Some of us may know only too well the experience of having someone we love being diagnosed with a terminal illness. After we get over the initial shock and the daze of emotions that comes with knowing there is only a short time left in their lives, we might begin to plan with them ways of making memories. The person may have a bucket list of things they want to do before they die or we plan things to do with them so as to bring them joy and happiness in their last moments. But we do this not just for them but also for ourselves – we want to have something by which to remember them after they have died.
Holy Thursday marks a similar moment in the life of Jesus. Jesus has told his disciples previously that when he goes to Jerusalem, he will suffer and die at the hands of the religious leaders but will rise again. But the disciples don’t take it in – like us with a diagnosis of a loved one’s illness, we may not want to believe what has been said or be in denial about what is happening. The disciples likewise refuse to believe it. How could this happen to their Master? The one who heals and raises from the dead? They probably thought he would live forever!
But in an upper room in Jerusalem on the eve of the Passover, Jesus has gathered his most trusted and faithful followers. He knows that his death is close – he has already made a statement by riding into the city on a donkey, he has criticized the religious leaders and he has overthrown the tables of the money changers in the Temple. The authorities are angry and they want to arrest him. He has been warned. Added to all this, he believes that his death has been foretold by prophets hundreds of years previously.
So he has a meal with his disciples but it is much more than a meal. He takes the bread and wine that were common food and drink in Jewish meals and completely changes their meaning forever. He wants his disciples to have something to remember him. But he is not just leaving them with a memory; he is giving them something physical. Something they can hold, something they can consume and something that can be part of their very being. Let me try to explain.
There is a fantastic scene in the film Gandhi where a vicar is travelling on a train in India and he decides to sit on the top of the train since the carriage is packed. He sits down opposite a man who looks at his dog collar. The man then says “Are you a Christian?” The vicar replies “Yes, I am.” The man cheerfully replies “My sister is a Christian. She drinks blood.” Then a pause. “Christ’s blood!” I remember laughing out load when I first saw this scene but it gets to the point I wish to make.
Jesus uses the words “This is my body” when giving them the bread and “This is my blood” when giving them the wine. In other words, “This is me”. Some would argue today that Jesus only meant this symbolically. But this had caused real problems for Jesus earlier in his ministry –the Gospel of John records an incident in which he had spoken to the crowds about eating his flesh and drinking his blood and they expressed disgust at what he was saying. Many of them stopped following him. But why would the people have walked away in disgust from Jesus if he only meant this symbolically? They walked away because they knew exactly what he meant. And this was also part of the reason why the early Christians were rumored to be cannibals by their pagan persecutors.
At this last supper, Jesus is giving the disciples something that will sustain them when he is gone. Not just a memory but food and drink. Spiritual food and drink. You have heard the phrase “You are what you eat”. We know that if we eat the right foods and keep a healthy diet, it will help us to get the energy, sustenance, nourishment and strength that we need to stay healthy. Our bodies will reflect what we eat.
This would be the same for the bread and wine in this meal – each and every time the disciples gathered for this meal and every time Christians, in the years that followed, gathered in their churches. This spiritual food and drink would sustain, nourish, renew and strengthen their spiritual lives. Why? By taking this food, they would receive Jesus himself – his love, his strength, his life, his body – into themselves. They could be no closer to him than when they ate this meal.
Yes, Holy Thursday night in that upper room was a desperately sad night. Jesus’ heart was breaking at his betrayal and what was to come but, in the midst of his suffering, his love shines through yet again. He was not thinking of himself but us.
And we get a chance to receive him every week in our churches. We become his body. We are what we eat. We can’t receive him at present due to the lockdown restrictions but perhaps, the next time we get to actually receive the Eucharist, it might just be that bit more meaningful.