His Sacrament of His Love
by Noel E. Bordador
At the supper table with his friends, Jesus said to his disciples:
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)
Beloved in the Lord: Our Savior Christ, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood as a sign and pledge of his love, for the continual remembrance of the sacrifice of his death, and for a spiritual sharing in his risen life. For in these holy Mysteries we are made one with Christ, and Christ with us; we are made one body in him, and members one of another.
But if we are to share rightly in the celebration of those holy Mysteries, and be nourished by that spiritual Food, we must remember the dignity of that holy Sacrament. I therefore call upon you to consider how Saint Paul exhorts all persons to prepare themselves carefully before eating of that Bread and drinking of that Cup.
For, as the benefit is great, if with penitent hearts and living faith we receive the holy Sacrament, so is the danger great, if we receive it improperly, not recognizing the Lord's Body. Judge yourselves, therefore, lest you be judged by the Lord.
Examine your lives and conduct by the rule of God's commandments, that you may perceive wherein you have offended in what you have done or left undone, whether in thought, word, or deed. And acknowledge your sins before Almighty God, with full purpose of amendment of life, being ready to make restitution for all injuries and wrongs done by you to others; and also being ready to forgive those who have offended you, in order that you yourselves may be forgiven. And then, being reconciled with one another, come to the banquet of that most heavenly Food. (Exhortation, Holy Eucharist I, Book of Common Prayer, 1979)
A number of years ago, I went on a pilgrimage to Rome, and one of my favorite places I visited was the coemeterium Priscillae, the catacomb of Priscilla. The catacomb is an ancient Christian burial ground dating back to about the second century of the Common Era and, it belonged to a Christian woman, Priscilla, most probably the wife of the Consul Acilius who became a Christian and martyred on the orders of Emperor Domitian. In this burial ground are many frescoes including one of the earliest representation of the celebration of the Eucharist, depicting seven persons gathered around a table, one of whom, presumably the bishop, is shown in the act of blessing and breaking the bread. Hence, this ancient representation came to be known as “fractio panis”, the breaking of the bread. While the fresco adorns a spot where the Christians celebrated the Eucharist, it was more than just a decoration. It served as a statement of what the early Christians believed to be happening as they celebrated the Eucharist. They believed that the Eucharist was more than just an act of calling to mind the Last Supper our Lord shared with his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. They believed that every time they gathered for the Eucharist, they were at the presence of the crucified, risen and ascended Christ who is to come again. Moreover, they believed that the Eucharistic table fellowship was a foretaste of the banquet in God’s kingdom they will share in eternity. The fresco depicting the Eucharist, then, was an affirmation of their belief that they were already at the gate of heaven even as they gathered in a place that reminded them of the fragility of life and their own mortality. And we, too, as we gather here around this Table of the Lord, here on 240 East 31 Street, we also affirm with deep conviction that we are at the threshold of heaven.
But, what exactly is heaven? Or, what is heaven like? One of my favorite descriptions of heaven comes from a Vietnamese folktale about the difference between heaven and hell. In hell, all sorts of people are gathered around a banquet table filled with sumptuous food. Each person has a yard long pair of chopsticks to eat with, but because the chopsticks are too long, the food never reaches their mouths. So, the people are sad and crying. In heaven, people from all walks of life are also gathered around a banquet table with an abundance of food, each also has a yard long pair of chopsticks. But, in heaven, the people are happy. They used their long chopticks to feed and nourish each other. They reach out to one another without prejudice. They reach to one another out of love and compassion. And such love is made possible by having a “disarmed heart” that allow and welcome others into one’s life. Compassion is made possible by having an “unfenced” heart that allow the suffering of others to enter and touch one’s heart.
In other words, the glue that holds people together in heaven is none other than love. Hell, on the other hand, is where love is lacking, where charity is absent.
For Jesus, the primary image of the Kingdom of God is a heavenly banquet, a great love feast, prepared for us by God. It is no coincidence that he is often portrayed in the Scripture as eating and drinking with people whom he met so much so that his detractors often criticized him as a “glutton” and a “drunkard.” But what really annoyed, and sometimes enraged and scandalized others was Jesus’ willingness to sit down at the table with anyone and everyone. What raised people’s eyebrows was that he did not discriminate against anyone. He made no distinction in regard to whom to associate with. He welcomed, he helped, he loved anyone and everyone he encountered, be they rich or poor, righteous or sinners, the clean and the impure, Jews and Gentiles, free and enslaved, friend and enemies. Jesus preached that that the Kingdom of God is a banquet open to all, a Kingdom where there would be no outcast. The Kingdom of God is an open table fellowship where God and everybody else practice radical hospitality.
But why did Jesus particularly chose to preach and show what the Kingdom of heaven was all about by practicing non-discriminatory table fellowship?
The NT scholar, John Dominic Crossan, writes that often enough human “table fellowship is a map of economic discrimination, social hierarchy, and political differentiation.” 1 He said our table fellowship is often “a miniature map of society’s vertical discrimination and lateral separations.” 2 What he meant was that we tend to pick and choose whom we dine with, whom we socialize with, whom we associate with, and often enough, likes invite likes to dinner. And we often, consciously or unconsciously, base our rules of dining on the societal rules of discrimination, whether on the basis of race, skin color, or social class, or religion, or whatever it may be. We tend to love those who we like. We tend to love those who are like us. And conversely, we tend not to associate with those we don’t like, or who don’t like us, or perhaps who differ from us. We tend to avoid those we find shameful, despicable and those we consider below us. Human relationships are often highly selective and discriminatory and often this is manifested in our table fellowship.
It was no different in Jesus’ time. Jesus lived in a society structured with an oppressive hierarchy, and hierarchy manifested itself during meals- women didn’t eat with men, slaves would not be caught dead eating with their masters, the righteous would not sit down with sinners, and so on. Jesus’ practice of open table fellowship, then, was a radical critique, a radical challenge of his society’s discriminatory rules of fellowship and relationships. And it is also a critique of ours. But(!) his inclusive table fellowship is more than just a critique; through it, he offers a different way of structuring human society and relationships.
The Table here is where the Lord teaches us to learn what love is all about. The love Jesus spoke about is more than just love of family and friends. It goes further in that we must also open our hearts to those outside our familiar circle. The love that he commands must involve welcoming and caring for those who we find strange or unfamiliar, unlovable, and easy for us to ignore and reject. To gather around this Table here may bring us comfort indeed, but it could also be challenging because our fellowship here will force us sooner or later to deal with those whom we normally would not go out of our way to associate with. Our fellowship around the Lord’s Table will require us to come to terms with our differences we often fear, and the risen Lord in our midst will challenge us to welcome and nurture each other despite of our differences and disagreements and conflicts. And as if that is not challenging enough, what we learn here in this great dining hall of Jesus called the Church of the Good Shepherd, we must also practice outside of here. I am the first to admit that what Jesus requires of us is hard, that this kind of love is difficult. A contemporary Carmelite author, Carol Humphreys, wrote: “God and love are (often) neither sweet nor nice.” What she means is that God would often command us to do what we rather not do, and love is not always a good feeling, not grace, but law. But there you have it. Yet (and this is important) if we practice what we learn here in that part of the world we inhabit where we find unjust division and discrimination, that part of the world is transformed by the risen Christ acting through us, with us and in us. It is then that we help bring about heaven on earth. It is then through us that the prayer of Jesus to the Father is answered and realized: “May your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Then, this Eucharist, and this Table indeed is none other than the gate of heaven.
To Christ our Lord who loves us and washed us in his own blood, and make us a kingdom of priests to serve his God and Father, to him be glory in the Church evermore. Through him let us offer continually the sacrifice of praise which is our bounden duty and service, and with faith in him, come boldly before the throne of grace. (Exhortation, Holy Eucharist I, Book of Common Prayer, 1979). Let the Church say “Amen.”
1, 2 J. D. Crossan (1994) Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. San Francisco: Harper Row, p. 68, 69.
©2019 Noel E. Bordador
Noel Bordador is a queer Episcopal priest in the Philippines. He runs Nazareth House, a Catholic Worker House of Hospitality for persons with HIV/AIDS in Manila.
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