Even with the advent of Playstations and XBoxes, I believe that primary school children still from time to time enjoy the lo-tech pastime of “Chinese whispers.” Outside this island nation, it may have other names (if indeed it is played at all), so I had better explain: sitting in a circle, one child whispers a message to the next, and that child whispers what he think has heard to the next, and so on, until the message comes full circle, generally bearing only a fleeting resemblance to the original.
You would be forgiven for thinking that Christians have been playing a two-thousand year game of Chinese whispers with the original message Jesus gave. After all, you only need two or three Christians gathered together to start telling everybody else that they have heard that message wrong. Take the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have recently been mounting an intensive campaign, pushing leaflets through our doors to tell us just how wrong the Church is to place our “tradition” above the pure doctrine of the Bible, as they read it. They’re very pleasant people, I’m sure, but it does bother me that they go to the homes of orthodox Christians and try to pull the wool over their eyes with a little gloss of learning. It leaves people wondering, and some have come to me to ask, who has really got Jesus’ original message: whom, among so many conflicting voices, they can trust.
I could answer that question by a simple appeal to authority, pointing out that you would be hard-pressed to find a single Jehovah’s Witness academic in the theological department of any university in this country, and that would not be the worst answer: you might trust the judgment of someone like Rowan Williams, say, more than the polite and well-meaning couple who come knocking on your door. But it seems to me we have a duty as Christians to defend our faith not just by appeals to authority, but should treat criticism with a respectful and reasoned response; and if we do want to talk reasonably about Jesus’ original message, and to whom He chose to entrust it, tonight, it seems to me, is exactly the right opportunity.
Maundy: from Latin, “mandatum,” a mandate, a command. Maundy Thursday is so called, because on this night, the last before He died, Jesus gave two commandments: one, love one another as I have loved you; and two, do this in memory of me. This was His last message before He went to the Cross, and He did not whisper it to an individual or stick it in a bottle, but entrusted it to His twelve closest friends.
On the subject of “tradition versus Scripture,” it is instructive to note what Jesus did not say. He did not say, “go and read your Bibles” - Jesus and the first 300 years’ worth of Christians did not have a “Bible.” And on the subject of worship, He did not say, “have prayer meetings and sing lots of songs” - the only kind of collective worship He enjoined was to “do this,” to take bread and wine together in a ritual meal: and this is the “tradition” His Apostles continued and handed on, only later committing His words and teachings to writing as a means of supplementing that tradition of worship.
In the Chinese whispers of many modern Christians, the importance of this meal, the Last Supper which we celebrate tonight, has been garbled away into insignificance. There are those who hardly see the point in it at all, who see it at best as a “reminder” of what Jesus did for them, but a bare memorial is not what Jesus, or any Jew, would think He was doing as He started the celebration of Passover that night. It was, importantly, a ritual meal and Jesus was connecting the Jewish ritual of the Old Covenant with the New Covenant which He would complete the next day on the Cross, as the Passover Lamb of God and as the Bread of Life.
The Passover, back in Exodus, was the sacrifice of a lamb, its blood daubed on the doorposts of the Jewish people to make the Angel of Death “pass over” their homes and so free them from slavery in Egypt. In the New Covenant, Jesus becomes the Lamb of God whose Precious Blood frees all peoples from the death that sin brings, and so offers everyone eternal life. At the Last Supper, He begins the ritual of the Passover, but does not complete it, refusing to drink the wine: the ritual will be complete only when He is hanging on the Cross. Without the ritual of the Last Supper, in Jewish eyes, His death would not have been a sacrifice at all. Maundy Thursday is the Liturgy which makes Good Friday.
It is not by chance that Jesus chose bread to celebrate that liturgy, nor just because that was His generation’s staple food. He had talked about Himself already as greater than the angelic manna-bread, which led the Jewish people to safety under Moses in the Promised Land of Canaan: the new Bread of His Flesh would last forever and lead to an eternal Kingdom. More than that, though, the offering of bread was an essential part of Jewish worship in the Temple. In Leviticus, God instructed Moses to make twelve stands in the Tabernacle for twelve loaves of bread, one for each of the tribes of Israel. It was called the “Bread of the Presence,” supposed to reflect here on earth the eternal bread of God’s own presence which Moses saw in the Temple of Heaven. Right up to Jesus’ day, every Sabbath, the Jewish priests would bring the sacred bread out before the people and show it to them, this sign of God’s presence, and if you do not already know the words they proclaimed when they elevated this bread, you may be surprised, this night of all nights, because they said: “Behold, the love of God for you!” Twelve loaves for twelve tribes, and now Jesus gives bread to twelve disciples, entrusts the ritual to them as priests of the New Covenant, saying that this bread will be the sign of God’s love for them: through the sacrifice He is beginning tonight at this meal, He offers the bread of God’s loving presence forever, and that bread is none other than Himself. And so it is very much in the sacrificial offering of the bread that these two commandments are linked: “Love one another as I have loved you,” and “do this in memory of me.”
Jesus’ original message, then, was for His Twelve Apostles to make those two commandments the centre of their lives. He entrusted the ritual meal of the Mass especially to those twelve, and before the Bible was even written, they entrusted it to their successors, laying hands on them to start the line of bishops and priests as stewards of that Tradition right up to the present day. So if anyone asks you how to get back beyond the Chinese whispers, back to Jesus’ original message, you might tell them to look to the bishops of the Church Jesus founded, who gave us our Bible and more importantly, continue to offer the Sacrifice Christ entrusted to them of His own body and blood given once upon the Cross and for all in the Divine Liturgy of the Eucharist.
As a reminder, especially to us priests, of Jesus’ commandment to love and to serve our brothers and sisters, the clergy are now going to wash the feet of certain members of the congregation.