing that should be made clear from the beginning is that, for his holy Catholic Church in all times and places, Jesus is our great High Priest. “Priest” comes from the Greek word presbyter, which means “elder.”

A priest is by definition one who is an elder or wise leader within a community, or one who serves as the father of a tribal family. In that position, he is set apart or “consecrated” to God and his service. A priest is devoted to God with his entire being, and thus devoted to God’s people as well. A priest is an intercessor and a mediator. He goes to meet with God on behalf of the people, and he speaks to the people on behalf of God.

We might say that priesthood began with Adam. He was created in God’s image, to do the will of God as his servant. And as a being made to be a reflection of God’s own image, Adam was a priest. He was consecrated to God in all his being. Humanity fulfilled God’s will through Adam, who conversed with him face-to-face. But sin damaged that office in which Adam stood as a pries of God. In Adam we became rebellious priests—disobedient sons. In his disobedience, we embraced the opposite of a priestly office. Instead of consecrating our life and labor to God, we withheld it as our own, saying, “My will be done.” With the advent of sin, we became unworthy to minister to the Lord.

The priestly duty of offering sacrifice means presenting a gift to God as a sign of love, in recognition of his supreme dominion over all creation. Our sinful nature wants to claim dominion for ourselves alone. Yet, in his mercy, God nurtured the ministry of the patriarchs and the elders of Israel even as they offered imperfect worship. He taught them through prophets, and raised up priests to reconsecrate the people to the Lord. Indeed, the people as a whole were a kind of nation of priests, sanctifying the world by being a holy presence within it—a “light to the nations.”

Sin brought a new task to priestly work—making atonement for sin. Sacrifice would henceforth not merely be a sign of love, it would also be a desperate plea for mercy. The problem was that such priests, rebellious by nature, could only offer imperfect sacrifices. These were but a type or shadow of the real thing. In the fullness of time, God sent his Son into the world. The eternal Word took human flesh from the blessed Virgin Mary. This was the new Adam—the obedient and humble servant. The first Adam brought sin and death into the world; the second Adam brought forgiveness and life.

St Paul put it this way in his letter to the Church of Rome: “For as by the one man’s disobedience, many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” [Romans 5:19]. As the righteous servant, Jesus was able to be the priest that Adam was not. Jesus could offer the one true pleasing sacrifice to God the eternal Father, because he offered it with a truly sinless and humble heart. And that fulfillment of all sacrifices was to be the gift of himself. “For in [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” St Paul wrote to the Colossians, “and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who were once alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless before him” [Colossians 1:19-20]. The union of the human and divine in Jesus is essential to his priestly work.

Holy Week and Easter have no real meaning without the Incarnation. The human and divine natures are united in the one person of Christ, as the ecumenical council of Chalcedon puts it: united “without confusion, without change, without division, and without separation” [BCP, p. 864]. He is the one mediator between God and man—bringing divinity and humanity together in himself. And in bringing the two together, Jesus mediated a New Covenant. The Old Covenant was sealed with the shedding of blood. When Moses declared all the commandments of God to the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, and sprinkled both the book of the Law and the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you” [Exodus 24:6-8].

This act of Moses long ago foreshadowed the way that the New Covenant would be sealed in the shed blood of Christ. Jesus offered himself to the Father as the Passover lamb on this night—a sacrifice to spare people from their sins, just as the blood of the Passover lamb spared the lives of the Hebrews when they marked their door-posts with its blood so the angel of death would know to pass over them.

The author of Hebrews speaks a great deal about Jesus as our great High Priest. The crucifixion is a kind of liturgy. Jesus enters the veil of heaven through his death to offer his own blood on the mercy seat, just as the high priest of Israel offered the blood of bulls and goats in the Holy of Holies on the day of Atonement. Jesus is our great High Priest.

In his divine plan, our blessed Lord wanted to share that priesthood with us. Like Israel before, those in his Church are to be “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation . . .” [1 Peter 2:9]. Together, the laos (the "people" of God), by virtue of their union with Christ in holy Baptism, share in what we call “the priesthood of all believers.” This is a ministry of service, love, and mission, to which all Christians are called. Believers must mediate Christ’s love and his saving gospel to the world. Like Israel, we are to be a “light to the nations.” Jesus often spoke of a kind of renewal of Israel in the kingdom of God; part of that messianic mission was to renew Israel’s elders. While he is the only true priest or elder, he shares that priestly work with those whom he calls in his Church.

Early in Mark’s gospel, we read, “He now went up onto the mountain and summoned those he wanted. And he ordained Twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them forth to preach, and to have the power to heal sickness, and to cast out devils” [Mark 3:14-15]. Jesus called out certain men whom he ordained to do the kinds of things he was doing. As Moses laid hands on Joshua and gave him authority to care for the people, Jesus gave the Twelve authority to teach and to heal, and even gave them a share in his ministry of divine reconciliation.

After his resurrection, we read in John’s gospel, “Then Jesus said unto [the apostles] again, ‘Peace be unto you: as my Father sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he said this, he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit: whose sins you forgive are forgiven; and whose sins you retain are retained’” [John 20:20-23].

However, in theological discourse down through the years, when teachers and bishops talked about the institution of holy orders, they did not so much look to this early mountaintop experience nor to this post-resurrection blessing as they did to the Upper Room. The
institution of the Christian ministerial priesthood is always connected with the institution of the holy Eucharist—Sacrament of the Altar.

One of the best books for those studying for the priesthood is The Christian Priest Today by the late Archbishop of Canterbury, Arthur Michael Ramsey. In an early chapter called “Why a Priest,” he outlines four unique qualities of the priest in today’s Anglican Church. The priest is the “man of theology”, the “minister of reconciliation,” the “man of prayer”, and the “man of the Eucharist.” Concerning the last quality, he notes the following:

“The liturgy indeed belongs to all the people. We being many are the one bread, one body. We take, we break, we offer, we receive . . . Where then, and why then, the priests? As a celebrant, he is more than the people’s representative. In taking, breaking, and consecrating, he acts in Christ’s name and in the name not only of the particular congregation, but of the holy Catholic Church down through the ages. By his office as celebrant he symbolizes the focusing of the Eucharist in the givenness of the historic gospel and in the continuing life of the Church as rooted in that gospel. He finds that at the Altar he is drawn terribly and wonderfully near not only to the benefits of Christ’s redemption, but to the redemptive act itself”
[A. M. Ramsey, The Christian Priest Today, pp. 9-10].

Archbishop Ramsey touches upon two fundamental truths about the connection between the Eucharist and the priesthood. The first is summed up in the old theological axiom sacerdos alter Christus“the priest is another Christ.” That is, by virtue of the grace of holy orders, the Christian priest is indelibly and metaphysically conformed to Christ—the ultimate source and irreplaceable model of his priesthood. Thus, Jesus’ will that the apostles “do this as my memorial” requires that they stand in the place of Christ and speak his words (i.e., not “this is his Body”, but “this is my Body.”)

The second truth Ramsey touches upon is that the Eucharist is a participation in Christ’s redemptive work. It is not simply a reminder that these things once happened—a mere symbol or aide to help call to mind past events. Rather, the Eucharist is a real participation in past events, the constitutor of a present reality, and the foretaste of the future kingdom.

The Eucharist manifests past works of God’s redemption. St Paul told the Corinthian Church, “as often as you eat the bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till he comes” [1 Corinthians 11:26]. The catechism of the Prayer Book reminds us, “The Holy Eucharist, the Church’s sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, is the way by which the sacrifice of Christ is made present, and in which he unites us to his one offering of himself” [BCP, p. 859]. Not only does the Eucharist participate in past events, it is also a present reality. In the blessed Sacrament, Jesus is our “Emmanuel”—God with us. The Word made flesh tabernacles among us. It is in the celebration of the holy Eucharist that the Church is constituted—the mystical Body of Christ on earth.

While the Eucharist is a participation in past and present, let us not forget that the Eucharist is also about the future. Indeed, the second Advent of Christ was the dominant imagery in the Eucharist of the Church in the early centuries. Jesus said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” [John 6:54]. By receiving Holy Communion, we receive a foretaste of eating and drinking at his table in the kingdom [Luke 22:30].

We can see the connection between the Eucharist and priesthood from the Last Supper. At the Passover meal Jesus shared with his disciples this night, the pure unleavened bread was broken into quarter portions, and one portion, called the afikomen, was hidden away in a cloth and laid aside. No one really knew why, except that it had always been done that way before. It was also called the Bread of Redemption, and it usually went uneaten. Many suspect that it was this portion that Jesus took, broke, and gave to his disciples saying, “Take eat, this is my Body.”

There were four cups of wine during the meal and it was the third cup, traditionally called the Cup of Redemption or the Cup of Blessing which Christ gave to them saying, “Take and drink; this is my Blood of the New Covenant poured out for you.” St Paul noted, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the Blood of Christ?” [1 Corinthians 10:16].

And what of the fourth cup of wine in the Passover meal? At that point, Jesus said, “I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” [Matthew 26:29]. The fourth cup was known as the Cup of Consummation—the cup in which God takes us as his people. After sharing the cup of his precious Blood, Jesus left the liturgy unfinished. Or perhaps we should say, the liturgy continued—in the Garden, at the cross, and at the tomb.

Jesus left the fourth cup on the table because there was another new element in the Seder liturgy; there was a new cup from which to drink; for Jesus, it would be the cup of suffering. Isaiah and Jeremiah had prophesied that the Messiah would drink from the cup of God’s wrath. The grapes of wrath would be churned in the wine-press and the cup of divine wrath would be poured out against sin. Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not as I want, but as you want” [Matthew 26:39].

When he was first put on the cross, they offered Jesus wine mingled with myrrh, but he would not take it. “I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until I drink it new in the kingdom.” He hung there on the tree for about three hours. One of the last things that happened before Jesus died was that he looked down and said, “I thirst.” John’s gospel tells us there was a bowl of sour wine nearby. So they put a sponge on the end of a hyssop branch, (note: the same kind of branch used to mark the door-posts with lamb’s blood at the first Passover) dipped it in the wine and raised it up to his lips. And when he drank it, Jesus said, “It is finished.” And bowed his head and gave up his spirit [see John 19:30].

It is finished. It is consummated. The Mass has ended. The Liturgy is over. He drank the final cup, the Cup of Consummation, and brought us into the kingdom of God, for the gate of heaven’s kingdom stands at the cross on Golgotha.

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the Blood of Christ? He drank from the cup or wrath that we might drink from the cup of blessing. Jesus gathers with us here tonight; he presides over our Passover meal through his priest at the Altar. He is himself the Passover Lamb slain for the sins of the world. The sacrificial banquet is spread on the table before us. “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us,” St Paul said, “therefore let us keep the feast” [1 Corinthians 5:7]. Jesus bids us to come to his holy Table and eat and drink tonight. All is prepared. “Come ye blessed of my Father, and inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” [Matthew 25:34].

Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, did institute the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may thankfully receive the same in remembrance of him who in these holy mysteries giveth us a pledge of life eternal, the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who now liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

2 comments:

Fr. Stainbrook said...

Very nicely phrased, Father.
You have a pleasing felicity with words.
Blessings the Triduum and Easter!

Anonymous said...

What a wonderfully reflective sermon. Thanks.

BigTex AC