Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at Sung Eucharist with the Washing of the feet, Maundy Thursday 2012

5 April 2012 at 17:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

St Paul tells us that our Lord Jesus Christ “on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’  In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” The priest in the Eucharistic Prayer later in this service, taking the bread and then the wine, says, ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ The priest says this every time the Eucharist is celebrated. We remember what Jesus said and did. We re-enact those events at the centre of our faith.

In this special service there are more re-enactments. We have heard the testimony of St John that Jesus ‘got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.’ In a few moments, the Canon in Residence and I will remember, by re-enacting, that act of humble service. We shall wash between us the feet of twelve members of this assembly. We shall remember Jesus’ instructions to his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”

Later, after we have received the bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion, there is a further re-enactment. We shall move the Blessed Sacrament, the consecrated bread and wine, from the high altar to the altar in St Margaret’s Church next door. The consecrated species will there be reserved overnight in order to be offered in Holy Communion to the people who attend the Solemn Liturgy of the Passion and Death of the Lord here in the Abbey Church tomorrow afternoon. Our little procession from this Church to the Church next door will re-enact our Lord’s last free movement, when he left the Upper Room and crossed the Brook Kidron and walked with his disciples to Gethsemane. As the procession passes you, think of our Lord Jesus Christ himself walking to Gethsemane and honour him. In St Margaret’s Church we shall be invited to watch and pray, remembering the words of Jesus to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ To Peter and James and John, he said, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’ A little later he came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour?’ [Mark 14: 32ff]

Some of us in St Margaret’s Church will try to watch and pray, to stay awake with our Lord Jesus Christ, for one short hour, as we prepare for Good Friday. What should be our thoughts, our prayer? Foremost in our minds will be our Lord’s agony as he contemplated the prospect of his death. St Luke gives the most vivid account, “Jesus prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.” [Luke 22: 41ff]

At the beginning of this service we sang the great hymn Praise to the holiest, from John Henry Newman’s poem Dream of Gerontius, which Edward Elgar was to set to music. The hymn praises God for his loving wisdom, for his wisest love. One verse, familiar but hard to understand, speaking of God’s generous love, runs like this:

O generous love! that he, who smote
in Man for man the foe,
the double agony in Man 
for man should undergo;

What is this ‘double agony’ endured by Jesus the Son of Man in smiting humanity’s foe? Most of us can only imagine, thank God, the agony our Lord Jesus Christ endured on the Cross, the agony of physical and mental suffering, the sheer bloody mental and physical pain of being tortured and then nailed to a piece of wood and hanging there for hours fighting for breath and feeling the life ebbing away. Was the second agony the agony in the garden? No – but surely there already Jesus was entering into the greater, the second agony. That second agony surely was the agony of separation, suffered by our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of Man and Son of God, was separation from God. St Mark records his cry of dereliction, “At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” [Mark 15: 34]

It is hard for us to grasp what that second agony must have meant for Jesus. Many of us will have had times when we feel close to God, when we are aware of his presence with us. But to be one with God, to be aware of his presence in every moment, seems beyond our reach. And yet that is the loving wisdom, the generous love of God, wisdom that looks foolish to the eyes of the world. St Paul wrote, “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” [I Corinthians 1: 23ff]

Our Lord endures the agony of separation from God to break down the wall of separation between God and humanity. He opens the way for our separation from God to be ended. The wall of separation can only be broken down by a human being who has divine power. Through the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are enabled to enter into the very life of God himself and to share God’s life. Jesus re-enacts in us his own triumph on the Cross over sin and death. Jesus offers us tonight the precious gift, the gift of himself, of his Body and Blood. He offers us that gift every time the Eucharist is celebrated. As we stretch out our hands to receive the bread of the Eucharist and to drink from the cup of salvation, so our Lord Jesus Christ pours his life into ours and unites us to himself, to God himself. Cause for praise indeed!

Praise to the Holiest in the height,
and in the depth be praise,
in all his words most wonderful,
most sure in all his ways.