Holy and Great Thursday, 2020

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

At the Vesperal Liturgy of Holy and Great Thursday—the vesperal liturgy of the Mystical Supper—we read a long composite Gospel, drawn from the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John (Matt. 26: 2­–20; John 13: 3–17; Matt. 26: 21–39; Luke 22: 43–45a; Matt. 26: 40–27: 2), really Matthew’s account, interspersed with passages from John and Luke. It is a deliberately dense account, drawing together into a single narrative the rather different emphases of the three Evangelists (in contrast, at the Mattins of the Twelve Gospels, each Evangelist is given a chance to speak for himself, as it were). Consequently, it is a very rich Gospel reading, and a challenge to the preacher who needs to distil from it just a few points.

I want to start by going back to perhaps the most familiar words of the Gospel, the Lord’s Prayer (which we know in Matthew’s account): the prayer Jesus gave to his disciples, when they asked him how to pray (Matt. 6: 9–13). The first thing I want to note is that it is a prayer. If we ask ourselves what it is that Jesus left behind for his followers, it is not some teaching, moral or doctrinal, nor is it an organized community, the Church: what he left us was a prayer; he left us a way of praying. If we are to follow him, then—yes, we should try to be good and help other people; we should believe that he is the Son of God, one of the Trinity; but first of all, we must pray, pray with him, who left us a prayer than begins, ‘Our Father’. Together with him, we pray to the Father. The only other distinctive thing he left us to remember him by is the Eucharist: taking bread and wine, blessing, offering, and eating and drinking them, ‘in remembrance of [Him]’, εἰς τὴν ἐμὴν ἀνάμνησιν, as the Apostle Paul and the Evangelist Luke (and only them!) tell us (1 Cor. 11: 24; Luke 22: 19). A prayer—and another prayer, for the Eucharist, the Divine Liturgy, is above all a prayer.

But I want to concentrate on two episodes in the Gospel for today: first, the mystical Supper, the Eucharist; and secondly, the Agony in the Garden—and relate each of these episodes to the Lord’s Prayer, to the petitions, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ and ‘Your will be done, on earth as in heaven’.

‘Give us this day our daily bread’: it sounds so simple, but it isn’t really. The word we confidently translate ‘daily’ is what scholars call a hapax legomenon, a word that is ‘read only once’. And consequently we cannot be sure what it means. The Greek is epiousion, ἐπιούσιον (in Russian/Slavonic: насущный, Romanian: spre fiinţă); the Old Latin translation was cotidianum, ‘daily’, and St John Chrysostom tells us that it means ‘daily’ (and he spoke the language!), but Jerome, in his ‘Vulgate’ translation was not happy with panem nostrum cotidianum, and instead translated panem nostrum supersubstantialem, ‘our super-substantial bread’, splitting epiousion in two—epi–ousion—and taking epi to mean ‘above’, super. Other Greeks than Chrysostom were puzzled and tried to work out the meaning in the same way as Jerome did (or whom Jerome was following): epi-ousion means ‘above’ or transcending ‘being’, a very special bread, not ordinary bread that belongs to the world of ordinary existence or being (which is very like what the Slavonic and Romanian translators were presumably doing, taking epi to mean ‘towards’, на or spre, so it is bread that takes to ‘being’, that enables us truly to be). So not just ‘daily’, but taking us beyond this ordinary world: in receiving the body of Christ, we are not receiving ordinary bread, but a bread that enables to transcend ordinary existence, that take us to the source of true being. And so we call the supper at which the Lord inaugurated the Eucharist not, as in the West, the ‘last supper’, the last meal of Jesus’ earthly life, but the ‘mystical supper’, a mysterious meal that takes us into the realm of true reality—the Kingdom: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven; Give us today our bread that takes us into being…’ ‘Of this mystical supper, admit me today as a communicant…’

The bread that takes us to the kingdom, to the fulfilment of God’s will for us, which is what heaven is: the condition of accepting God’s will, of joining with the angels in heaven. But in between: Your will be done, in earth as in heaven. Which takes us from the mystical supper into the Garden of Gethsemane. After the mystical supper, the foot-washing, and the departure of Judas, they all sing a hymn and go out to the Mount of Olives. Nearby is the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus takes with him the inner group of the disciples, Peter, James, and John, and leaving them sitting there, he goes into the garden to pray. He goes three times; his prayer is the same: ‘if it be possible, let this cup pass from me, nevertheless not what I will, but what you will’. Jesus becomes full of grief, and distressed. Luke tells that an angel is seen by him, strengthening him. He is in agony, his sweat falls to the ground like great drops of blood. Three times he prays; three times he goes back to the three apostles, and finds them sleeping; three times he asks for the cup to be taken away; three times he concludes, addressing the Father: ‘but not what I will, what you will’. Going back to the apostles the first time, he says to Peter, ‘Could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit is eager, but the flesh is weak’: he is not just talking to Peter, but to himself—he knows all about the frailty of his humanity, of our humanity. It is because he shared our weakness that we can turn to him and beg for strength. When we pray, ‘You will be done’, we are not acquiescing in what is going to happen anyway, we are committing ourselves to strive to fulfil God’s will, whatever the cost, and living in a fallen world, that cost will not be cheap. We are joining our prayer to the prayer that Jesus prayed in the Garden.

Fulfilling God’s will for us is the very heart of what we mean by following Christ. Christ’s agony in the garden shows us what that faithfulness could cost—will cost, at some point. And yet we are not called to be heroes, achieving great things in our own strength, we are called to be those in whom Christ manifests his love for the world. ‘Your will be done…’—‘Give us this day our daily bread’, the bread that we need day by day, but epiousion bread, bread that becomes the body of Christ, so that we become Christ’s as we feed on him. Amen.

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