In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is Maundy Thursday and, liturgically, it can be approached in one of two ways. It can be observed by washing each other’s feet, as Christ did to his disciples, which is the way that we follow the “new commandment” that He gives us to love one another. “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me,” Jesus says. In this sense, Maundy Thursday takes on the shape of preparation. Jesus is demonstrating, one last time, the form of life which his disciples should assume from here on out because he is with them only a little while longer. Maundy Thursday thus becomes forward-looking, and though the disciples do not yet know what exactly awaits them and their Lord (though they’ve received dozens of hints by now), they have received the example of what they should do, of how they should live, beyond the cross, beyond the resurrection.
The other theme of observance for Maundy Thursday is that of the institution of the Eucharist. And in this sense, The Triduum, the three-day succession of liturgies which solemnize the Passion of our Lord, begins with an ending. We don’t get to look ahead. We have not even reached the cross and the tomb yet, nor do we concern ourselves with what is beyond them. This theme of Maundy Thursday demands that we pause, hold ourselves in the moment, and contemplate the fact that the Eucharist -- the very center of our lives together and the means by which we partake of God -- was instituted on the night in which Jesus was betrayed. How can this be? How can the means of our participation in Christ be inseparable from Judas’ betrayal? From our betrayal?
Now the ending that first comes to mind is probably the ending of Christ’s death. But it could just as well refer to the end of his fellowship with the disciples that Judas initiates by betraying him. The direct transition in the text itself suggests this. Jesus immediately concludes his institution of the Supper with the dire pronouncement that “the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table.” It puts on stark display how the love of Jesus maintains the closest proximity with its opposite; indeed, his love reveals itself most fully in its embrace of that opposite, that is, our rebellion and betrayal. Jesus is the one who breaks bread with those who will deny him.
One of the most profound experiences I had when celebrating my first few masses as a priest was at the fraction, which is the moment when the priest breaks the consecrated host. I remember it almost stopping me in my tracks. Because if you look back from that point in the liturgy over all that’s happened, everything we have done so far has been leading up to the fragmentation of the bread. It is a moment of destruction. Of course, the fraction is fleeting and the momentum of the mass is ultimately heading towards our sharing of the bread and wine together. Just as the momentum of Holy Week is ultimately towards the triumphant proclamation that He is Risen. But in either case, the end goal does not negate what precedes it, indeed, what facilitates it.
There is an analogy between Maundy Thursday and the fraction of the Eucharist. For both in their own ways represent the brokenness which is finally healed. It’s no wonder then that the Eucharist itself is what Maundy Thursday is all about. In the Eucharist, the many are gathered together for the purpose of being transfigured into one Body by the work of the Holy Spirit. But as with everything, a paradox is involved: the many can only become one by means of The One being broken for the many. Judas’ betrayal therefore represents the barrier that we have erected between ourselves and the possibility of unity and it is that barrier that Christ must overcome. Do not lose sight of the fact that the fellowship between Jesus and the disciples actually fails. Given the world of sin in which even his disciples lived, Jesus could no more establish his community of love without death and resurrection than we could celebrate a Eucharist without breaking the bread. Rupture, betrayal, fragmentation are the conditions which our sin and mortality place on the possibility of unity.
Soon, we will celebrate the sacrament of unity in its fullness. Like any other Eucharist, we will be reconstituted into the Body of Christ. But this night will be different because we will strip the altars where we commune with God. We will remove all the sacred indications that our fellowship with Christ just continues on in this space. Our unity with him becomes bound to a single moment, just as it did in the upper room with Christ and his disciples. We call it the Last Supper for a reason. From here on out, we have to actually hope that the glory of Christ will abide. That our fragmentation will be restored into unity. Will the fellowship that is already corrupted by the betrayal in Judas’ heart be made whole? Can the brokenness with which we break this bread be made whole? The Eucharist of Maundy Thursday anxiously awaits its own vindication. Amen.