(Originally posted in 2009)
This night is the night of the Passover 1 that Christ ate with his disciples, and so we rightly ask, why is this night unlike all other nights?
A wall carving in the chapel of the Wieliczka Salt Mine, Poland.
First of all, the Lord gave the answer to a riddle that had long been in the minds of his disciples. Like other Jews who turned away from him, these Jewish men also must have wondered, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 2 They expected a genuine answer, unlike others who asked hypothetically (to put it mildly). This night the answer was given. He took bread and wine, and told them that it is his body and blood. He commanded them to do this in remembrance of him. So, from the earliest times to this very night, we do this in remembrance of him. We remember that he promised us that to eat his flesh and drink his blood is to take the food and drink of eternal life.
As Anglicans, we are instructed that this eating and drinking benefits only those who believe. Following the teaching of St. Paul about the dangers of eating and drinking this holy sacrament without first knowing in ourselves “hearty repentance and true faith,” Article 25 warns, “And in such only as worthily receive the same, they have a wholesome effect or operation: but they that receive them unworthily, purchase to themselves damnation, as Saint Paul saith.” And, Article 27 tells us, “it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ.” And, the warning of St. Paul is repeated again in Article 28: “The Wicked, and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth (as Saint Augustine saith) the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ; yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ: but rather, to their condemnation, do eat and drink the sign or Sacrament of so great a thing.”
This must be true, because of what the Lord told us: “Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” 3
And, St. Paul says that those who eat and drink unworthily do not discern the Lord’s body, and endanger their souls. 4 So, we learn from these scriptures that a person may eat and drink this sacrament, and yet not in the saving way that Jesus taught. This is because the sacraments are one of the ways in which God imparts his grace; by these mysteries that signify what they effect, and effect what they signify. If the heart is not right with God, one may eat and drink the body and blood of Christ, and yet not feed on the Living Christ who is himself the food and drink of eternal life. What is the effect, then, of eating and drinking with a bad conscience but to harden one’s own heart against the very grace of God that is only in Jesus Christ himself, and nowhere else? The sacraments are charismatic, not magic. They work with the conscience; not mechanically, but honestly and truly.
He referred to the cup as the cup of the New Covenant in his blood. Our translation says “testament,” but we know that the meaning was the closest that Greek came to the Hebrew understanding of B’rit. The reference is to the New Covenant. Hear what Jeremiah said, and you will know what these words meant to the apostles who heard Jesus refer to them on the night in which he was betrayed.
“Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”5
What does it mean to have the Law of God written in our hearts, to know that our sins have been forgiven, and to know God?
All of this is more than simply observing a ritual, and more than eating and drinking these mysteries as part of a ceremony. We are here to feed on the Living Christ himself, the only one who is the food and drink of eternal life. We must bring to the altar, as we come to eat and drink this sacrament, “ourselves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice.” 6 We dare not bring only our bodies simply because it is the custom. We must bring our whole selves along with the truth that speaks to an honest conscience, knowing we are sinners, knowing we need his mercy, knowing that he alone is the food and drink of eternal life, and the fountain that washes us from every stain of sin, and the Passover that frees us from death. He established this New Covenant in his own blood that we may know him. Knowing him is eternal life, knowing him is salvation.
On this night he established this sacrament so that we could die to sin and live again in him, so that in this New Covenant we could enter into a special intimacy with him, and through him, with the Father. “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” 7 He established this sacrament to that we could enter into his life as he enters into us. He uses such earthly things as bread and wine, just as also he uses water, and as he uses the oil we carry for healing. This is because he uses earthly things for heavenly purposes, just as he himself took the fullness of our own human nature. “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” 8
The hope of this sacrament is tied to all that will follow in the night in which he was betrayed. He will begin to shed his blood in the duress of his prayers in Gethsemane. He will offer himself willingly with the words, “not my will, but thine be done.” He will be obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. And we all know what will follow the pain and suffering of death. It will be the resurrection that completes the true Passover.
We will pray: “Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.” How can the body be sinful? Because death is unclean according to the Law of Moses. But, as we feed on the Living Christ, we are freed from death, with that freedom and cleansing we look for when he comes again in glory. The soul, the nefesh, of all flesh is in the blood, says the Book of Leviticus, “therefore I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls.” 9 Christ has established the New Covenant in his blood to wash our souls clean from all stain of sin: "Because he hath poured out his soul (nefesh) unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors." 10
When you come to the altar rail this night, the night in which he was betrayed, understand the meaning of all that has been done for you in the Passover of Christ. Your sins have been nailed to the cross in his own body, to die and pass away. Just as we look ahead to Sunday morning remembering his resurrection victory, we look ahead to his coming in the clouds of heaven and in his Father’s glory to give us our share of his immortality and eternal life.
Yes, this sacrament is a means of grace. It effects what it signifies. Your sinful body will be cleansed from the uncleanness of death and your soul will be washed in his most precious blood, because you are coming in the fulness of a living faith to offer back to him your very self, your soul and body, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice. You are coming with hearty repentance and true faith. You are coming to feed on Christ, who is himself the New Covenant, and the food and drink of eternal life.
- Luke 22:11-15
- John 6:52
- John 6:54
- I Cor. 11:29
- Jeremiah 31:31-34
- From the service of the Holy Communion based on Romans 12:1,2.
- John 17:3
- John 1:14
- Lev. 17:11
- Isaiah 53:12