Maundy Thursday commemorates the last meal that Jesus had with his disciples before he was arrested by Jerusalem’s temple guards, a meal at the time of the Jewish festival of Passover. It’s a meal which has gone on since to be ritualised by Christians as the eucharist, our defining ritual.
As with many things administered by organisations, meaning can be the first casualty of the systems which support it. Many years ago I asked a class of schoolchildren what they already knew about the eucharist, and they told me it needed a priest, and folk had to be confirmed in order to participate. What I took from this was that the regulations had obscured the meaning.
In fairness, the ease with which churches sat in British culture, until the 1960s and even some time after, meant that it would take a considerable leap of the imagination to understand the subversive character of a faith conceived in opposition to imperial domination, and the radical power of the rituals which it conceived. The eucharist I grew up with had been domesticated into a rite designed to foster personal piety.
These days, as we recover our identity as counter-cultural bodies, churches are developing eyes to see how potentially inflammatory our primary rite is. We can now imagine what it must have been like, in occupied Jerusalem, for the Roman authorities to anticipate a festival which was the subjugated people celebrating their identity. Passover was nothing less than a re-telling of their origins as a people, a people liberated from subjugation from an imperial power. This festival, in the context of occupied Judea, made it potentially seditious.
Setting the fourth gospel aside for the sake of brevity, Mark, with Mathew and Luke following him, style the Last Supper as a Passover meal. As with other meals which passed through Jesus’s hands, bread and wine, no less than loaves and fishes, are shared out in accordance with the idea that there is enough for all. The land is God’s, says the Torah, we are tenants and the distribution of its bounty is according to God’s justice, which is to say, enough for all. In a country where the land was being commercialised by the Romans and the Jewish aristocracy, God’s food for all is an unwelcome, and counter-cultural, conviction.
For Christians, the primary acts of Jesus’s meal, the sharing of bread and wine as body and blood, and for it to be shared with all, even Judas, is saying that to live counter-culturally is to court violence upon yourself. The meal is an enactment of denying self and taking up your cross, ‘for those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it’ (Mark 8:35) It is an attempt to bring all his followers into step with his way through death to new life.
Just as the Passover meal was food for the journey, so bread is about belonging together, and wine, representing blood, is a reversal of the old sacrificial notion that blood should be left on the altar as representing divine life-force. By sharing the wine Jesus is telling his followers to take divine life-force into themselves and to be empowered by it.
Maundy Thursday takes us back into the cauldron of occupied Judea, to the opposition of the Empire of Caesar and the Kingdom of God, and this rite embodies all the challenges which arise from that collision.
To recover and to enact all those meanings of the rite is far more important than who is authorised to make the rite happen, and who is permitted to partake in it.
Andrew Spurr is the Vicar of Evesham in the Diocese of Worcester