This was my homily last night for Maundy Thursday.
As you may know, there is a lot of poetry in the Bible. Over the past century, poetry has taken quite a dive in public opinion; what was once considered a sublime art to be appreciated and mastered has given way to a utilitarian perspective of being considered needlessly fluffy and wordy. As a result, some people today get rather nervous when teachers talk about poetry in the Bible, as if we’re demeaning or belittling the text of sacred scripture.
But for most of human history where systems of writing exist, poetry has held a place of respect in the public ear. It wasn’t just an art form to show off the author’s skill or amuse the listener; it was also a way of showing special respect and reverence for the information being communicated. When something important happens today, we write reports and essays about it. When something important happened in the pre-modern world, they wrote poems about it.
With that in mind, there should be no surprise that the Bible is full of poetry. Even many of its non-poetic books contain many poetic sections and devices. I introduce this to you because today, this Maundy Thursday, I’d like to tell the story of Christ using biblical poetry rather than the story-form of the Gospel books or the teaching-form of the Epistles.
Holy Week Psalms
Through this Holy Week, and into the celebration of the resurrection on Easter Day, there are many psalms which stand out famously across various Christian traditions.
Psalm 22 perhaps stands out the most. In that psalm we find some of Jesus’ last words on the Cross (“my God, my God, who have you forsaken me”). It was written by King David and was originally written probably to describe one of his life-threatening situations against King Saul or the Philistines or his son’s rebellion. But as you go through its poetic descriptions of the shame and mockery he suffered, some crystal clear pictures of Jesus’ crucifixion crop up, right down to the casting lots for his clothes. We use this psalm on a few different occasions; we read most of it on Palm Sunday, we will read it during the Stripping of the Altar tonight, and it is also one of the psalms appointed for the Good Friday service.
Psalm 51 is probably the most famous of the penitential psalms. It is most frequently associated with the Ash Wednesday liturgy, but it sometimes shows up during Holy Week in a special musical arrangement sung by a choir.
Psalm 118, finally, has a very prominent role throughout Holy Week and into Easter Day. Parts of it are traditionally used in the Liturgy of the Palms, especially the half-verse “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” But its declaration “this is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it,” also earns it a spot on Easter Day. The triumphant language of Psalm 118 fits it right in on both Sundays.
Psalm 78 on Holy Communion
Today we’ve also heard from a small portion of Psalm 78. This psalm is an historical reflection on God’s provision during and after the time of the exodus, and its’ also a parable. The Psalm begins like this: “Hear my teaching, O my people; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth with a parable, I will utter dark sayings of old.” So although the bulk of the psalm is taken up with recounting some of the story of Israel, the poet’s author has a purpose beyond simple storytelling; these words are to be a parable, a story that teaches us something important. With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at what verses 14-25 show us as Christians, particularly in this context of Holy Week.
14 In the daytime he led them with a cloud, and all the night with a fiery light.
As Israelites traveled from Egypt through the desert of Sinai for forty years, they were led by a great continuous theophany – a dramatic visual appearance of God. The Christian journey, however, is not through a physical desert in one little corner of the world, but through the spiritual desert of this life throughout the entire world. Thus God leads us not with a revelation of cloud and fire, but a revelation of Spirit and Truth. The cloud and fire given us to us is the preaching of the Gospel, the reading of sacred Scriptures; these show us Christ, and Christ is the Way.
15 He split rocks in the wilderness and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep. 16 He made streams come out of the rock and caused waters to flow down like rivers.
God continues to provide us with miraculous life-giving water; we drink deeply of the Holy Spirit, given to us first in Holy Baptism and strengthened in our lives through faithful obedience and through the other Sacraments. These are God’s gifts to us; he leads us to still waters. At Holy Communion the invitation is to take, eat, and drink the life of Christ into ourselves. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts!
17 Yet they sinned still more against him, rebelling against the Most High in the desert. 18 They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. 19 They spoke against God, saying, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness? 20 He struck the rock so that water gushed out and streams overflowed. Can he also give bread or provide meat for his people?”
Despite the great guidance and provision that God provided the Israelites, they wanted more. It is so easy to look back and judge them for their lack of faith. But upon honest reflection, we find that we, too, are constantly testing God, making demands, questioning the extent of his provision. I have received new and eternal life in Christ, but can God help me with my taxes…? God has given us the Word of Truth in the Bible, but can’t I just read some nuggets of inspirational pick-me-ups instead?
21 Therefore, when the Lord heard, he was full of wrath; a fire was kindled against Jacob; his anger rose against Israel, 22 because they did not believe in God and did not trust his saving power.
When we question our Lord and Savior, when we reject his gifts of love, especially his greatest self-offerings in the Word and Sacraments, is it any wonder that our lives become more difficult? When we ignore God’s gifts, of course we find ourselves feeling spiritually lacking and sick. To turn away from the source of the life is to embrace the source of death! God’s wrath is not capricious, it’s the obvious result of our blatant sinful rejection of him.
23 Yet he commanded the skies above and opened the doors of heaven, 24 and he rained down on them manna to eat and gave them the grain of heaven. 25 Man ate of the bread of the angels; he sent them food in abundance.
Even though we sin against our Savior daily, his love for us does not abate. When Israel was in the desert of Sinai, God fed them manna for 40 years whether they were obedient or not. Even when punishments were thrown down upon them for their various rebellions, the manna was still there, six mornings a week as promised. So it is today; no matter how attentive or inattentive you are to our Lord Jesus Christ, he continues to make himself available to you. Whether you read it or not, that Bible is still sitting on your shelf, or table, or car seat, or wherever. Whether you attend or not, the Sacrament of Holy Communion is offered at least every Sunday. Our God provides for us, faithfully, patiently, lovingly. As St. Paul wrote, and as we proclaim at every Eucharistic celebration, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us; therefore let us keep the feast!”
Therefore let us keep the feast.
We could study the account in Luke 22 of the Last Supper, and see how the context of the Passover meal informs our understanding of Holy Communion. We could analyze the teachings of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 to get at some of the key doctrines concerning what Holy Communion is, and is about. Maybe next year I will.
For today, at least, let us attend to the words of Psalm 78. Holy Communion is no mere ritual that you hire a priest to enact for you on a weekly basis. Neither is it a mere gathering of friends and family to remember Jesus together. It is nothing less than Christ himself, offering his Body and Blood to his beloved people. It is the Good Shepherd calling his sheep in to give them food. It is the food of angels offered to mankind.
Holy Week is a time of intense reflection upon the death of Christ. Holy Communion is our regular entrance into that death, our participation in that sacrifice, our act of faith that says “Yes” to God’s offer of eternal life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your heart by faith, with thanksgiving. Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s blood was shed for you, and be thankful.