"Sacrifice & The Eucharist"

Maundy Thursday.A.23
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
The Rev. Melanie L. McCarley

Whether you envision the Last Supper as sweet and poignant or dark and moody, fraught with betrayal and impending doom, this event evokes profound emotions in addition to a hefty dose of theological speculation. Day by day and all over the globe, this meal (the Holy Eucharist) is being commemorated at any given moment. It behooves us to ask ourselves why? What is it about the Last Supper that has made it such a defining experience for Christians of all stripes.

Susannah Guthrie has as fine an explanation as any I’ve heard. Her response is this: “Because intimacy with the Divine is what humans most desire. We long for intimacy with God that God has planted within us.” This, I believe, is true. Eating together implies closeness. A good meal--some of the best meals--aren’t eaten alone, but in the company of others. Take a moment and recall some of the finest meals you’ve eaten. Odds are good they weren’t eaten by yourself. God understands this. Through the act of eating a meal, we are strengthened not only in body, but also in spirit. The celebration of the Eucharist underscores this--we gather together at the altar of God and are fed with the holy food of Christ. We are knit together as Christ’s own.

But liturgical theologian, Aidan Kavanagh, doesn’t want our liturgical observance of the Eucharist to remain sealed and airtight. He has this to say: “To know Christ sacramentally only in terms of bread and wine is to know him only partially, in the dining room as host and guest. It is a valid enough knowledge, but its ultimate weakness when isolated is that it is perhaps too civil. … However elegant the knowledge of the dining room may be, it begins in the soil, in the barnyard, in the slaughterhouse; amid the quiet violence of the garden, strangled cries and fat spitting in the pan. Table manners depend on something’s having been grabbed by the throat. A knowledge that ignores these dark and murderous human gestes is losing its grip on the human condition.” Clearly Kavanagh leans towards the dark and moody interpretation of the Last Supper.

He's right, of course--no matter how much we might want to sanitize our version of the Last Supper, there is murder lurking in the shadows. There is the dead lamb of the Passover meal, prefiguring the death of Jesus, the Lamb of God. If you want to eat a meal--whether you are a happy carnivore or a dedicated vegan--something--plant or animal--is going to have to die.

In a land where most of our meals arrive at our table from goods handily picked up at the grocery store, this is easy enough to ignore. We simply reach for the bag of carrots at the market--meat is cut, prepackaged and stamped--marked as fit for human consumption. I recall, when our daughter was young, the newspaper asking kindergartners how to fix a turkey--most all of the children explained that you purchased a turkey in the supermarket, and someone put it in the oven. My child--ever fascinated with the more graphic details as to how food got to the table she announced: First you shoot the turkey, you chop off its head, turn it upside down so the blood drains out, pluck the feathers--well, you get the picture. She might not have had it all down pat--but she knew that meat came from a living creature--and that the process of getting it from the farm to the plate was messy. Meals involve sacrifice--not simply of time and money, but also of a life.

But meals are also life-giving, are they not? Meals offer an opportunity to share stories, to tell tales, to form identity. Consider the Passover Meal, shared by the Jewish People--where year after year the same story is told--again and again, of the Israelite’s time of slavery in Egypt, of the great prophet Moses, the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. It is a story of the love and faithfulness of God. Over and over again the story is shared, and in the telling, identities are shaped. This isn’t just a history lesson; it’s not simply a fine tale for the telling--it is a family story.

The same can be said of the Eucharist. Each week, this story is shared as we gather for weekly worship. Listen closely, for in every version of the Eucharist, you will hear the story of the Last Supper, where Jesus gathered the disciples and blessed the bread and the wine, saying: “This is my body. This is my blood.” “Do this, in remembrance of me.” The Eucharist shapes identity.

I wonder what ran through the disciples minds when Jesus said these words. Did they look on him with questions in their eyes? Did any of them consider that this was the memorial he meant to leave them? Surely they listened, for we have the words. We have this reminder of what Jesus intends not only for his disciples of two thousand years past, but for ourselves in this present hour as well.

Tonight we place ourselves with the disciples in that Upper Room. We remember this night in a special way. Perhaps we ponder what Jesus must have been thinking in the din of celebration. Does he remember the Mount of Transfiguration, discussing with Moses and Elijah his “exodus”; is he already agonizing over the cup he must soon drink. Does he notice Judas, going out into the night? Do their eyes meet…or not?

Dark and moody--surely. But something else as well….holy and life-giving. A meal not simply for one night, but to be shared again and again for all time. A meal not simply to remember and be sad--but a meal for which to give thanks. A Eucharist. For while it is true that meals involve sacrifice and death--they also bring life. And, in the end, that is why we remember the events of this dark and death-dealing evening--for the life of Christ which in turn grants us life and a reason to give thanks. In Jesus’ name. Amen.