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Friday, March 29, 2013

"Gave himself as food and drink"


Or, "God is awesome, but not for the reason you think," or "Yeah. You were there. You are still there."

Sometimes little things jump out at you from prayers. Partly it’s because our filters keep changing — we ourselves change, what we believe, what the beliefs are that we discard or that slough off when life gets hard or different, and we hear things we didn’t hear before, or they strike us as truer than we remember. In the opening prayer for the Holy Thursday liturgy, for instance, some words jumped out at me, and in a way they echo the ancient hymn we sang later, the Pange Lingua:

“On the eve of his death, as a sign of your covenant, he washed the feet of his disciples and gave himself as food and drink.”
In so many ways, that is unremarkable Christian speech. I don’t remember now if it is the prayer from the Roman missal or the prayer composed by ICEL for the Holy Thursday liturgy. Its words sound so familiar. And yet, when it makes itself apparent to us, it is startling. First, what happens is “as a sign of your covenant.” What is the covenant? All that language from the Jewish scriptures comes flooding in: You will be my people, and I will be your God. When you walk through the fire, I will be with you, all the rivers of the earth shall not cover you. God-with-us is the name of the covenant, God here with us. 

Christ the Servant, west wall of
St. Anne Church, Barrington IL
But what God is it whom we know to be in covenant with us? It is a kenotic deity, not a God like pagans have. Not a god whose hidden realm is like the realms of this world but even more glorious, not manifest in thunder and fire and destruction, but a God who kneels to wash the feet of people, and who gives himself as food and drink. I mean, let’s just get into that for a minute. Not only, then, is God revealed as one who bends to the place of a servant of those who follow him, but this same God gives himself as food and drink, that is, as food for people, to be consumed completely, and to become, utterly, irrevocably, substantially, at the molecular level, part of us. One bread, one cup, broken, poured out, shared, eaten, and now integral to the very corporeal reality of us. And then there is that command: Do this, whenever you do it, in remembrance of me. Do what? Eat dinner? I don’t think so. I think that serving, bending low, pouring ourselves out, giving ourselves as food and drink, it is this that brings the memory of Jesus to our thoughts.

The other thing that struck me today, as I was reading over the normative liturgy for Good Friday and the reproaches which so many of us have misunderstood for so long as reproaches against the Jews for putting Jesus to death, since he was the God of the covenant, was the way those “reproaches” repeat like a refrain before the wood of the cross:

Holy is God! Holy and strong! 
Holy immortal one, have mercy on us.
We look upon the cross, the gallows of the Roman empire, and the man who died there and was raised up from death after three days, and we sing “Holy! Strong! Immortal!” That strikes me as subversive. If we keep our fingers crossed, and are thinking, “O man, God is really going to kick some ass for this!” or something like that "praise" song “Awesome God”:
When He rolls up His sleeves
He ain't just puttin' on the ritz (our God is an awesome God)
There is thunder in His footsteps
And lightning in His fist (our God is an awesome God)
Well, the Lord wasn't joking
When He kicked 'em out of Eden...
Well, it’s praise all right. It’s just not praise of the God of whom Jesus is the icon. It’s some other god, Baal maybe, dressed up to look like a big strong manly king who can and will whip this sorry world into shape. If I’m honest, I have to say that, for modern people among whom I count my friends, many of them educated and committed Christians, most of the language of the reproaches sounds more petulant than retaliatory, the language of a jilted lover. There’s no implicit threat in the Reproaches, which might be the surprising part. The entire thing is simply, “I did this for you, and this is how you repay me. What have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me.” It's dayenu in reverse: "Wasn't it enough?" To the chagrin of the triumphalist, the Reproaches don't end with, “And now I’m really going to kick your collective butts, Satan-spawn children.”

We really don’t see ourselves in the role of godkillers. We weren’t there when they crucified my Lord. But what if this God has, for all we know, disappeared into food that we break and share, pour out and drink? What if this God has become human, as the great saints Athanasius and later Aquinas insisted, so that we might become divine? God chose to covenant, to be-with-us, in a particular way, but it is in the way that God is: generous, self-emptying, agape. Then the person we kill, or allow to be killed, by gun violence, or in war, or by starvation, or neglect, or exploitation, then the person we kill is God. And we were there
"How have I offended you? Answer me!"
In Jesus, God announced a realm different from human ones, and threw the divine lot in with the poor and disenfranchised, not condemning the wealthy, but calling everyone to share equally in the divine gift of the world. For his efforts, he was executed on a gallows for committing a capital offense, high treason against the other son of god, the other prince of peace, Tiberius Caesar. Today we’re asked to look on the man hanging on that gallows and bear witness to life: “Holy! Mighty! Immortal! Mercy.” We’ll do it in different music, with different words, in all the tongues of earth. We’ll taste his life again, given by his own hand in bread, and we, crucified and crucifiers, will try to wrench ourselves away from these idols that covet our affection and loyalty, and stand together with God-among-us. 

In every person left in poverty, every person left to die of thirst or curable disease, every bomb dropped, every IED detonated, every mental patient dropped on a curb in skid row, we are “there when they crucified my Lord.” That’s just where the Lord chose to be, eaten and drunk up by the dregs of the human race, people like us. Like us, like him. Crucified. 

Holy! Mighty! Immortal! Mercy.