When the End is the Beginning
Thoughts on Holy Thursday, April 18, 2019
by Rev. Jim Ryan, firstname.lastname@example.org
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,
the First and the Last,
the Beginning and the End.”
Over the past 8 years or so I have been searching for an understanding of Sacrament, in particular Eucharist as sacrament, that simply makes sense according to how experience has shaped my life. The experience we have in our Mary of Magdala Community so often is a testament to Christ’s presence in us, around us, through us that this has become my sense of sacrament. In this search I have been looking no further than what makes sense for me, but if what I have to say also makes sense to you then so be it.
Let me start with three principles that have framed this search. If only for the sake of avoiding a scatter-shot approach to this search these working principles serve my need to go about this in a systematic fashion.
First, is the principle of experience over order. This acknowledges that a life, my life, occurs and impacts the very of who of me quite before I conceptualize, reflect, and yes put the layer of order on top of the experience that preceded even the language I use to express implications and applications. To this day, for example, I find the experience of hiking in the woods to be reenergizing. I do not need to have any depth of detailed knowledge of what trees I see, what fragrances come from which flora and fauna, or the life-cycles and feeding patterns of the birds who tweet – not any of that replaces the sheer experience of renewing my spirit in the doing of the hike. I can think about it later.
Second, at all times an equivalency exists between church and members. Church = members, first, last, and always. No intermediary layers of administration, class, and/or clerical subcultures stand as church in any meaningful capacity without acknowledging the fundamental and basic reality that “We Are Church!”
Third, for every good story (and theology, at its most insightful tells a story) there is a Beginning and an End. The story of my life, of your life too, is just so. Our beginnings bring us into life. Our ends take us out of this life, perhaps to yet another beginning or maybe to that fuller participation in Oneness. These principles, for me, help to tell and frame the story of the life experiences of members who are church – experiences that come complete with beginnings and ends.
So, how do these three principles serve an understanding of and appreciation for Sacrament? As I say, it has taken me some time to arrive at what I now consider to be the story of the Sacrament of Eucharist. In my book, “A Liturgical Year,” the section for Holy Week has no entry for Holy Thursday. That’s because I wasn’t ready to say what makes sense to me now.
One difficulty I had was the barriers and logjams that I constantly find in theologies of sacrament that are written by Roman Catholic authors and scholars. Too often these are marked by a race to reflect and teach on the place of hierarchy and priestly ministrations in the exercise of Sacrament. Sure, there is the sop to the idea of Royal Priesthood, that we are a community of priests – all of us – called to be and to present Christ to ourselves and to our world. One book I read after a couple pages on Royal Priesthood couldn’t move on quickly enough and spend 12 pages on the ministers who are priests and their powers to confect Eucharist. One author even waxed on about the sacerdotalisation of priesthood – in other words, the priesting of priestliness. This simply doesn’t square with my experience that we are all Jesus, and because of that we are all priests.
I have benefited more from two books, both authors are Episcopalian scholars and teachers, and both happen to be women. First is Maggie Ross’ “Pillars of Flames.” I love her line that “Many are ordained who are officeholders but who are not priests.” This line alone is worth the price of the book. The other is Lizette Larson-Miller and her book, “Sacramentality Renewed,” in particular her chapter on Sacramental Ecclesiology. Suffice it to say these authors recognize that Christ, the Sacrament exemplar, is us. We who gather in Jesus’ Name are the real presence of Christ. When we consecrate bread and wine we symbolize, as St. Augustine wrote 1500 years ago, who we already are, and that is Christ.
So, let’s proceed with the experience of acknowledging Christ’s presence in the story of Holy Thursday. When I read of this particular meal I believe it was a gathering of disciples among whom is included the group who would later be called the Twelve. I must believe, especially as this is a Passover Meal, that this group included family members all gathered to celebrate their oh so familiar Feast of Freedom. I have to believe that Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome – who came to Jesus’ tomb on Sunday morning – were also at the meal. After all, presuming a Passover meal, the “woman of the house” is the one who lights the first candle “to kindle the lights of the Festival” and prays, Baruch ahtah Adonai – Blessed are you, O God.
When Jesus offers the bread and the cup and says, “Do this in memory of me,” I have to believe that this commission was to the assembled gathering. I do not believe that he singled out the Twelve and said, “Do this because you are the only ones who can say these words and make me present.”
My experience of this story, from its beginning, is a continual reminder and a claim that we who gather, we members of Christ’s family, we are church. And that is why my understanding of Sacrament is that we are the ones (the priests) who make Christ present. In what is now referred to as Communion Theology one adage says, “The church makes the Eucharist and the Eucharist makes the church.” At all times we are church, we are the community, we are Jesus to, with, and for each other. No one person among us is entrusted with the special code that makes Christ present. NO such thing as ontological difference, or “special character” places one or other of us apart. We’re told these days that for many reasons the Roman Church must dispossess itself of clericalism. Unfortunately, that would only address one aspect of the sacramental deficiency which singles out a class of people called priests. You see, when we are church then we are all priests who make Christ present because He already is.
What is the end of this story? Every good story must have an end. The fact is Jesus’ death, as we know, is not the end. Resurrection is not the end. Ascension is not the end. Pentecost is not the end. We are a people who are on the journey (the hike in the woods, if you will) that ends only in fulfillment. Christ is fulfilled when we act with justice, love and mercy. The Anointed One anoints each one of us to be peacemakers. The end of which we speak and which we hope to experience is what Teilhard de Chardin called the Omega Point. Christ who is Alpha and Omega, Beginning and End shows us the Oneness and Glory to which all creation is headed. And often that Omega Point is revealed through stories that are Jewish, Islamic, Native American, and so many more – human reality being nothing if not diverse.
This Sacrament that we are is the universal gift of which Jesus’ dying and rising, for us, is just the beginning. It is not enough that we gather to be sacrament for each other, not enough that our gathering seeks ways to be sacrament in our world, or even our worlds of the universe. Somehow in this time and place we are called to the experience of transforming our lives through death to the new Beginning which has always been the Promise of our Creator. This story, as always, ends with a beginning. Let’s get started!
A Prayer for Holy Thursday (JR)
Make us your people in this Eucharist, O Christ. You gave yourself so that creation may be fulfilled and become a reflection of the glory of its creator. May we do the same—serving your Word by living lives of welcome and openness to all.
Your presence in this Eucharist that we make here is the fulfillment of our baptismal promise. We carry out your command to love the marginalized and the dispossessed, the bullied and those who are left behind in this society whose glory is its belly and its greed.
We join in your passage from death to life thankful for this food and drink of eternal life. Amen