The Chrism Eucharist and The New Language of Holy Week and Easter
‘That’s just the way it is’; ‘We are where we are’; ‘Get real’; ‘Wake up and smell the coffee’.
You may have heard those phrases recently. I most certainly have. In fact, I have probably used them myself, or something quite similar, so I am certainly in no position to disparage them – but the fact remains that they are the language of the world, not of the Kingdom.
I suggest that the Lord teaches us a new language, most clearly and most compellingly so in Holy Week and on Maundy Thursday, and, if we are to be faithful, then we are to use it, and indeed it is by this new language that we must be distinguished as Christians, living in this world but offering it a different and distinctive means of discourse.
It will be a language of graciousness and generosity and gentleness, and the liturgy and scriptures of Holy Thursday present it to us in a series of four lessons.
What is this language, and what are its words?
The first lesson is The New Commandment – to ‘love one another as I have loved you’. Is it really new? Do not most religious traditions tell us that we are to love one another? Possibly, but not ‘as I have loved you’: not to the extent that He is going to demonstrate over the course of these wonderful days.
The second is the Washing of the Feet. This is certainly new – it is actually a turning-upside-down of custom and expectation. It is a startlingly clear lesson that, if we are to lead and encourage and inspire people, then we must first of all serve them. The essence of leadership is humility.
The third lesson is the Institution of the Eucharist. This is a new language of the Passover, in which the simple words ‘this is my body’ reveal the eucharist as the means by which we live in the presence of the God who liberates and sustains us. They are simple words indeed, and they are supremely sacrificial. Again, love is spelled out as sacrifice. St John writes later than the other evangelists and is surely aware of their texts, so how interesting it is that he does not describe the Institution of the Eucharist in his account of the Last Supper, although he clearly references it elsewhere: by replacing it with the Washing of the Feet, he tells us that the eucharistic community is also the serving community, the Church that lives through Christ and expresses itself in service and humility.
Finally, there are moments when language itself falls short and is replaced by gesture, the act of Anointing. This happens at several points in the Gospels: the Lord is anointed at Bethany at the house of Simon the Leper, and by Mary at her house with Martha and Lazarus, and the first of these is specifically described as ‘anointing for burial’; Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus come to take the body away at the end of St John Ch. 19, and, like the women in St Luke Ch. 24, they bring spices and ointments. Oils are a means of anointing, making distinctive, sanctifying and hallowing, and so the oils that we bless today will be used in our life as a diocese over this next year at baptism and confirmation and ordination. They will also be used to anoint those people of God who face illness or death or difficulty. Our sisters and brothers will be marked as Christ’s. It is a gesture of love that goes beyond words.
Christ is The Anointed, and therefore His people too are anointed as Christians. In a similar spirit, our Renewal of Vows in His service has that distinctiveness of anointing and a new language, the Language of the Kingdom: vows as important as marriage vows or the promises of godparents, with the same requirement for a language of grace. Bishop Michael of Cashel, Ferns and Ossory spoke to us at our recent Quiet Day on ‘the glory of God’s call and the strangeness of the language’. Bishop Michael drew our attention to Isaiah Ch. 40: ‘A voice cries, ‘In the Wilderness prepare the Way of the Lord’’. The Way of the Lord may be in the wilderness, but the prophetic voice will not. It will be in the centre, where we live with our people, caring for them and loving them, but speaking the distinctive Language of the Kingdom.
To you as those who speak the new language, in the midst of your people, thank you. We speak as pastors and theologians for a Church that faces challenges but that is faithfully seeking to strengthen itself in prayer and scripture and belief. We are called to speak the new language of Holy Week, and in doing so to proclaim the Risen Christ of Easter.
Finally, what might that new language look like by way of practical example? We can go back to those phrases with which I began, noting that we might more likely have questions than statements. Not ‘We are where we are’, or ‘That’s just how it is’, but ‘How might it be?’ ‘What would it look like if…?’ ‘Imagine the possibility, through the creative grace of God.’ In Christ, ‘getting real’ could take on a whole new meaning. As for the coffee … well, if we can prepare it with graciousness and compassion and generosity, who knows? It might yet just smell even better.