Humility and Offering: Holy Thursday


Sermon preached by Andrea Popa on Sunday, March 15, 2015 as part of Antiochian Women's Month

In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God.  Amen.

Today is the 3rd Sunday of Antiochian Women's month and I am continuing the reflection started by Stephani, and Sarah the past two weeks, focusing on the events and services of Holy Week.

This morning is my distinct pleasure to have my mother in the congregation, visiting from Seattle - my mother, Rev. Dr. Margaret Scott - an ordained minister and lifelong missionary educator. Just as I am the 3rd of 5 women in this month's homily series, I am also mindful and grateful for the tremendous legacy of women in my own family, that has contributed to my spiritual formation. My great grandmother, a preacher beginning in the 1930's, my grandmothers and aunts, who walked their faith journeys as homemaker, journalist, nurse, foster mother, educator, and business owner. In particular, I am marking this week the 2-yr anniversary of my grandmother's passing. With these women - along with the women of St Mary's - as my totems, I look on to my two daughters and my godchildren, in whom I hope to inspire lifelong paths of service and leadership.

Today we will be turning our attention to the events of Holy Thursday, some the most introspective and intimate times recorded in the Gospel narratives.

You may recall that on Holy Thursday, we traditionally celebrate both the Washing of Feet and the institution of the Eucharist as it occurred at the Last Supper. On the same evening, we then celebrate the Holy Friday matins in anticipation. Linda Arnold will reflect on the matins next week, discussing the theme of Suffering and Confession.

While the Holy Thursday shared meal is commonly known as the Last Supper, I would like to consider it also being the Last Lesson of our Lord Jesus Christ. This was the calm before the storm. While the disciples were going about the details of their daily lives, Christ knew this would be the last quiet time of teaching before the events leading to his death began to unfold.

On Holy Thursday, carrying the foreknowledge of his imminent crucifixion, Jesus instructed his disciples to prepare for a meal in an upper room that had been set for them.

From the Gospels, we know that this meal fell within the celebration of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. In Western Christianity it is sometimes suggested that on Holy Thursday, Jesus may have been celebrating the Passover Seder. This is based in part, on references from the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). In this chronology, the last supper would have included the telling of the Passover story, when the firstborn sons of God's chosen people were "passed over" and spared from God's wrath.

In the story of the Old Testament Passover, as the 10th plague was being inflicted on their Egyptian oppressors, the people of God ate unleavened bread that had not been allowed to rise. In Exodus 12:11 we see that the Lord spoke to Moses saying, "Thus you shall eat it, with your belt on your waist, your saddles on your feet and your staff in your hand. You shall eat it in haste. This is the Lord's Pascha." They ate the pascal lamb fully dressed, with their shoes on, standing at the ready for the word of the Lord to unveil the plan for their escape from slavery.

As an interesting contrast, Orthodox tradition and liturgy does not correlate the Last Supper with the Passover Seder meal, but instead follows the timing outlined in the Gospel of John that says Jesus died at the time that the Passover lambs were being slaughtered, thus focusing on Christ as the Paschal lamb.

Regardless of the exact timing of how this meal lined up with the events of the Festival, it is useful to consider the prophetic elements of the Passover story, both as the backdrop for Christ’s last meal, and more profoundly as the precursor to his sacrificial death, resurrection, and redemptive plan, that would play out in the hours and days following.

While the Old Testament symbolism enriches our understanding, it is important to pay attention with new eyes as Christ was not just commemorating God’s past faithfulness and the old covenant, but He was in fact, changing the game.

Christ layered on elements of new symbolism, illustrating and crystallizing his years of teachings in a way that his disciples would remember once he was gone. Here I imagine a parent packing a bag for a child who does not realize they will be journeying alone. Packing only what the child can carry and use. Reminding the child of only the details they will need to journey safely.

Ever the didactic teacher, Christ begins the evening by taking elemental components of the shared meal and through them revealing his new plan of redemption. Breaking bread and sharing wine, he offers them to his followers saying words that are familiar to us now, but which must have sounded so unusual to those who first heard them: "Take, eat. This is my body which is broken for you," and, "This is my blood of the new covenant which is shed for many."

In this profound moment, Christ through his establishment of the Eucharist invites his disciples to partake in his human/divine nature and to drink of his sacrificial redemption. As his blood is "shed for many," he is also opening the covenant of divine relationship to those who would partake - Jew and Gentile alike, both those present in the upper room that day, and those like us who would join the mystical table at a later time.

In his book, Great Week and Pascha in the Greek Orthodox Church, Fr. Calivas, Prof. Emeritus of Liturgics at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, speaks of the Eucharist as follows:

“We have learned to equate food with life because it sustains our earthly existence. In the Eucharist the distinctively unique human food – bread and wind – become gifts of life… In the Eucharistic meal God enters into such a communion of life that He feeds humanity with His own being, while still remaining distinct. In the words of St. Maximos the Confessor, Christ, ‘transmits to us divine life, making Himself eatable.’

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke recall Christ sharing communion. Interestingly, John does not, but instead describes another story.

John relates that after supper, Jesus rose from the table, poured water in a basin and began to wash the feet of each disciple, despite Peter's initial protest. Said Jesus, "I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you... A servant is not greater than his master..." (John 13: 15-16)

This act of extreme humility, the washing of feet, affects me when I hear it, and when I see it enacted at the Holy Thursday service. Feet are dirty and smelly. The idea of washing the feet of another, and allowing my feet to be washed, is uncomfortable.

Why was it important for Christ to do this act on this night? Why feet? Filling a basin with water and scrubbing something down with soap is not a hard task. But, being vulnerable to others about our own weakness is hard. And meeting our brothers and sisters in their state of need and vulnerability, is, in fact, the very heart of Christ's Gospel.

Again, Prof Calivas reflects: “The act of the washing of the feet is closely related to the sacrifice of the Cross. Both reveal Christ’s kenosis [i.e. self-offering]. While the cross constitutes the ultimate manifestation of Christ’s perfect obedience to His Father, the washing of feel signifies His intense love and the giving of Himself to each person according to that person’s ability to receive Him.”

At the conclusion of Last Supper, John recounts Jesus’ words, “Little children, I shall be with you a little while longer… so now I say to you, ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you should love one another; as I have loved you... By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (Jn. 13:33-34)

Here we have the very Author of Life, who penned his own story and participated in a corporal death to make way for a new covenant. 

And on the night before his death, He leaves two final lessons… Each central to His teachings: First, the gift of the life-giving Eucharist, through which we commemorate his incarnate life, death, and resurrection but also actively participate and partake. Second, He leaves us the legacy of humility and service - vulnerability to each other and demonstrated love in action.

One lesson is not complete without the other.

Jesus Christ offered a continual encounter with Himself through the gift of His Body and Blood. He gave us a model for how we should act towards others.  Our response is to give God thanksgiving (in Greek Eucharisto – the Eucharist) and praise—the “sacrifice of praise” that we sing at every liturgy.  It is in the Liturgy that we commemorate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and actively encounter the risen Christ.  It is here - in the Liturgy - that we begin to pray and care for our neighbor in love and humility.  Most pointedly, it is in the Liturgy that we manifest and continue to grow into the community that we are called to be, as Fr. Calivas says, “continuously chang[ing] from a human community into the Body of Christ [and] the Temple of the Holy Spirit…”

As we then partake and receive, let us also act and serve – in humility, in love, and with a sacrifice of praise. Amen.