This is the sermon Bishop Scott Mayer preached for the online Maundy Thursday service, April 9, 2020.
Maundy Thursday Mass on the World April 9, 2020
The Collect for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist on Maundy Thursday reads as follows (and let us pray it together): “Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully, grant that we may receive it thankfully in remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord, who in these holy mysteries gives us a pledge of eternal life; and who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.” Amen.
The Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer states this about sacraments: “Sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.”
For two-thousand years Christians have experienced God’s grace in and through these sure and certain means called sacraments. We believe in God’s action in and through all sacraments. We believe, furthermore, in the Real Presence of Christ in the celebration of the Eucharist in particular – that Christ is made present in the event itself, and that in some mysterious way Christ is present in the particular consecrated elements of bread and wine.
On the night before Jesus was handed over to suffering and death, Jesus took bread, gave it to his followers, and said, “This is my Body, given for you.” After supper, he took the cup of wine, gave it to them, and said, “This is my Blood, which is shed for you.” This is my Body. This is my Blood. As Anglicans we are not inclined so much to explain how Christ is present in the Eucharist, but we do believe in the mystery of the Real Presence of Christ.
Throughout history, Christians of all stripes around the world have given up a Sunday morning to gather together, to hear the sacred stories of our salvation history, to pray together, and to approach a table or altar to receive a piece of bread and a sip of wine believing this is more than bread and wine. We not only believe it; we have experienced God’s grace and presence in and through these sure and certain means.
And now in the midst of this novel coronavirus pandemic, most Christians will not gather in-person to participate in the liturgy which reveals and expresses that we are one Body; the liturgy which reveals and expresses God’s vision of Holy Communion with God and one another; the liturgy which is the Source of sure and certain means of God’s grace and presence. And this is especially disappointing in this holiest of weeks.
Without denying or making light of our deep sense of loss in this moment, I would like to remind us of what we know already: that while it is true that Christ is present in consecrated bread and wine, Christ is not contained by these elements. Present, yes. Contained by, no. Present in the Reserved Sacrament in your church ambry or tabernacle, yes; contained within, no. Present in our consecrated buildings, yes; contained within, no. Present in and through the living members of the Body of Christ, yes; contained by, no. Present in and through God’s creation, yes; contained by, no.
The Sacraments are sure and certain means by which we receive God’s grace, but not the only means – not the only ways we encounter God. We know that.
I have doubts that Jesus instituted the Eucharist, or the Mass, or Holy Communion, or the Divine Liturgy, or the Lord’s Supper, or whatever we call this Sacred Meal, so that it would be the only means to know God’s grace and presence. I wonder, actually, if he instituted this meal so we would see God’s grace and presence everywhere – that our eyes would be opened to the Reality of God’s presence and action throughout creation.
William Temple, a 20th century Archbishop of Canterbury, theologian and philosopher, claimed that the universe itself is sacramental; that the universe is an outward, visible sign of God’s grace and presence.
Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk, claims that the first incarnation is creation itself. He is not the first to make this claim, but he explains it beautifully. He says most of the world’s religions claim something like this: “Everything that exists in material form is the offspring of some Primal Source, which originally existed only as Spirit. This Infinite Primal Source somehow poured itself into finite, visible forms, creating everything from rocks to water, plants, organisms, animals, and human beings – everything we can see with our eyes.”
He says that this first self-disclosure of God into physical creation was actually the FIRST incarnation, long before the personal, second incarnation that happened with Jesus. So, Christ is embedded in all things.
The Holy Eucharist is being celebrated all over the world tonight, as Christians remember the holy night of the Last Supper. And yet, most Christians will not be able to gather for this celebration in-person, nor receive the consecrated elements of bread and wine.
As we recall the very night on which Jesus commands his disciples to love one another, we will love one another by distancing ourselves physically – a sacrificial act of love, indeed.
So, some of us thought we would offer a liturgy we find meaningful, if not profound. It is taken from the work of a French theologian – a Jesuit priest, as well as a scientist, a paleontologist – named Teilhard de Chardin.
As the story goes, in 1923 Teilhard was working on an extended geological exploration in the deserts of China near Mongolia. As a Jesuit priest it was his desire and obligation to offer Mass, but he had no bread or wine, much less a paten or chalice. His thoughts turned to the radiation of the Eucharistic presence of Christ in and through the universe, and in a vision he realized that he could lift up the whole earth as his offering.
Cynthia Bourgeault writes: “He began to see that the body for the bread would be the body of toil that humanity lifted up that day. The wine to be poured into this universal goblet would be the fruit of it, the fruit of labor including the suffering.”
His meditation, his prayer, his vision is entitled, “The Mass on the World.”
To be clear, Teilhard the priest and scientist, believed in the efficacy of the traditional Mass. It is said that he was preoccupied with giving his daily Mass, which he called “a cosmic function” with “planetary dimensions.” He writes: “when through the mouth of the priest, the priest says, ‘This is my Body,’ these words extend beyond the morsel of bread over which they are said: they give birth to the whole mystical body of Christ. The effect of the priestly act extends beyond the consecrated host to the cosmos itself.” He says, “the entire realm of matter is slowly but irresistibly affected by this great consecration.”
Around the world tonight the few gathered in-person for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist will join their voices with most of us through the science of technology, along with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who for ever sing this hymn: “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory.”
May those of us gathered tonight — whether in-person, or through the world wide web, or through our participation in the Mass on the World be inspired to join the Angels, Archangels, and all the company of heaven, and sing: “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory.” And may the whole world know that God’s love for us is sure and certain.