St Michael and All Angels

Observatory, Cape Town

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Maundy Thursday, 2016

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 In the three year rotation of Gospel readings for this evening, tonight we focus on that of S Luke. What does this Evangelist tell us about this Holy Night?
 
First of all, note that the text makes it clear that this was the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which observant Jews also call the Passover. All that goes on there in the upper room happens in the context of the disciples and Jesus celebrating and observing the Passover. It is important that we recognise that Christ does not institute a new ritual. He takes an old ritual and establishes a new covenant. He modifies the old ritual, He changes the meaning of the old ceremony, but it’s essentially the same Passover ceremony.
 
Let’s consider for a moment the details of the preparation for the meal as given us by S Luke. S Luke seems to make much of the selection of a room and the instructions Jesus gave S Peter and S John concerning it. There seems to be a certain degree of secrecy about the instructions. Jesus could have said “just go to such and such a street, and it’s the third house on the left.” That would be the normal way to give directions. But Jesus gave them an almost clandestine arrangement: you will see a man with a water pot, follow this man to his house and so forth. If you have a curious mind you should be asking yourself why the subterfuge? Jesus obviously knew the place he intended to observe the Passover. Why didn’t he just come out and say it?
 
In solving that problem you should remember that Judas went to the chief priests and agreed to betray Jesus when the crowd was not around. He was looking for the right opportunity when Jesus was out of the public eye so that he could alert the chief priests, and they could send a mob of soldiers and arrest him without a lot of fanfare. Jesus therefore answered the disciples question about where they would hold the feast without giving away the location. Only S Peter and S John would go there, and they would not know where it was until they saw the man carrying a water pitcher. Incidentally, that was not as common a sight as you might think. Carrying pitchers of water on their heads was typically the thing women did. So to see a man do it would attract their notice.
 
The point was to avoid giving the information to Judas before the time that God had appointed Jesus to be betrayed. Jesus knew the hour that God had appointed, and that all the events that would happen had to occur in such a time frame so that he would be crucified during the time that the Passover lambs were being slain, around 3pm on Friday. The time to which S Luke is pointing us was Thursday morning.
 
Furthermore, Jesus wanted to observe the Passover Feast with his disciples. It would be the last opportunity for him to teach them and pray with them and show them things that would become foundational to the church after he was gone. And so Jesus gave S Peter and S John instructions about the location and the preparation in such a way that Judas was unaware of the essential details.
 
Much later that day, after everything was ready, vs. 14 tells us that the hour had come to eat the Passover meal. Jesus reclined at the table with the apostles.
 
Jesus had spoken to his disciples about his impending death. The Gospel of S John tells us that he had said that his prayer was that all of them might be one. Our Lord laid a premium on the unity of believers. It was his prayer then and it certainly is his prayer for us today. 
 
You will notice that our liturgy for this evening takes this teaching of Our Lord seriously as we pray that we might be one. 
 
Through the history of the church there has been much which has divided believers, but, for those with ears to hear and eyes to see, there has also been much which held up before us the possibility of the prayer of Jesus being answered. 
 
One such event took place on Holy Wednesday, the 23rd March, 50 years ago. On that day Archbishop Michael Ramsey became the first Archbishop of Canterbury to make an official visit to the Pope in Rome. Such were the feelings at the time that there were protesters at Heathrow Airport as the Archbishop flew out.
 
It was a meeting charged with emotion. The Pope in his welcome said that Archbishop Michael had begun rebuilding the bridge between the Church of Rome and the Church of Canterbury. Much of the venom and bitterness of the past was forgotten. In an historic gesture the Pope presented the Archbishop with the episcopal ring he had worn as Archbishop of Milan. That was a fulfilment of the Lord’s prayer that we might be one. The Pope was making an important theological statement about our church and those who are called to Holy Orders within her.
 
Many years later Pope  S John Paul II was to repeat the statement when  he was meeting with Archbishop Rowan Williams – who was incidentally wearing the ring Pope Paul had given his predecessor. It was the day before S John Paul was to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his becoming Pope. He had planned on giving every bishop in the Roman church a silver pectoral cross as a memento of the anniversary. On the eve of the celebration he presented Archbishop Rowan, and the bishops with him, with the same silver pectoral cross. 
 
What has this to do with the portion of the Gospel of S Luke in which we were told of the institution of the Mass? Everything, I would say. The ultimate sign of our being one in the church of Jesus is that we share the meal he gave us as a sign of his new covenant with humanity. Various churches and denominations do not receive the Sacrament of the Altar with each other for a variety of theological reasons. 
 
The two stories I mentioned point us to the fact that there is movement towards that unity in Jesus. It is costly, but it is worth it as we will be upholding the wish of our Lord.
 
On the night before he died he gave us the Sacrament of the Altar, just as in his death he would give us himself. Through his death we can have life. Through his sacramental food we can have the strengthening we need to live out our calling as those who belong to Jesus.
 
 

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