By Sr. Constance Joanna, SSJD
I recently read a delightful and deeply moving book by Sarah Miles, called Take this Bread. Sarah is an American journalist who loved cooking for lots of people, worked in restaurants as an assistant cook doing the jo jobs, and eventually became deeply involved with revolutions around the world, including South and Central America. She wrote this book when she moved to San Francisco as a single Mom with her daughter Katie. She was – and is – a passionate activist, raised as an atheist, and like many people in our own city, was completely ignorant about Christianity. She had a profound and completely unexpected conversion experience, and I’ll read just a small part of how she describes it:
Early one winter morning, when Katie was sleeping at her father’s house, I walked into St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco. I had no earthly reason to be there. I’d never heard a Gospel reading, never said the Lord’s Prayer. I was certainly not interested in becoming a Christian . . . But on other long walks, I’d passed the beautiful wooden building . . . and this time I went in, on an impulse, with no more than a reporter’s habitual curiosity.
She describes the beautiful interior of the church, its unconventional but ancient liturgy, the chanting and singing, standing up and sitting down. And then she goes on to describe what happened:
And then we gathered around that table. And there was more singing and standing, and someone was putting a piece of fresh, crumbly bread in my hands, saying “the body of Christ,” and handing me the goblet of sweet wine, saying “the blood of Christ,” and then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me.
On her walk home, she tried to figure out what had happened, to reconcile her intellect, which told her this must all be crazy, with the undeniable mystery of her meeting Jesus in that bread and wine.
That impossible word, Jesus, lodged in me like a crumb. I said it over and over to myself, as if repetition would help me understand. I had no idea what it meant; I didn’t know what to do with it. But it was realer than any thought of mine, or even any subjective emotion. It was as real as the actual taste of the bread and the wine. And the word [Jesus] was indisputably in my body now as if I’d swallowed a radioactive pellet that would outlive my own flesh.
Now communion has always been important to me, even as I was growing up in the Methodist Church where we had it only a few times a year. For me, the mystery of communion has deepened gradually over the years. But in reading Sarah’s words I grasped more deeply the power of receiving the body and blood of Jesus in the midst of a community which itself is the body of Christ. And she wasn’t baptized till much later. What if our church were less intent on the rules of who could receive communion? What if we considered communion to be what the 17th-century Puritans used to call a “converting sacrament” instead of a sacrament only for the converted?
But the most important impact of her conversion is that her natural propensity for both cooking and social justice led her, along with friends in the church, to become servants and friends of the poor. Over the next few years they opened ten food pantries across the city of San Francisco, and the poor whom they served became fellow servants of the poor themselves.
That to me is perhaps one of the most powerful examples of the meaning of Maundy Thursday. Over the past few decades our church has begun to emphasize the importance of the foot washing as well as the last supper. After all, the disciples had been sharing many meals with Jesus for three years – from intimate ones with his closest friends to picnics on the seashore with thousands of people. Breaking bread together was not new to them. What was new was the identification of Jesus with the bread and wine of life – the knowledge that friendship with him, and love among each other, and loving service to others, were in some mysterious way connected with this piece of bread and sip of wine that we all have an opportunity to receive a little later in this service – all of us. Jesus said at that last supper, “Take this, ALL of you.” He didn’t say Take this, you who are believers or among the baptized. (Actually there is no record in the scripture that anyone at that table had been baptized except Jesus himself.)
Now the narrative of Jesus breaking the bread and offering the wine is contained in the synoptic gospels and in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. John’s gospel, which we read this evening, skips over the sharing of the bread and wine and focusses on the foot washing. After Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet, he says, ”if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” When we enact this part of the Maundy Thursday event, that is exactly what we do – it’s not one person washing all of our feet – we take turns washing one another’s feet.
But of course Jesus meant more than that – washing one another’s’ feet is a sacrament of loving servant ministry to each other. For Sarah Miles, it was sharing the bread and wine around the table that introduced her to Jesus and the Christian community as the body of Christ. And that resulted in channeling her love of justice and care for people into those food pantries.
That is a perfect example of where Maundy Thursday should lead us – from Communion to offering ourselves – both as individuals and as a community – to others who desperately need not only food and housing but also friendship and love.
At the end of this passage Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment (and by the way that’s where the term Maundy comes from – “commandment” in Latin):
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
Now this is challenging and difficult, as anyone knows who has been active in a parish church or who has lived in a community such as this. It’s hard work loving everyone. But the commandment of Jesus is not about cozy feelings of love and friendship. It’s about active love, love as servanthood.
Take a closer look at this icon. Like all Ethiopian icons, the eyes are unusually large and for that reason amazingly effective in conveying the thoughts and feelings of Jesus and the disciples. All of them are looking sideways, including Jesus. Everyone’s gaze is fixed on the centre, where Jesus is washing Peter’s feet. Jesus seems very calm, and is looking off to the side, at the disciples next to Peter. His eyebrows are raised in a rather quizzical expression, perhaps wondering whether the disciples “get it” – whether they understand his actions and the importance of them. Peter looks a bit resigned or perhaps quizzical – he has really resisted Jesus washing his feet – he’s not comfortable – but now that it’s actually happening, it’s as though he’s trying to understand what Jesus is doing. The other disciples all have their hands crossed over their chests. It may be that they see what is happening as a blessing – after all, we encourage that sign as a way of people asking for a blessing if they prefer not to receive communion. But it may also be a sign of self-protection and resistance – resistance to the idea that their Lord would become their servant. Like Judas who expected a very different kind of Messiah than Jesus turned out to be, they may feel uncomfortable with his taking such a lowly role, at the same time that they are drawn to this beautiful act of friendship and intimacy.
As in most icons, the yellow background is meant to be a sign of hope and new life. So in this momentous event, where we know what’s going to happen to Jesus, this servanthood and friendship are signs of profound hope that God’s reign not only is coming among us but is present here now, at this moment – as we humble ourselves to be served by our Lord, and then – like Sarah and her 10 food pantries – go out to be servants and friends of others.
Sisterhood of St. John Divine, April 9, 2020