Ampleforth Abbey

14 December 2017

Talk I: Maundy Thursday

Almighty God,
grant that we may always glory
in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
for he is our salvation, our life and our resurrection,
and, in him, we are saved and made free,
through the same Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God for ever and ever.

I always get into trouble for doing this, but nonetheless, I am going to start this first talk of the retreat this year with a confession and an apology. Despite having been a member of this community for nearly 22 years, and despite this being my 19th Easter at Ampleforth, I have to confess to you all that – for a variety of good and worthy reasons with which I will not bore you – I have never actually attended any of the Triduum retreat talks given by the brethren. This leaves me, I feel, in a slightly vulnerable position, since many of you will be much, much more expert at how this retreat should go than I am – hence the need I feel to start with an apology. If you have come seeking novelty or high theology, you may well feel disappointed by the end; if you have come seeking wisdom or the heights of spirituality, then again, I fear you may leave empty-handed. I am not a professional retreat giver; indeed, the number of retreats I have given is a vanishingly small number, not quite infinitesimal, but nearly so. To be perfectly honest, I burst out laughing when Fr Abbot asked me to do this retreat, and was really quite shocked when, in answer to my question about how many people had already refused that he had had to ask me, his answer was “None”. It may be, however, that you can “make do” with the words of a fellow disciple, the thoughts and reflections of a brother who is himself engaged in the struggle to come to know Christ and the Father, who is himself still “searching for God” in this year of Faith. If you can indeed put up with that, then perhaps this will not be a complete waste of our time together.

You will have seen from your booklets that I have chosen to title these talks: “This is my Body”. The reason for that is a bit strange, but perhaps worth sharing with you by way of introduction. The title itself came to me, along with an outline plan, whilst at the Oxford University Chaplaincy some weeks ago. Before Morning Prayer each day, they have a 30-minute period of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and it was during one of these periods that the idea was, in some mysterious sense, given to me. I wish I could claim that my prayer is always so direct, or that I have some sort of “hotline” to God – but I can assure you that that is very much not the case. Nonetheless, a bit pious though it sounds, that is what happened, and these talks are the result of my personal reflection since then on those four words: “This is my Body”.

Those words are very familiar to us. They are drawn from Jesus’ own words at the Last Supper, as reported first by St Paul in his 1st letter to the Corinthians, and then from the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. They are words we hear each time we celebrate the Eucharist, words with which are familiar, words which we probably think we understand. But they are, I think, words which bear some examination, some reflection, some prayer, for they are words which – in many ways – could be thought to encapsulate the whole mystery of our salvation. As with the “familiar” in every circumstance of our life, they can pass us by without revealing the true depth which they contain. In a world so full of words, and a society which craves the novel and the unexpected, they can pass us by almost unheeded, unnoticed – we have heard it all before, and so we do not listen with the ear of our heart to what they are trying to say to us, we do not see with the eyes of faith the mystery which they can reveal to us.

So where to begin? Well, let us start with two basic facts which stand at the heart of our faith. In the first place, God created us as human beings. We do not really know how he did that – we could discuss for hours whether it was by divine “Fiat” or by some guiding hand exercised through the processes of evolution – but ultimately, it makes little difference. We believe that God created us as human and not as anything else. He did not create us to be bacteria, or dogs, or cats, or even angels, he created us to be human. It is one of the real potential pitfalls of our faith to misunderstand that – for at a number of times in the past, the emphasis of theology has been away from the physical, away from our bodily nature, away from the strange mixture of body, mind and spirit which we find ourselves to be, and to concentrate purely on the “spiritual”. Perhaps it is one of the greatest gifts of St Benedict to our Western culture that his Rule speaks so much about the concrete reality of his monks – they are young and old, healthy and sick, they need clothes, food, and drink, they need to work for a living – as well as needing to foster the spirit of silence, prayer and mindfulness of God which will make them more truly human. As such, Benedict stands in marked contrast to many earlier monastic writers, for whom the body was a snare of the devil, to be shunned and abused as much as possible for the sake of the spirit. It is, perhaps, little wonder that it is Benedict’s Rule that has survived. Anyway, we come back to our basic fact: God created us as human persons.

Our second basic fact is closely linked to this, and will come as no surprise. It is that we believe that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Word of God through whom all things were made, became incarnate from the Virgin Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit and was made Man. That is, that Jesus has a body like ours, that he too became fully human just as we are. Everything in our faith flows from this one fact, that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus is everything that we are as human beings, and we are called to be like him. Again, the fullness of the mystery of the Incarnation is a lifetime’s work of meditation; suffice it to say for now that we cannot understand the work of our redemption unless we at least accept this basic fact about who Jesus is.

Everything else I have to say springs from these two basic facts: that God has made us human, and that Jesus Christ too shares our human nature. It may seem that I am stressing this too much, but without these two core beliefs I do not think we can come to any understanding at all of what Jesus actually means when he says “This is my Body” to his disciples on that first Maundy Thursday, nor can we hope to come to any understanding of everything which flows from those four little words.

From this point onwards, having underlined the importance of those two basic facts, I am going to change tack a little. It might seem obvious, on this night of all nights, to concentrate on the theme of the Eucharist, but that is something perhaps best left to the Liturgy itself. Instead, I want to focus on two other themes which appear in this evening’s celebration, by way of casting some light on Jesus’ words “This is my Body”.

Tonight’s Gospel, John’s account of the events of the Last Supper, is always rather startling, no matter how often you have heard it. Unlike the Synoptic gospels, which concentrate on the Institution of the Eucharist (as already described by Paul in the earliest Institution narrative in 1 Corinthians), John gives a different, but complementary view in his account of Christ’s washing of the feet of the Apostles. We are all very familiar with this narrative, and indeed with Jesus’ own interpretation of his action in terms of service and humility, an interpretation which nothing I want to say should detract from. But I think we can add other perspectives which might help us understand our liturgy this evening.

This may sound a little bizarre, but I would crave your patience. As housemaster, I lived for 8 years in close proximity with over 60 teenage boys – and one of the things you experience in such circumstances is feet. No matter how much care you take and encouragement you give, adolescent male feet are unpleasant things – both for the possessor and those who live with them. Perhaps surprisingly, one of the things which made the boys in the house very self-conscious was their feet; indeed, there are many things which make teenage boys self-conscious, but in my experience there was little that they worried about more and little that they squabbled over more. For some it was the smell, for some the diseases like athlete’s foot, for some the assumptions (both negative and positive) people made about the rest of their anatomy from their shoesize, for some just the ugliness. Reflecting on this has made me think afresh about Jesus’ action, and the symbolic action we will perform tonight at the Liturgy. For that same sense of discomfort seems to afflict anyone invited to take part in the washing of the feet – we are squeamish about it, unwilling to display our feet in public, unhappy about partial undressing of even such a minor part of our anatomy in a public place, and even if we do agree to participate there is the pre-Mass panic to make sure that feet are already triple-scrubbed, that socks are clean, that nails are short. In short, although the liturgical action is very beautiful as an idea, it seems to confront us with a truth about ourselves we would rather not admit and we shy away, just as Peter did.

I am not trying to be flippant or funny, but perhaps our feet are something of an icon of our spiritual life. Let me try to explain. (In this next section, you might want to mentally substitute the words “soul” or “prayer life” whenever I mention “feet”). When we are very young, our feet rarely cause us problems. They are amazing structures, anatomically perfect for their function, and with the right care and attention from our parents and ourselves, they grow along with us, support us, carry us out into the world and into the adventure of life. But as we grow older things can start to go wrong. In our teenage years, our feet again change with us, but now they seem to rebel, they seem to challenge our dearest notions of self and self-image, embarrassing us and making us self-conscious and uncomfortable, reminding us that we are not fully in control of ourselves. Caring for our feet seems to get more difficult, and even if we try it seems to make little difference. Yet still they support us in what we do, and we cannot do without them. Older still, and – unless we are very careful – our feet begin to collapse as they are battered by our daily life; ligaments weaken, joints slacken, the blood moves more slowly; our feet can become cold. Nails yellow and curl, and arthritis can make the joints painful and deformed. Even the careless choice of the “fashionable” over the “sensible” can hopelessly wreck the structure of our feet, and all future progress becomes more difficult. Eventually, as we reach old age, the very slowness of the blood makes us prey to disease – there is the loss of sensitivity brought on by diabetes, the erosive ulcers of peripheral vascular disease, the gradual withdrawal of life. Most of us who have reached a certain age would probably admit that we are ashamed of our feet, and the state we have let them get into – and perhaps we would say the same about our souls.

You may think this simile is hopelessly extended, and perhaps it is. But it is our feet which both link us most closely to the earth and yet, paradoxically, which allow us to climb upwards. When Jesus reaches out to Peter and the others at the Last Supper, he is doing much more than simply taking on the role of a servant. No, he is touching them where they least want him to, is caring for them where they are most ashamed, is healing them where they know they most need it, but would never have dared to invite him. Jesus’ hands touch not only the grime and the sweat of the everyday, but reach into the concrete mystery of human life; they reach into the whole history of each individual, each plodding step of their life, each ligament and sinew deformed by the pressure of the everyday, and they bring new cleanness, comfort, soothing – a new chance to take a new path. Perhaps it is that which – if only in part – underlies Jesus’ comment to Peter “Unless I wash you, you can have no part with me”. But perhaps that is why we too, like Peter, are so uncomfortable. We are ashamed, ashamed that Jesus can already see every deformity, every blemish, every bunion – and yet still he waits, basin and towel in hand, still he waits for us to sit down and be served.

There is another perspective on tonight’s liturgy, in some senses closely linked to what we have just examined, which I would like to explore, though now perhaps more briefly.

If we are honest with ourselves, we know that it is not just our feet that are our problem. Like Peter, we cry out at Jesus’ first touch “Then not only my feet, but my head and my hands as well!” We know that there is much that is wrong in us, in the way we live, in the way we treat others. Above all, we find that in many ways we are “broken people” – not failures necessarily, not without faith, not without gifts, not without many good qualities – but yet we still find something missing, like a bucket with a hole in it. We spend so much of our time and energy trying to fulfil our tasks, trying to be good, trying to pray, trying to care for those around us – and yet so much of the good we seek to do seems to drain away ineffectually, like water from the leaking bucket. We never seem to be quite up to the job, quite where we know we should be, never quite the people God has called us to be. Something in us is broken. And if we find ourselves broken in ourselves, then we find too that we are broken in our relationships, in our relationships with each other, in our relationship with God.

Think back to Jesus’ action at the Last Supper. Paul tells us that “the Lord Jesus took some bread, and thanked God for it and broke it, and he said, ‘This is my Body’”. Think of what is happening. Jesus has just offered his disciples a clear sign of his love for them in the washing of their feet, offering his bodily service for the healing and cleansing of their bodies. Now, with the same hands with which he washed their feet, he takes bread, blesses it and – with his own hands – breaks it, and – again with those same hands – he himself gives it to them. Only then do we hear his words: “This is my Body”. We hear the words describing this ritual action so often that perhaps we don’t hear them in their fullness.

I think there are two things here which we might ponder. I tried to stress earlier at least something of what the Incarnation means, that is that Jesus shares fully in our nature as human beings. For us, that nature carries with it the burden of brokenness, a brokenness which we know is – in some mysterious way – attributable to what we refer to by the “shorthand” label of original sin, that scar in our nature that we inherited from our first parents, that scar we each experience as part of the reality of human life. For Christ, the Son of God, the second Adam, that scar is not present – and yet Christ himself recognises our brokenness, longs to enter it and to heal it, longs to heal that scar from the inside, as it were. And so, Jesus chooses to break the bread himself and to give it to his disciples. He chooses, in mystery and proleptically, by way of a sign which will soon be fulfilled, to enter our brokenness himself, of his own free will, by his words and actions at the supper. He could, I suppose, have simply handed around the loaf, asking his disciples to share it among themselves, to take what they wanted, but that is not what he does. No, with absolute deliberation he chooses brokenness for himself for our sake and gives himself to us in a second act of love which surpasses even the first.

Further, Jesus seems to be trying to teach us something more. He has realised that only what is broken can be shared, that only what is broken can be given to each one. But the purpose of the breaking is not division, but unity – not an empty breaking which splits a primal unity into fragments, but a new and fruitful brokenness which unites all in a new communion. In a rather beautiful way, we meet this same idea during the great hymn of praise to the Risen Christ, the Exsultet, which is sung at the beginning of the Vigil. The cantor sings: “A fire into many flames divided, yet never dimmed by the sharing of its light – may its flame be found still burning by the Morning Star, the one Morning Star that never sets, Christ your Son”.

Yet tonight, the stark cost of Jesus’ free choice to hand himself over to his disciples in this act of love will become all too clear. He has chosen to share our brokenness by entering it himself, and – within a few hours – he will hand himself over again to those who seek him, who seek him no longer in love but in hatred, with lanterns and torches and weapons, as if he were an enemy. It is the way he has chosen, not for himself, but for us, a path he has chosen to walk not for himself, but in obedience to his Father’s longing for our salvation.

Jesus comes to us in that same way tonight, as we begin our celebration of the Paschal Mystery. He comes to touch and wash and heal us where we are most in need, where we are most ashamed. He gives himself again to us, choosing to share our human brokenness, uniting us through his gift of himself each time he speaks those words: “This is my Body, which is for you”.

Lord Jesus Christ,
you gave us the Eucharist as the memorial of your suffering and death.
May our worship of this sacrament of your body and blood
help us to experience the salvation you won for us
and the peace of the kingdom,
where you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit,one God for ever and ever.