26 March 2018

The Greatest Story Ever Told

Mass of the Lord’s Supper
One of my major complaints about movies today is that Hollywood no longer knows how to tell a new story.  Many of the movies that have come out recently are either telling a story that’s already been told (like in a comic book), or continuing with a story that was told earlier (like the new Star Wars movies).  I was recently chastised by an older friend who was appalled both that I liked the new “True Grit,” and that I had never seen the original “True Grit” with John Wayne.  
But the great things about the movies that stick with us is that they tell a timeless tale.  In any movie that works, there is a decisive event, which leads to a challenge, and that challenge must be overcome to find success.  As I understand literature, the comedies are the stories where the success involves the life of the hero; tragedies are the stories where the success involves the death of the hero.
Human redemption is not simply a story, but it is the basis for all good stories.  Salvation history, writ large, is about the decisive event (the Fall of Adam and Eve), and God reconciling humanity (quite a big challenge because of our stubbornness and our attraction to sin), and God overcoming our challenge by the Death of His Son, Jesus.  Of course, in Jesus, we find both tragedy and comedy, as Jesus both dies, but then lives again.  
In salvation history, redemption is always tied up with death, either literal or metaphorical.  In our first reading, we hear about the redemption of Israel from the slavery of Egypt by the death of the lamb, which also saves them from the death of the first born, the tenth and most drastic plague.  And as Jesus institutes the Eucharist (which St. Paul talks about in the second reading), He gives His apostles a way to connect, not only simply to remember, but to connect to His death, which He anticipates in His early celebration of the Passover.  Perhaps that is why God inspired the Psalmist to say: “Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.”  Psalm 116 seems to see the necessary connection between death and redemption.
The Eucharist is precisely redemption given to us as food and drink.  In the Eucharist, Calvary is given to us under the appearance of bread and wine as Jesus gives His Body and Blood for us.  That is why the Church asks that a crucifix occupy a most central place in the sanctuary: so that we can see and be drawn to the love that we receive on our tongues and in our hands.  
Redemption involves death, but God turns death on its head so that death actually becomes an opportunity for life.  We will see this on Saturday night and Sunday, but we also see it in Jesus washing His apostles’ feet.  Jesus does not literally die when He washes the apostles’ feet, but He dies to elevating oneself and what should be.  He is the Lord, they are they servants, and yet He makes Himself their servant.  He is the Rabbi, they are the disciples, but His teaching involves elevating them, rather than Himself, and then He says that just as He has done, so they should do.
Bishop Boyea washes Fr. Anthony's foot at his
presbyteral ordination
It is easy to pass over (if you’ll pardon the pun) the depth of this event.  Every Holy Thursday we hear about Jesus’ washing His apostles’ feet, about Simon Peter resisting because it’s unbecoming, but then overcompensating by saying he wants his hands and head as well.  But remember this: Jesus would wash the feet of Peter, who would, that same night, deny even knowing Jesus.  Peter would not die to his fear, to his pride, and so death, which is what sin is, would enter his soul.  Judas also had his feet washed, the same Judas who that same night would find the temple guards and lead them to Jesus to betray Him.  Everything in Jesus’ human will must have screamed against treating Judas, the betrayer apostle, the same as John, the beloved apostle.  But He died to that temptation so that He could live in obedience to the Father.
It would be to facile to simply say, “serve others.”  What Jesus did on Holy Thursday, in the washing of the feet and the institution of the Eucharist and the ministerial priesthood, is much stronger than “do good for others.”  Jesus invites us to be a part of the grand story, the grand reality, of our redemption.  But as we are reminded, redemption, our own redemption, involves death.  Perhaps the death of our bodies (there continue to be armies of martyrs crowned with the palm of victory), but more likely the death of our wills, where we let go of what we want, where we let go of what the world says is right, and we hold on to dear life to the will of God, which is often not what we want and not what the world says is right.  

Tonight we have the opportunity not only to remember what Jesus did, not only to recall our redemption in Christ, but also to actually participate in our redemption.  As we receive the Eucharist, we receive Jesus’ death for us.  And if we allow the Eucharist to do the work that it is meant to do, we can participate in the great story of human redemption.