Thursday, 13 April 2017

Maundy Thursday: the Cosmic Mystery

The Cosmic Christ
Imagine: you’ve just made a deal with someone and shaken on it. The person then goes off and breaks the deal straight away. When you ask them about it and point out that you shook hands, they say “What of it? It was just friction between flesh.”
Or imagine for a moment that I took your national flag and burned it right in front of you; and when you got angry, I said, “well, it’s just a piece of coloured cloth.”
Or to take another example, what if I ripped the head off a toddler's favourite teddy bear? She could cry all she liked, but after all, I could say, “it’s just some stuffed bit of polyester.” What’s all the fuss about?
Now of course, a handshake or even a kiss is friction between two people’s flesh. A flag is a piece of coloured cloth. A teddy bear is a stuffed bit of polyester. But to say that they are just any of these things is misleading. They have a deeper significance than their mere outward forms might suggest.
And yet there are those who like to say that the Eucharist Jesus instituted the night before he died was just a meal between friends, just an act of remembrance, and that the food we eat is just bread and wine.
There are even those within the Church who might say that Jesus is just a man, and certainly, it took about four centuries to come up with a satisfactory answer to how Jesus could be both God and man at the same time. Yet that was the conclusion of the Church, as it tested the ideas that Jesus was either just God in disguise as a man, or just a man claiming equality with God, and found both solutions wanting. The orthodox Christian faith therefore became one not of just one or the other, but of both.
It’s no secret (but is surely a shame) that the Church today remains divided in all sorts of directions. We have seen some of the fallout of those divisions close to home recently, when my predecessor Bishop Philip was pressured into refusing to become Bishop of Sheffield. Yet the major fault line between Christians nowadays, it seems to me, is not so much between traditionalists and liberals, or even Catholics and Protestants. It is between those on the one hand who believe that the God’s grace, integrally woven into his Creation right from the start, is still there; and those on the other who think that God’s grace has been more or less obliterated in the Fall by human sin. To put it another way, it is between those who think the image of God is deformed but still there in humanity and the rest of creation along with all our sin and wickedness, and those who think that sin has completely obliterated the image of God in us, that creation now is just creation unless grace is actively superimposed on it by God.
If you take the former view, that God’s grace is still present in Creation simply because God made it, then it stands to reason that the world and things and people are at their heart good, corrupted but still all part of God’s basic goodness.
If you take the other view, then the world and everything in it is fundamentally wicked and wretched, fit only for damnation. This view has its strong points. It begins in the writings of St Paul, and is built on by St Augustine, then reaches its climax at the Reformation in the thought of Calvin. Its strength lies in the idea that if we are completely and utterly depraved, empty of grace, then we have to rely entirely on God’s love for our salvation. Our own actions and the things of this world have no bearing on the next. We are utterly at the mercy of God who saves us, despite our sinful nature.
Yet this view comes with certain problems, too. It raises the question of why an all-powerful God would create something fit only for condemnation. It even risks making God responsible for evil, an impossibility if God is by definition entirely good. And St Augustine notwithstanding, it is certainly not the majority view of the early Church fathers, and does not reflect the practice of early Christians, whose theology and worship demonstrate a sense of connection between God and his creation in the person of Jesus Christ.
Maundy Thursday is primarily about Jesus’ double mandate (which is why we call it Maundy Thursday) first, to love one another as he has loved us, and second, to do this in remembrance of him: in other words, to celebrate the Eucharist. The night before he dies, Jesus gives us his followers the means to share in the death he is about to undergo on the Cross and in his Resurrection. He gives us the “daily bread” which he has taught us to pray for: epiousios artos, that difficult phrase in Greek which I have mentioned before means both “bread for our existence” and at the same time “supernatural bread.” A lot of knickers got twisted in the 16th century over whether the bread in the Mass stayed as bread or was completely transformed into Christ’s body, but the answer hinted at by that word epiousios in the Lord’s Prayer, and more fundamentally by Jesus’ own incarnate nature as both God and man, is that the Eucharist is not just one or the other, but simultaneously both the bread of earth and of heaven.
Tonight, Jesus links natural bread and wine to the supernatural gift of his eternal divine life tomorrow on the Cross. This gives us a principle, you could call it a sacramental principle, which gives a richness of meaning to the entirety of the created order and to our lives. To put this sacramental principle in the traditional language of the Church, as you will find in our own Book of Common Prayer, a sacrament is an outward, visible sign of an inner, invisible grace. The bread and wine are the outward, visible signs of the inner, invisible grace of the Body and Blood of Christ - and it is this principle, the principle embodied in Jesus’ life as both God and man and given to us by Jesus as the primal sacrament of the Eucharist, which anciently conditioned the Church’s view of reality.
For in the beginning, God made the world and saw that it was good. His Spirit brooded over the waters and gave creation form, he breathed it into Adam and Eve to give life to the human race; and it was as a human that he came among us as God the Son, Our Saviour Jesus Christ, to live and die and give us life.
Just so, from the earth he made we take wheat and grapes and make of them bread and wine, already suffused with God’s grace because it was by his grace, by the work of the Spirit, that he made them in the first place.
And so the Cross of Christ brings to perfection, realises and fulfils the graced potential of all reality, the entire cosmos, making the world our High Priest’s altar; an enriched, fulfilled reality in which we can participate through our altar here today. For in the Holy Eucharist, through our hands, Christ does not destroy the bread and wine to give us his body and blood, but brings their innate potential to perfection, making them food not just for our bodies but for our souls, and so gradually working the perfection of all reality.
The Last Supper was not just a meal, any more than the Crucifixion was just the execution of a radical rabbi. Tonight, as Christ offers his body and blood through bread and wine at our hands, he lifts us up with our brothers and sisters throughout the entire world and throughout all time, even with the saints in heaven, in an act of adoration and sacrifice of cosmic significance: as we dwell in him and he in us, we become the self-offering of God to himself, the Spirit-born Body of the Son lifted by the hands of angels to the Father.
For in this outward act of taking and eating and drinking, Christ reveals to us the true and perfect reality, the Kingdom lying in wait under the surface of creation, waiting to be blessed and broken and born anew: the mystery, the secret, the sacrament of salvation he entrusted to his Church that night before he died.

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