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Night of unity, night of sin

02 November 2006

Maundy Thursday: In the next four features, four contemporary theologians reflect on Easter. Here Robert Mackley looks at the Last Supper

HOW DO you remember someone when they die? That is the urgent question that Maundy Thursday addresses. Jesus is about to die, and nothing will ever be the same again. It is true when anyone we love dies: we lose a part of ourselves, and they leave a hole that nothing can fill. We may get used to the hole, but it will never go away. Bereavement is like starting to wear glasses: to begin with, everything looks different; over time, you get used to the change of perspective; but every so often you remember that you are wearing glasses, and that the world is different and always will be.

Jesus is making provision for the time after his death, and, with extraordinary sensitivity, he uses the ordinary and familiar to make that provision. He takes the Jewish paschal family meal, a meal that was at the heart of the disciples' lives and faith, and transforms it. He does not invent something out of the blue, but speaks to them of his impending death, and provides for them after he has died in the context of something they know well. Now is a time for the familiar and for directness: "Ah, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure!" John records the disciples' saying.

Jesus knows that what people want more than anything is for their loved one to return - and if not to return, then for there to continue to be some connection with them. For the bereaved, doing something tangible (lighting a candle, visiting the graveside, arranging some flowers) becomes a vital way of connecting with the tangibility of the beloved who has died. It turns their wayward thoughts into something solid that they can touch and see and return to.

The Last Supper gives the disciples something tangible, too. They are to have this meal in memory of him. Each time they gather together, take bread and wine, and give thanks, they will remember him.

This is the Passover meal, however; and so they know that when they have this meal each year, they are not just sharing old Exodus memories of the Passover of the Angel of Death and the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. They know that they are actively recalling this event. They know that at the Passover meal the Passover is real again. For the Jew at Passover, the opposite of remembering is not forgetting - it is dismembering.

So what must the disciples have felt as Jesus took this meal and applied it to himself? Would they have been thrilled that this meal would bring Jesus back into the present for them in future? Perhaps. More likely, however, is the usual keynote struck by the disciples - half in joy and half in fear, scarcely being able to believe what they are being told.

What were they being told? That the bread and the wine were Jesus's body and blood, and that they were to consume them. They were also being told more than that, however: they were to do this again and again ("as often as you do this" ), and not because they were in danger of forgetting Jesus - how could they forget the one they loved? - but to unite themselves with him.

Maundy Thursday is supremely the day of unity. For the bereaved, the ashes on the mantelpiece or the body in the grave are a way of connecting with the deceased. The intimacy of the body is gone, but they long for it still. For the disciples, that unity is not to go - instead, it is to be intensified. The unity with Jesus that they have up to this point is human. The unity they will have with Jesus after his death will be divine as well.

They are to take his body and blood and make it part of them. The part of themselves that they have lost in bereavement is to be given back to them, and given back not just as it was, but with new depth - for by consuming his body and blood, they are not only therefore remembering Jesus, but they are remembering themselves.

Their unity with Christ will be such that, as they make him present to themselves in every subsequent supper, so they make themselves present, too. They will discover that, as they unite themselves with Christ, so they are uniting with each other, and even within themselves. They will be uncovering more and more not only of who Christ is, but of who they are, too. The mystery of their own lives will be revealed further and further as they "do this in remembrance" (Luke 22.19).

SO Maundy Thursday is about unity. It is Jesus's desire that his disciples may be one with him that makes him wash their feet - "if I do not wash you, you have no part in me" (John 13.8). This is not simply because unless the disciples share in Jesus's ministry of service, they cannot be with him; the unity is more intense even than that. There was one exception to the servant's washing people's feet in first-century Palestine: that exception was the people 's host, especially if he was a rabbi. Instead of his disciples' or servants' washing his feet, his wife would wash them. She would do this not out of servitude, but rather because by marriage they were one body, and no one had the right to touch her husband's feet but she.

Jesus, the rabbi, in washing his disciples' feet, therefore, not only offers an astonishing act of intimacy and humility - even more, he points them towards the unity of Christ and his Church, the Bridegroom and Bride. He behaves as the wife, so that disciple and master can both say: "This is my body." He is one body with his disciples; he is married to his Church; and so he gives them his Maundy, his mandamus, his new commandment: to love as much as Bridegroom and Bride love one another.

John omits the Last Supper from his Gospel, therefore, because he has other ways of illustrating the unity of which the supper speaks. The washing of the feet is one; the beautiful farewell discourses are another. Jesus speaks of his unity with his disciples in terms of a vine and its branches, and, in his prayer to the Father, prays that they may be one with him, just as he is with the Father. They make his body and blood part of them, that they may be in Jesus as Jesus is in his Father: "that the love with which thou hast loved me may be in them and I in them" (John 17.26).

The familiar paschal meal is being made strange, but at the same time Jesus is speaking directly, and explaining its significance. The long discourse that John describes is, in essence, an explanation of the meal - a thing so obvious to the Christians for whom John writes that he can omit the description of the meal itself. Unity is at the heart of this description, and it answers the deepest desires of the soon-to-be-bereaved. He says (in John 14): "I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you." The coming of which he speaks is twofold: first, the coming of the Holy Spirit; second, the Second Coming at the end of time.

Certainly, he will come at the resurrection - but only to go again at the ascension. The comings that the bereaved need are not temporary ones, but the coming of the "Counsellor to be with you for ever". The Holy Spirit will be a further gift of unity, the gift of Christ again among the disciples, "to teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you" (John 14.26).

This is the night before Christ's death, however, and so Maundy Thursday is not only about unity: it is also about sin. For all his plain speaking and the power of the Passover meal to recall the past into the present, what Jesus is giving to the disciples is still sacramental. The outward form carries and connects with the inner reality, but they are not yet completely one. Although it will truly be his life that he will bestow in bread and wine, it will also be bread and wine and so a hint, a foretaste, a sign, a mystery, a gesture towards the future reality.

In heaven, there will be no sacraments; for they will see fully the Body of which they are a part. Now, there is death and sin to struggle against - the promise of Christ's presence is real, but it is also not yet complete. The unity of his disciples is real and also not yet complete.

So we turn to that other coming: the Second Coming, when sign and symbol will be no more because sin will be no more. Christ's presence will be utter and complete, and mystery - sacramentum - will give way to absolute vision. "For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known." That, above all things, is what Maundy Thursday is about.

Until then, however, there is Good Friday to be attended to. . .

The Revd Robert Mackley is Assistant Curate of Our Most Holy Redeemer and St Mark, Clerkenwell, in London.

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