Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Showing the Lord's death until he comes


This artwork is in the public domain. Why?
WE have been exploring the rather inclusive group that we call "the extended Holy Family." This family began with some fishermen, added a carpenter, a fig grower, a tax collector, and a small assortment of working class men. But this family grew by leaps and bounds. After Jesus had made a name for Himself by doing miracles, by teaching thousands with authority, by always having a good answer for those who questioned Him, by continuing the baptizing that John had started, and by showing power over evil spirits, He drew more than just the curious to Himself. But His own flesh and blood, the elders of the synagogues, His original neighbors of Nazareth, had little part in His fellowship. In the end, they were included as well, but as we look at the meal Luke describes we see a family of only thirteen. That's not very extended. What was going on that night?

The meal that the thirteen were celebrating was a seder, a traditional feast in which the Passover liturgy was carefully recited as it had been for centuries. There were four cups of wine served during this meal, thus Jesus referred to "the fruit of the vine." He was sharing this with the Twelve who were closest to Him. The bread was matzoth, the unleavened dough stretched out like a pizza crust and baked for a short time. The custom was to break a large piece in two, eating the one half and putting the other aside "until Messiah should come." The custom of hiding half of the matzah which Dispersion Jews observe had not started in Jesus' time. Still, what He did was a complete surprise. He took the half that was usually set aside and gave it to His disciples, saying "Eat this; this is my body." After the meal, when a cup called the "cup of blessing" was served, Jesus told all of the Twelve to drink from the same cup because, "This is the New Testament in my blood."

Some people have wondered why the Last Supper was a stag party. After all, the seder was a family meal, celebrated in the home, with all family members sharing alike. That could not be on the first Good Friday evening. Yes, I do mean Good Friday, because the day began at sunset. The evening after the crucifixion was the Sabbath, as all the evangelists agree. This was no ordinary seder. This was the most important seder since the one when Israel went out of Egypt. For centuries a yearling lamb, without spot or blemish, was sacrificed and eaten by those who shared the blessings that God dispensed through that sacrifice. A lamb would remind the family of the Passover, in which the blood on the door caused the Angel of Death to bypass the houses that were marked with it, while killing the firstborn everywhere else. All of the lambs were symbolic, pointing to the Lamb of God. Now, before their very eyes, the Lamb Himself was present. When Jesus took the little group that knew Him best into His confidence, He told them, "This is my body … this is my blood." He was putting two ideas together which Jews did not normally associate. The "body" meant that He was the Messiah. The blood meant that He was the Passover Lamb. He was a mortal Messiah. He was a royal Lamb. The Twelve had heard mysterious things like that from Jesus for three years or so, but this night He meant every word seriously. Nobody ever changed a word of the seder, but Jesus did. See why it was absolutely necessary that all present be familiar with His words and actions.

How do we take part in the family meal? At first it looks as though Jesus were saying that we have to wait until the resurrection. He says, "I will not partake of the fruit of the vine again, until I drink it anew in my Father's kingdom. Does that mean that our extended family meal is the Messianic Banquet, the table we share with the Patriarchs in the coming kingdom? That meal remains in the realm of hope. We hope for it because Jesus promised it, but we cannot enjoy it now. It is true that the extended Holy Family has by now grown so large that no place on earth could accommodate it. Still, there is no reason to think we all have to get around a single table. Besides that, the Holy Family extends through time as well as space. We have been around since Adam and Eve. Many generations have fallen asleep.

As we look at the New Testament we see how the extended Holy family shared its meal shortly after the Lord's Ascension. They met together regularly, partook of the bread and wine, gave thanks, breaking the bread the way Jesus did, and saying the traditional words. We can do the same. By receiving the Lord's Supper in the worship of the Church, we partake of the family meal even as the apostles did. The Old Testament saints will eat with us only in heaven. They had a different tradition on earth. But all who knew and called on the name of Jesus since His crucifixion have shared this supper with us, as all saints alive today in all the nations of the earth partake of it as we do. The liturgy that we use is also very old. The Our Father and the Words of Institution are from the Lord Himself, the Sanctus is from Psalm 118 and Isaiah 6, and what we call the "Preface," the versicles in which we say, "We lift them up unto the Lord," was used that way already in the third century as we see from the writings of St. Hypolytus.

Why has everyone been so careful to preserve this tradition? Because of what Jesus did on Good Friday. It was the same way in Moses' time. Before the Lord actually did the Passover, He gave very detailed instructions about how to remember it. So Jesus, before His Passion, gave detailed instructions to us about how to remember what he was going to do. He was going to sacrifice His body and blood for us. He was going to die for our sins, to make atonement so that we could be forgiven. He was going to rise again on the third day, to proclaim and take part in His own success, and to guarantee to us that He could keep all of his promises. That was the key event in all history. The least we can do is to remember the details. Nothing we do in our life is so important as taking part in this meal of the extended Holy Family, taking the place that was predestined for us before creation, bought for us by the blood of Christ, and to which we are ushered by the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

~ Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

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