a real meal – a reflection on Maundy Thursday

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Holy Week

It’s interesting that while the Last Supper was an event that so obviously happened in the evening (it is a supper, after all), most of our commemorations of that event occur in the morning.

On the night before Jesus died, he took bread…after supper he took the cup.

But, the context in which we say those words and celebrate that meal today is usually far closer to breakfast.

Brunch, at best.

We usually commemorate this evening meal on a Sunday morning, because in the wake of Jesus’ death and resurrection the first Christians gathered before sunrise on the first day of the week (Sunday) to celebrate the fact that the tomb was empty. And, when they gathered they prayed, read the scriptures, and had the meal that Jesus commended them to have in remembrance of him.

One can readily understand then, looking at the history, and the primacy of the celebration of the resurrection, why a dinner came to be most often commemorated in the morning. One can also probably understand therefore how the development of the Sacrament of the Eucharist rendered it less and less like a meal.

If we’re not going to have it at night, then we probably don’t need to have a full supper, right? Who wants supper for breakfast anyway? And, if we’re going to jettison a full supper, we may as well jettison any semblance of a meal too.

And so what was once a full evening event around a table full of food, became a sip of wine and a morsel of bread. From Paul’s Corinthian correspondence we see that the New Testament church was still celebrating the Eucharist as a meal, for some of the Corinthian Christians were going home full and drunk from the celebration—something that Paul had to chide them for.

Maundy Thursday is, scripturally and liturgically speaking, the busiest day of the church year. It’s that day we remember the Last Supper, the washing of the disciple’s feet, the giving of the new commandment (Latin, “mandatum,” from which we get “maundy”), Judas’ betrayal, the agony in the garden, the arrest, and Peter’s threefold denial. So there’s a lot going on, and a lot of material to work with in a sermon.

But, this year I’m focusing on the evening meal that Jesus shared with his disciples. When we lose the meal-ness of the Last Supper I think we lose at least two things, two things we shouldn’t bear losing on Holy Week.

1) I think it diminishes the human nature of Jesus. The danger is that the meal becomes so different from our normal, daily experience of what a meal is that Jesus himself ceases to be real.

Instead he becomes a “churchy” concept. A stained-glass face with a weak smile and a sad dinner.

(As I overheard a conversation between mother and child at the Altar Rail a few Sundays back, the child said: “Mommy, can I have the cracker?”)

But, the Last Supper was anything but that. It was a powerful ritual celebration of the freedom that God had given His People from slavery under Pharaoh’s hand. It was a meal of remembering the great acts of God among ones friends and family. It was food, and lots of it. It was smells and colors and sounds.

I think it was something far closer to our experience of a family Christmas dinner, with kids running around, wine being poured out over and over again (there were at least four ritual glasses at a first century Passover…) and bellies so full (you did have to consume all the lamb…) that people could barely stand up.

Jesus is real. He was really human. And he ate and enjoyed real food with real human company.

2) When we lose touch of the meal, we also lose the aspect of fellowship. It was the gathering of the close followers of Jesus who gathered around that table. And they didn’t have any of those stained-glass halos yet. One of those gathered would betray him. Another would deny him. All but one of them would be huddled up in that same room through the next few days scared to death that they were going to be next on the cross.

But, on that night, before all of that started, they were friends and disciples, dreamers and sinners. And they were together. Eating. Enjoying each other. Enjoying their food and drink. Enjoying the familiar story, and in wonder of their Teacher and Lord.

I’m not suggesting that we completely redo the liturgies of the church. I mean, maybe we could. Maybe more people would find themselves around the Altar/Table on Sunday mornings if there were more celebration and less somber sanctimoniousness going on.

But, on this day – on this night. Let us remember the meal. The meal of the man who on the next day would die for us and for our salvation. And let us join in on the same fellowship and love that was shared and commanded on that holy night, so long ago.

The Author

follower of Jesus, father of two, husband of one, Episcopal priest, with one book down, one blog up...surrounded by empty jars of nutella