Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on Maundy Thursday 2018
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Thursday, 29th March 2018 at 5.01 PM
An ancient prayer, known as the Anima Christi, may be familiar to many of us. Those of us who join the procession at the end of this service that takes the reserved Blessed Sacrament into St Margaret’s Church next door for the Watch of the Passion will use the prayer during our moment of veneration and reflection. The prayer is first found in a written text in 1334 but may have been well-known and widely used for many years, decades or even centuries before that. It is a simple and beautiful prayer.
The prayer begins: Soul of Christ, sanctify me; Body of Christ, save me; Blood of Christ, refresh me; Water from the side of Christ, wash me; Passion of Christ, strengthen me. The prayer goes on to beg our Lord Jesus Christ to hold us close to him in his Passion and Death and to be sure not to let us be separated from him or deviate from his love. The most moving part of the prayer runs, Within thy wounds hide me. It is a prayer to be united with Christ in his Passion and to be united with him also in his Resurrection. In the hour of my death call me and bid me come to thee that with thy saints I may praise thee.
The prayer is easy to learn and simple to remember and can be recited on all kinds of occasions, but particularly after we have received Holy Communion. It also links us right back to the Church in the Middle Ages, to the community that worshipped God in this holy place many centuries ago, of whom we are the richly blessed heirs.
One part of the prayer is translated in a way that fails to give it its full meaning. The third line of the prayer runs in our translation, Blood of Christ, refresh me. The original Latin feels far more potent. It runs, Sanguis Christi, inebria me. That is literally, Blood of Christ, inebriate me, or, put another way, May I become drunk with the Blood of Christ. Now this may seem to us a little extreme. But, think about it for a moment. A person who has become inebriated has lost his or her inhibitions. A person who is a little inebriated will talk much more easily, much more openly, with people than they would normally. Of course, a person who is really drunk is in danger of falling down and injuring him or herself. And I am sure the prayer does not mean that. But before the wistful, sad, depressed stage of drunkenness, and well before the legless stage, there is a time of euphoria, of happiness. To lose our inhibitions, to be open with our Lord, to trust the Son of God, to enjoy converse with our Saviour, to be happy with the Redeemer of the world: surely this is desirable, this is good. Blood of Christ, inebriate me. Sanguis Christi, inebria me.
The Anima Christi opens our hearts and minds to the mystery of the Eucharist, the inauguration of which we celebrate this and every Maundy Thursday. We heard St Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, giving the earliest written account of what happened on the night when Jesus was betrayed. He took the loaf of bread and he took the cup of wine and he blessed them and distributed them to his disciples, his apostles. And he said to them, Do this in remembrance of me. We know that from the earliest days of the Church, following the Death and Resurrection of our Lord, they began to do what he had told them to do: to take bread and wine and bless them and share them saying This is my Body and This is my Blood. And the Church has gone on doing that ever since, in simple private ceremonies in the earliest years, hidden away for fear of persecution, to great public ceremonies in abbeys and cathedrals and parish churches up and down the land and across the world. Do this, he said, and the Church has done it. We do it this evening, just as we do throughout the year day by day, and just as the monks and the priests here have done over the thousand years and more of this church’s presence in this place. And we know that the Body of Christ saves us and the Blood of Christ refreshes us and inebriates us, bringing us close to our Lord Jesus Christ himself, as he planned from the beginning.
Jesus leaves us in the Holy Eucharist a really remarkable and wonderful gift, such as is not to be found in other religious traditions. He knows that his earthly life is coming to an end. His personal Good Friday cannot be avoided. After this Last Supper with his apostles, he will pray in Gethsemane and he will be betrayed by one of his companions at the Supper, one of his closest disciples, one of his apostles, Judas Iscariot, who has pledged himself to him but for reasons which are unclear has decided to break with him and to hand him over to the Jewish authorities. So he will be arrested and brought for trial before the Jewish High Priest and condemned. There one of his very closest disciples, Peter himself, will deny ever having known him. The High Priest will hand him over to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who will condemn him to torture, mockery and death.
So this evening Jesus is looking forward, not just to the physical agony he must suffer, but to the future of the movement he has begun, which will become known as the Christian Church, the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, of all Christian people throughout the world. He wills to be close to all those who follow in his footsteps, all who adhere to his teaching, all who seek to emulate his example. He wills to offer his life to them and to inspire and enable them to love God as he has loved God and to love God’s people as he has loved them, to be and do as he has been and done. Our Lord Jesus Christ reaches out to us this evening. He reaches us through His Word and through the Holy Sacrament of the altar, as the bread and wine we offer become by the grace of the Holy Spirit so much more than simply bread and wine, for us the Body and Blood of Christ himself, through which he feeds us and nurtures us and strengthens us and washes us and refreshes us and saves us and sanctifies us. Christ himself in this service, this Holy Eucharist, this very night touches our hearts and lives and so changes us.
This evening, ‘Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your 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.’