Given on Thursday 1st April 2010 at The Abbey by The Vicar, Canon Eric Woods
On Thursday, April 15, in the year 1731, being Maundy Thursday, there was distributed at the Banqueting House, Whitehall, to 48 poor men and 48 poor women, the king’s age being 48, boiled beef and shoulders of mutton, and small bowls of ale, which is called dinner. After that, large wooden platters of fish and loaves, namely, one large old ling, and one large dried cod, twelve red herrings and twelve white herrings, and four half-quarter loaves. Each person had one platter of this provision; after which were distributed to them shoes, stockings, linen and woollen cloth, and leather bags, with one penny, two-penny, three-penny, and four-penny pieces of silver and shillings; to each about four pounds in value. His Grace the Lord Archbishop of York, Lord High Almoner, performed the annual ceremony of washing the feet of a certain number of poor in the Royal Chapel, Whitehall, which was formerly done by the kings themselves, in imitation of our Saviour's pattern of humility.
So went the report in The Gentleman’s Magazine, from which we learn that, by the reign of King George II, the simple and moving action of Jesus in washing the feet of his disciples on that first Maundy Thursday had been transformed into a rather different ritual. At least the King’s Almoner still washed feet on the Sovereign’s behalf: the last king to do it himself was James II. It had died out by the reign of Queen Victoria, when the distribution of the Maundy money became a token replacement for the herrings, dried cod and ‘large old ling’. One has difficulty in imagining Queen Victoria ever contemplating washing her subjects’ feet: she is not remembered for her humility. When she lay dying, one of the Royal Household said to Edward, the Prince of Wales, ‘I wonder if she will be happy in heaven?’ ‘I don’t know’, replied the Prince. ‘She’ll have to walk behind the angels and she won’t like that.’
And so we tend to forget that when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet it was not just as a symbol of his humility: it was the humility of the Son of God being enacted and transacted – or perhaps we should say, incarnated. To be in the presence of Jesus was to be in the presence of humility, and I for one believe that when we are in the presence of real humility today, then we are in the presence of Jesus. Which is a rebuke to me, because I don’t suppose that I will be remembered for my humility any more than Queen Victoria is for hers. But at least I recognise the fact, and struggle to do something about it – and I will be happy just to catch a glimpse of the angels, never mind walking with them.
So if we may say that, when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, his own humility was made present for them, then this gives us a clue as to what he was doing when he took the bread and blessed it, and broke it and gave it to his disciples with the words ‘This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me’ – and when after supper he took the cup and gave thanks and gave it to them saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ [1 Corinthians 11. 24-25].
For here is another action which does not stand for something other than itself, but stands for itself and creates what it represents. So to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the Mass, is not simply to symbolise something which happened once, long ago, but to make it present again: to make it present for each one of us, here and now.
I am painfully aware of the inadequacy of words to express what, ultimately, is a mystery – and of the inadequacy of my words to articulate that for which the Saviour needed bread and wine. But we need to hold on to this central fact that, although the Holy Communion is not and can never be a ‘sacrifice’ in the sense of Jesus dying again for us – he died ‘once and for all’, as the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us [7.7] – nor is it ‘just’ a symbol, ‘just’ a reminder. It is the making present again of what was done ‘once and for all’. And that is why we do it, again and again and again. It is, after all, something we do at the Lord’s own command: Do this.
But it is never – or should never be – just dull repetition. ‘Repetition’ is something written about by the theatre director Peter Brook, in his wonderful book about acting, The Empty Space (1968). Everyone – and certainly every ordained minister – should read The Empty Space the better to understand what it is we are doing when we ‘do’ liturgy, when we ‘perform’ public worship.
Having spoken of the absolute necessity of constant practice, constant rehearsal, in the theatre, Brook concludes No clown, no acrobat, no dancer would question that repetition is the only way certain actions become possible, and anyone who refuses the challenge of repetition knows that certain regions of expression are automatically barred to him. But he goes on: At the same time, repetition is a word with no glamour. It is a concept without warmth: the immediate association is a deadly one. Repetition is the piano lessons we remember from childhood, the repeated scales; repetition is the touring musical comedy repeating automatically, with its fifteenth cast, actions that have lost their meaning and lost their savour. Repetition is what leads to all that is meaningless in tradition.... These carbon-copy imitations are lifeless. Repetition denies the living.... And he goes on to ask: What can reconcile this contradiction? Here the French word for performance – représentation – contains an answer. A représentation is the occasion when something is re-presented, when something from the past is shown again – something that once was, now is.... It abolishes the difference between yesterday and today.
‘Something that once was, now is; it abolishes the difference between yesterday and today’. Here, from the theatre, comes perhaps the best definition of a sacrament I know. It helps us to understand that what happens in the sacraments does not depend on the various (and often conflicting) theories and doctrines the Church has invented to explain them. What happens depends on the intention of Jesus in bringing them into being as a way of continuing to be present in us and for us.
So when in a few moments Canon Jim, as the President of the Eucharist (representing Christ to us as well as us to Christ) washes the feet of some of you, he will be making the humility of Jesus present again, incarnate again. And when a little later in the service he takes bread and wine and blesses them and gives them to us, he makes the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Jesus present again. And the difference between then and now, between yesterday and today, is once more abolished.
Tomorrow, Good Friday, we are called to enter in heart and mind into what happened, long ago, ‘on a hill far away’, on a criminal’s cross outside the walls of Jerusalem. Here in the Abbey, in the meditations offered during the Three Hours’ Devotion, and in the enacted drama of the veneration of the Cross and the Liturgy of the Passion, we can go in heart and mind even unto Calvary. But thanks to what Jesus gave his disciples and all his followers ever since, on that first Maundy Thursday in the Upper Room, what happened long ago will on Easter Day become present for us again. It is a real presence – the Real Presence – and it depends on our being there – of course we have to be there – but, much more importantly, it depends on Jesus’ choice of this means – broken bread and poured-out wine – to be with us, always and forever, even to the end of the world.
And for that, thanks be to God.