‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ This is what St. Paul records Jesus as saying on the night that he participated at the Festival of Passover for the last time but for the first time in a new and startling way.
‘Do this in remembrance of me.’
Now if we put the emphasis in that sentence on the word ‘remembrance’ then today’s celebration, and every eucharist, is primarily about memory, looking back to a past event and bringing it into the present. If, however, the emphasis is placed on the last word ‘me’ then the focus is on the presence of Jesus (his life and teaching), recalled in a very particular way through the eating of bread and the sharing of wine.
But if the emphasis is placed on the first word ‘do’ as in ‘do this in remembrance of me’ then perhaps we can see differently. There is an imperative to ‘do something’ and I hope this insight will be helpful on this Feast of Corpus Christi.
If we go back to the original testimonies of the Gospel writers and Paul, then we discover those writers were at pains to describe Jesus’ actions as well as his words. We’ve just heard: ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ But what did Jesus actually do on that Passover night?
He received (or took), he gave thanks, he broke and he shared.
Actions and picture stories were the way Jesus communicated.
In my view, the emphasis on his actions alters the meaning of the event. Instead of remembering and looking back, this occasion becomes charged with an imperative to ‘do something’ now and as we leave this place to return to our homes and places of work. I think it is the Orthodox Church which talks about the liturgy after the liturgy – in other words, what we celebrate now becomes real in as much as we live our lives in a eucharistic way: that four-fold – receiving, thanking, breaking, sharing. As today’s collect states: ‘that we may know within ourselves/and show forth in our lives/the fruits of your redemption.’ The eucharist is realized and actualised in our own bodies when it flows into and energises who we are.
So let me look briefly at those four actions:
On the whole we are not very good at receiving: the Protestant work ethic has told us for many years that dignity is earned and it is far superior to earn than to receive. There is a huge cultural pressure to be productive and achieve and whilst some of this is appropriate not so much attention has been given to other ways of realising our humanity. This may account for an unhealthy imbalance in some quarters of Christian spirituality between excessive good works and too little grace. Being graceful flows from a prayerful attention to God’s promptings. Prayer is as much about receiving, being still and listening in God’s presence, as it is about being good. Receiving is an action - a sign of the eucharist being made real in our lives.
Second (and connected to receiving) is thanking. As we become aware, or are reminded, that all of life is a gift and, if a common response to when we receive a gift is to say ‘thank you’, so the occasions for thanking God are myriad: gratitude for the food that we eat, appreciation of the friends and opportunities we enjoy at school and in leisure, thankfulness for the relative order and stability of our nation with those deep roots back to Magna Carta in 1215. Learning to stop being in perpetual motion in order to receive and give thanks to God is a hallmark of the Christian way. ‘To be haunted by the scent of the unseen roses’ as one writer put it and to savour that moment.
Third, the action of breaking speaks of the costliness of Jesus’ sacrifice. This eucharistic gesture will connect with our own experiences of pain and suffering, some of which will be known to others and some we keep hidden. Breaking and being broken seem to be an inevitable part of life but it is through those experiences that we grow in spiritual maturity and develop a second heart, a heart of compassion, suffering with/for others. A geologist once commented that when a rock cannot be identified because of a smoothing away of its outer surfaces through time then it will have to be ‘broken open’ in order to be named - to reveal a fresh surface with all those glittering minerals on display.
Breaking also reminds us that the people of God are called to be prophetic – to break with systems and attitudes that are unjust, to acknowledge and challenge the collusions and prejudices within our own house, and to learn with real intent from those who start from a very different place in life. The task of breaking is not purely a negative action: it is a positive one. Jeremiah the prophet destroyed a vessel, not to throw it away, but to start again, and to make it yet more perfect.
And lastly, sharing. Of these four gestures which show the real character of the church through Christ’s own body, sharing is the most natural of gestures. As we celebrated last Sunday, God is a community of three:
Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God knows himself and relates to himself in community. If you and I are made in the image of God, then we can only truly reflect the communal nature of God when we live out our lives in relation to one another. Not in isolation, but in communion with one another.
On this day on which the Christian church gives thanks for that first communion made in a startlingly new way (the institution of a Holy Communion), we hear: ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’
What did he do?
Four actions – receiving, thanking, breaking and sharing.
In as much as we participate in these we become members of the ‘royal priesthood’ to which people are invited through baptism. So the maxim: ‘actions speak louder than words’ takes on new meaning and gives fresh impetus as we give thanks today for being members of one body in the presence of God.