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Sermon for Maundy Thursday

Fr. David Curry

Christ Church, Windsor, NS

March 24, AD 2005



“Yea, even mine own familiar friend, whom I trusted,/

who did also eat of my bread, hath lift up his heel against me”

We have been considering the passion of Christ as the spectacle of betrayal, seeing in the events of the passion as presented to us by the four evangelists a cluster of betrayals which, in one way or another, include all of us. That is to say, we are all implicated in the betrayals of Christ. By contemplating these forms of betrayal, we participate in the passion and in the redemption which the passion of Christ accomplishes for us.


Too often the theme of betrayal is constrained to the figure of Judas and too often in ways which distance ourselves from his central act of betrayal. Yet the point of the passion is for us to confront the Judas in each of us. Nowhere, perhaps, is that made more explicit for us than at the Last Supper and nothing is more constantly before us in the sacramental life of the Church than the fact of betrayal. It is made a fundamental part of what we variously call, the Holy Eucharist, the Holy Communion, Mass, the Lord’s Supper, the Sacrament of the Altar and the Holy Mysteries.


“In the same night that he was betrayed”. These are the words we hear, words which echo Paul’s words derived from the experience, probably orally transmitted, of the earliest Christian communities, “The Lord Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed”. On the night when he was betrayed - this night, this very night - Christ took bread, and gave thanks, and broke it and gave it to his disciples, to his friends, as being his body, and likewise with the cup, as being his blood.


Yet the company of friends is equally the company of betrayers. That is the hard, hard truth which we have ever to contemplate and to contemplate about ourselves. We are the betrayers of Christ precisely in the context of the fellowship of friends.


This revelation about ourselves is the reason why, for Anglicans especially, there can be no celebration of the Holy Eucharist without the explicit confession of sin. That is our way of acknowledging this reality about ourselves, indeed this reality of our foolish and fallen humanity. Moreover, confession is not merely a formal, preliminary matter to be disposed of and gotten over before moving on to the celebratory, happy-clappy, orgy-borgy, “let’s have a party” mentality which infects contemporary liturgy with such a spirit of silliness. No. Confession is built right into the celebration. It is an integral element of the celebration; “who, in the same night that he was betrayed, took bread.....took the cup.”


We cannot enter into the eucharistic celebration at any time without the recollection of our betrayals as the cause of Christ’s death. Maundy Thursday marks the beginning of the Triduum Sacrum, the three great Holy days of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ.


Maundy Thursday reminds us of fellowship betrayed, of the betrayal of friends. The ancient Passover meal celebrated Israel’s deliverance from destruction; the Christian eucharist is the constant reminder of Christ’s deliverance to destruction through our betrayals, the betrayal of friends. It is, as the psalmist reminds us, “mine own familiar friend, who did also eat of my bread”, who has “lift up his heel” in betrayal.


And yet there is something more.  There is the larger theological perspective which grounds human experience, especially our penchant for the tyranny of our experiences, upon something transcendent, something holy and something strong, namely, the love of God. “A new commandment, I give unto you”, Jesus says - novum mandatum in the Latin, hence the word “Maundy” in older English. What is that new commandment?  It is the commandment to love as he has loved.  What does that mean?  It means to love in the face of the betrayals of love.


Something of the point of this is captured wonderfully in Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline, in Imogen’s gentle rebuke of her husband “My dear lord/Thou art one of the false ones”.  In the liturgy, we are reminded of how we are one of the false ones too.  Such is the fickleness and the folly of our hearts; a fickleness and a folly, however, as this week would remind us, that has deadly, deadly consequences.


And yet love is stronger than human folly, stronger than sin, stronger than death, which is why we can only live in the love of Christ for us.  The betrayals of his love become the redemptive way of our entering into his love so that it can take shape in us.


Paul has grasped the essential logic of betrayal at the heart of the passion and at the heart of the eucharist.  We are guilty of Judas’ betrayal when we eat and drink unworthily, not discerning the Lord’s body and blood.  Such is a wilful ignorance, a knowing unknowing.


The point of our liturgy is to prepare us to eat and drink worthily, discerningly and with the true intention of receiving what Christ gives of himself for us, even in the face of our betrayals.  “On the night when he was betrayed”, on the night when friendship is betrayed, the friendship between God and man, God forges out of our deeper awareness of our betrayals the greater bonds of friendship, “the new covenant of my blood”.  Such is his love and the reason why his love is commanded.  It is commanded precisely in the face of our betrayals of that love.  God’s love is greater than our fickle hearts of folly and betrayal.


In the mediaeval cathedral of Durham in northern England, in the fourteenth century, a ritual known as the Judas Cup ceremony was instituted as part of the Maundy Thursday liturgy.  It has recently been revived there.  It offers a stark and compelling image of the theme of betrayal. Following Holy Communion, a large cup or bowl called a mazer was placed before the monks. As Douglas Davies explains, “it was once called the Judas cup because the face of Judas was worked into its bowl so that when the monks drank from it they could see, as it were, the face of Judas looking at them and, in a sense, mirroring their own face.”


Here is this short liturgy with its explanatory introduction. It underscores simply and powerfully what we participate in this night here at Christ Church.  We contemplate the Judas in each of ourselves, but we do so in the light of the love of Christ who loves us and commands us to love him and one another in the face of our betrayals of his love.  We shall only be able to love him through his love in us; such is the greater friendship of Christ.


Maundy Thursday is the day on which we recall the ambiguities of discipleship even among the most committed of us.  Of those privileged to be present at the Last Supper, one disciple was already plotting Jesus’ betrayal, while another would soon deny any knowledge of him and subsequently weep tears of penitence.  In the mediaeval monastery at Durham those ambiguities were recalled in a ceremony called the Judas Cup. … [it serves] as a way of reminding us of the necessity for humility as we recall the ambiguities of our own discipleship.


Choir:  Psalm 22. 1-11


The Dean leads the clergy to a table set in the Quire.


Dean: As they sat at supper, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me -

           one who is eating with me’. At this they were distressed, and one by one they

           said to him, ‘Surely you do not mean me?’ ‘It is one of the Twelve’, he said,

           ‘who is dipping into the bowl with me.’


The Celebrant places the mazer on the table and pours wine into it from an earthenware jug.


Celebrant: Alas for the man by whom the Son of man is betrayed.

Dean: Lord, is it I?

Clergy and Congregation: Lord, is it I?


The Dean then drinks from the mazer and passes it to the other clergy present.  Each in turn drinks from it in silence.


Dean: Even if I were to die with you, I will never disown you.

Celebrant: And they all said the same.

Clergy and Congregation: Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.

Celebrant: It was night.


The service concludes, as ours will this night, with the Stripping of the Altar.


Fr. David Curry

Maundy Thursday