Sermon by Canon Tom Clammer, Precentor
Lections of the Day
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
The then Archdeacon of Gloucester came and preached Holy Week in the last year of my Curacy, at Gloucester, and he memorably said on Maundy Thursday evening, “can you remember your first kiss? Can you remember where you were when Princess Dianna died? Can you remember the first time you received Holy Communion?”
Maundy Thursday has at its heart a small number, perhaps just two or three, key words, key concepts. And the most important one of all is Remembrance. Remembrance. An immense amount of things happen on the evening we now call Maundy Thursday night – we remember the Last Supper, the institution of Holy Communion. We remember Judas betraying Christ, and the darkness gathering in. We remember Jesus kneeling on the floor before his disciples and washing their feet. We remember the hours of waiting and watching in the Garden of Gethsemane, which we will symbolically do, later, in the Trinity Chapel, which is transformed for us this one night of the year, into the Garden of the Watch. We remember, finally, Jesus’ arrest, and the scattering of the disciples, their weak nerve and faith failing, as they disappear in all directions into the night. Notice, if you will, the last rubric of today’s order of service which reminds us that as we leave this evening we are: “leaving the Sacrament behind us and passing down the nave and out into the night.” We abandon Christ this evening, as did the first disciples, and when we re-gather tomorrow afternoon we pick up the story watching, from a distance, as did Peter, and Mary, as the final events unfold.
In all of this, we remember. We make a remembrance of these events, not just recalling them, but reliving them, in a sense, entering into the story, allowing the story, the Gospel, to transform us. I remember Jeffrey John, now the Dean of St Albans, leading a bible study at theological college and saying that of course we don’t read the bible, the bible reads us. Allow the bible, the story, allow Christ, to read you this night. Allow his eyes of love and pity to lock with yours. Allow Gethsemane to work its harsh but refining power.
Remembering has always been part of religious tradition. God’s ancient people the Jews, each Passover, look to that text from Deuteronomy 16, “remember that you were a slave in Egypt.” The second of the four great questions traditionally asked by a child at Passover is, ‘why on this night do we eat bitter herbs?’, to which the adult answers, “We eat bitter herbs to remember the bitterness of slavery in Egypt.”
We re-member. We put the story back together again each year, in order to allow the story, the Gospel, to put us back together.
And so we remember two simple things, tonight, above all other. We remember service, and we remember gift. A moment ago the Dean, our chief pastor, and the Chancellor, our president this evening, re-membered the washing of the disciples’ feet. Outer garments put off, a bowl and a towel taken up, and feet washed. It’s very difficult to find twelve of you willing to have your feet washed each year. Jeremy left me a note to warn me about that! And reasons given for why one’s feet ought not to be become liturgical feet tonight are manifold: Oh, my feet aren’t very nice. Or, my nails are grotty. But of course that is the point. That’s exactly what Peter said too. The disciples’ feet would have been hot and sweaty from walking everywhere all day. They needed cleaning, and usually a slave would have done that for them. What is being modelled here is the sort of service which Jesus is about to perform for the people on the Cross. He will serve them, by taking the lowest place, by showing them what service is actually all about. It is about getting rid of those preconceived ideas about how God’s people ought to be. We’re not a superior people – we’re a foot-washing people, or at least we ought to be. Or at least we ought to want to be.
We remember, tonight, something about service. Something about how it is that disciples of Christ ought to be able to be recognised – not for their endless bickering and snarking about whatever the ethical and theological issue of the day might be, as interesting and as important as those things might be, but because they are people who kneel, and wash. People who love. Who love everyone. Judas has his feet washed this evening, also. Before he rises and goes on his way to commit the dreadful betrayal which lurks deep within all of our hearts, of which we are all capable. But Christ kneels at his feet and washes them anyway, such is his love, so amazing, and so divine.
And then we remember gift. Jesus takes the simple things of life, things found on every Palestinian’s table, bread, wine; and he makes them extraordinary. He makes them gift. He delivers to his church, on the very night that he will be arrested, tried and sentenced to death, the most precious gift imaginable. He gives himself. This is my body. This is my blood. He doesn’t say, this reminds you of my body, this reminds you of my blood. He says that it is. And whatever your theology of transubstantiation and Real Presence, something is clear here – It is the whole of himself that Christ gives to his people. Nothing is kept back, no part of the stage of Christ’s life is kept hidden. The curtains are drawn back, as the veil of the Temple will be torn aside tomorrow afternoon. There is a lot of tearing in these next twenty-four hours. Tearing curtains, tearing of Mary’s heart as she watches her Son die too early and in agony, and in a moment tearing bread, and pouring wine, prefiguring the tearing of flesh and the dripping of blood of tomorrow, where on the Cross sorrow and love flow mingled down. And what does he give to the poor, sinful, hopeless, deserting group gathered around him, even as one of his twelve closest friends approaches through the darkness a guttering torch in his hand, handing over God in exchange for money? Take, eat. Drink this, all of you. This is me. This is how much I love you. Take this gift into your hands, into your selves. Take it, even though you are about to abandon me. Take it even though you don’t understand what it is, or how it transforms you each and every time to hold out your hands to me. Take and eat, take and drink, in spite of, because of, all of that. Do this in remembrance of me.
Can you remember the first time you received Holy Communion? Re-membering, putting it back together again. Making space in our hearts and in our minds for the story to incorporate us. We don’t tell the Gospel – the Gospel tells us. The Gospel tells Salisbury Cathedral. As we stretch out our feet and humble ourselves to our Master – as we kneel in front of others and humble ourselves to them, as we stretch out our hands, and eat and drink and remember, the Gospel tells us. We become part of the Story.
Even as we flee, because he knows that we will, even as without order or ceremony we pass into the night, in silence and in confusion this evening. Even as we re-gather tomorrow to kneel before the sign and symbol of our very identity, the sign that was inscribed on our foreheads at our baptism, and into our souls long before that, the Gospel tells us, in bread and wine and water and in a Cross as large as the universe and as small as our faith, traced upon our hearts, the Gospel tells us. Moulds us, washes us, feeds us, and makes us nearer what Christ’s people ought to be.