by Ted Schroder
On Maundy Thursday we celebrate the institution of the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion. When he inaugurated it Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19) Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury during the English Reformation under King Henry VIII, wrote in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer that Jesus, at the supper in the upper room, on the night before he died, “did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of that his precious death and sacrifice, until his coming again.” (BCP p.334)
Christians have inherited from the people of Israel an emphasis on the centrality of memory. Every single Christian confession is an exercise in memory. To say what we believe about Jesus is to remember him who lived in a given time and place in the past. Every celebration of Holy Communion is an event of memory. It is conducted ‘in remembrance’ of Jesus Christ, of what he has done and of what he will do and how it affects us.
Memory defines our identity. To be a Jew is to remember the Exodus through the Passover celebration. To be a Christian is to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. Take away the memory of the Passion of Christ and you will have removed the heart that energizes and directs our actions and forms our hopes. That is why the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is one of the basic marks of the Church, along with Baptism and the preaching of the Word.
The Passover Seder’s purpose is not so much to convey historical information (though it does so), as to transmit a vital past through time. Rather than simply recollecting the distant event, sacred memory bridges time and draws one into the past event today. All elements of the Seder are designed to take each person back to Egypt, to make each one feel as if she had been actually redeemed from Egypt.
The same holds true of Christian Holy Communion. When we celebrate Holy Communion by reading Scripture, narrating the story of Christ, singing praise, praying, eating bread and drinking the cup, we do not simply recall the Passion of Christ – we ritually narrate the death and resurrection of Christ as events in which we ourselves are most intimately implicated. In remembering Christ, we remember ourselves as part of a community of people who have died and risen together with Christ and whose core identity consists in this spiritual union with Christ. Cranmer prayed that “we, and all others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.” (BCP p.336)
Remembering involves not only the past but also the future. We try to remember to do something in the future, e.g. we say, “Remember to do so and so tomorrow.” We hold in our memory what we expect to happen in the future. If Christ’s story is our story, then in remembering Christ we remember not just his past but also in a significant sense our future. In remembering Christ’s death and resurrection, we remember what will happen to us, to our community, the world over. We remember that through Christ’s death and resurrection, we can anticipate going through our own death to our resurrection when our time comes. Just as God the Father was faithful to Jesus is raising him from the dead, so he will be faithful to us in raising us from the dead. We remember that God intervened in Christ on our behalf. We remember that Christ will come again and take us to himself. We remember all those who have gone on before us in the communion of saints, who gather at the wedding feast of the Lamb in heaven.
We remember God’s promise. A promise describes what the one who makes the promise will bring about. As Jesus Christ was raised from the dead by the Father, so will those of us who remember him be raised from sin and the fear of death to join those who have gone before us in time.
When we remember Christ’s Passion, we remember his vindication by God, not only his suffering at the hands of evildoers. As Christ was raised, so also will those who suffer be raised with him. They are not forever imprisoned in their present suffering or their tormented past. Along with Christ they are on the path through death and resurrection – in this life and the next. What happened to him will happen to them. How will they be vindicated while their tormentors are brought to justice? Only if they are raised to new life in God’s new world! This future new life too we remember in the memory of Christ’s Passion. In that life there will be true justice and judgment.
When we remember Christ’s Passion in the Holy Communion we recall that “Christ died for the ungodly……….. Christ died for sinners....…...Christ died for God’s enemies….. Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-10)
Love is at the heart of the Apostle Paul’s account of Christ’s death. But surprisingly, even scandalously, love not just for victims of injustice but also for perpetrators – for those who are ‘powerless’ because they are caught in the snares of ‘ungodliness,’ those who are unrighteous, ‘sinners’ deserving of God’s wrath, ‘enemies.’ At the heart of his gospel is a powerful conviction that God loves the ungodly – loves them so much that Christ died for them and in place of them. Ungodly – the kind of person Paul himself was before being called an apostle. A very pious and yet deeply misguided person. A wrongdoer who persecuted people simply because they worshiped Jesus as the Messiah. And then the God of grace encountered this ‘foremost’ of sinners on the road to Damascus.
In remembering all these things we are taught by Holy Communion to extend unconditional grace to others. Since in Christ we ourselves were reconciled to God while still God’s enemies, we in turn must seek to extend unconditional grace to fellow wrongdoers, irrespective of any and all offenses committed. No offense imaginable in and of itself should cause us to withhold grace. For any wrongdoing committed against me is, in a significant sense, already atoned for. Forgiven. Even hidden from God’s own eyes. It is a wrongdoing for which Jesus Christ died on the Cross. If I remember that wrongdoing through the lens of the Passion, I will remember it as already forgiven.
During Holy Communion we participate in the communal celebration of the Lamb of God, now seated at the right hand of the Holy One, who both suffered with all those who suffer and removed the guilt of their transgressors! We remember in order to see ourselves and others as Christ sees us, new creatures, made in the image of the God who loves the ungodly, with an identity that transcends anything anyone can ever do to us; a memory that frees us from the sufferings of the past, and motivates us to be reconciled to those who have wronged us. When we remember through the lens of the Passion we are reminded that Christ has already embraced us all with open arms on the cross.
(Extracted from Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World, pp.97-128)
Maundy Thursday, 2007
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