Oh, those special, special dishes, the fine china. You know, the kind that only comes out on special occasions, right? If you happen to own some Royal Copenhagen china, you know about the special. You see, this Royal Copenhagen Flora Danica is the world’s most expensive china, with one place setting costing almost $7000! If I had that china, I would be afraid to touch it, let alone use it!
Recently I heard Gregory Boyle SJ, a Jesuit priest renown for his work with gang members in Los Angeles at Homeboy Industries; he was being interviewed by Krista Tippett for her radio program, On Being. (Here is a link to the page for that program and the podcast.) Fr. Greg was talking about some of his “homies,” as he calls them, having a meal together. Seven former gang rivals, sitting around a one kitchen, watching a turkey cook on Christmas (yes, I know – wrong holiday!), that they could share. And you can be assured that there was no Flora Danica in that household! Who knows, they might have eaten off of mismatched cheap dishes, or even paper plates. Yet, the meal they shared was very sacred.
This absurd pairing of opposites such as $7000 for one place setting, and a bunch of reformed gang members eating turkey together, reminded me of what we are doing as we celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. The sacred or sacri, and the ordinary, or vulgarem. Just hearing the Latin word for ordinary makes me recoil. But why? Are sacred and ordinary simply opposites that are mutually exclusive?
I was thinking about this most precious of all meals, the most special, and the most sacred meal of the sacri panis, or sacred bread that is the Body of Christ that we partake of at Eucharist. Something else that Fr. Boyle said was on my mind as I pondered. He was discussing that turkey dinner when he said:
“… I think we’re afraid of the incarnation and part of it, the fear that drives us is that we have to have our sacred in a certain way. It has to be gold-plated and cost of millions and cast of thousands or something, I don’t know. So we’ve wrestled the cup out of Jesus’ hand and we’ve replaced it with a chalice because who doesn’t know that a chalice is more sacred than a cup, never mind that Jesus didn’t use a chalice?
So what could be more sacred than seven orphans, enemies, rivals, sitting in a kitchen waiting for a turkey to be done? Jesus doesn’t lose any sleep that we will forget that the Eucharist is sacred. He is anxious that we might forget that it’s ordinary, that it’s a meal shared among friends. And that’s the incarnation, I think.”
I’m not sure if Jesus loses any sleep or not, and I do believe that the Eucharist is absolutely sacred. And I also believe that if we decouple the sacred from the ordinary entirely, what we end up with is Flora Danica china, to be used, if we are rich enough to have it, maybe once a year.
What we find in this mass that recalls the institution of the Eucharist, is something supremely sacred… and remarkably ordinary. In John’s Gospel that we hear on Thursday night, we hear about a Jesus who knew that things were going to happen. He was aware. Jesus, fully divine.
What we also find is tying a towel around his waist, and bending low to wash the feet of his disciples. He was aware. Jesus, fully divine, but also at this moment, fully human.
Sacri. Vulgarem. Sacred. Ordinary.
At the end of the footwashing, when Jesus is dressed again, and reclining at table, he reminds the apostles that:
“Do you realize what I have done for you?
You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am.
If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet,
you ought to wash one another’s feet.
I have given you a model to follow,
so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
So what are we to do? Fall down to worship Jesus? Remember his holiness and his might and power? Or do we serve him by serving others?
Perhaps it is important to pause here and consider three things…
First of all, let us consider Jesus as sacred. Lord of Lord, King of Kings. He is our everything, our Alpha and our Omega. He is the Lord on High, without equal, Jesus Christ is God. And God is very sacred.
When we think of God, of Jesus, as our King, however, we might we well reminded that this is not the kingship of any earthly monarchy, as we know it, but something new and different. Our reverence to God is essential; how we express that may not be the same cowering homage that earthly monarchs demand.
Power can be wielded as a force that cripples, or as a force that serves. In the case of Jesus, with his towel around his waist, this force is powerful; it is love in action.
What is the Eucharist if not love in action?
Two – we might want to spend some time with ordinary Jesus. This Lord and King who gets down on his hands and knees to wash our filthy feet. At this time, he is a man, and a most remarkable one. He comes to clean our feet.
Have you ever had your feet washed on Holy Thursday? This is no trip to the manicure/pedicure salon, I can assure you. While it can be a very nice thing, the pedicure is very ordinary – or vulgarem. Foot washing on Holy Thursday is the opposite – it is sacred.
I can recall many instances of getting my feet washed on Holy Thursday where I felt uncomfortable and disarmed in ways I still have trouble describing. It brought to mind memories to mind of extravagant gifts of kindness received from others. The kind of gifts that on the surface prompt us to want to “make good,” and repay in some fashion.
Yet, our fully human Jesus, who has offered this gift, asks us to mirror both his humanity and divinity, by not simply returning it to him as obsequious homage, but by living in the same way. Jesus is not looking for ordinary – or vulgarem – repayment.
Third, we are offered chance to reflect on how lopsided our love of Christ can be; too focused on service alone, and not enough intimate contact with Jesus. Conversely we can spend too much time on our knees and not enough time being kind to one another.
How do we respond, living in the holy tension of service and love, love and service? If we do not worship Christ in our hearts, if we do not receive him in the Sacred Bread that is Eucharist, how are we fed for the journey?
It is this mix of sacred and ordinary, contemplative and active, the reception of gift balanced by the giving of gift, which is the challenge of this night -and of our Christian lives. Referring back to what I said above about repayment, Jesus is not seeking this. No, we are to be transformed in a most sacred manner, and then to go transform others, as we are continually retransformed ourselves.
This bread that we eat, this ordinary bread or vulgarem panem, sacred bread or sacri panem. It is in the intersection of sacred and ordinary that we meet Christ our Lord – and one another. This blog is called “there will be bread,” for a reason… a very important reason.
Please, let us eat together, living in love and service, in ways that are completely ordinary, and always very sacred. Sacred and ordinary are not mutually exclusive, but that are all about mutuality, as Jesus models for us.
Please, let us eat together, not just on this special and sacred night, but for every ordinary day, sharing our vulgarem panem, our sacri panis, and our lives.
This is brilliant. Thank you, Fran. I’m jealous of you – again. I’d love to meet Greg Boyle. My Jesuit Spiritual Director gave me “Tattoos on the Heart” for my birthday and I fell in love with him – Greg Boyle, not my SD!
I have actually met him twice; he is a brilliant man. Humble, gentle, sincere, full of the light of Christ.
Rob, my SD, spent 9? years at Berkley and met him.
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What I really loved about Fr. Boyle’s story was that those young men were ENEMIES. They were from different gangs, but they were all “orphans” on the holiday–no family or friends had offered to take them in. And the one young man invited them all to share a meal–which, as I recall, was ONLY turkey, no trimmings.
That story touched me deeply, because as I pictured those young men sitting in a kitchen, watching a turkey cook–not even talking to each other for fear of starting something ugly and ending up alone on Christmas–it made me think of the way we all come to the altar, wounded and broken. We kneel next to those we cannot even talk to, because we know we differ about politics or theology or….whatever. And we all eat together–in silence and in hope.
Excellent points – and so well made. Thank you so much.
Beautifully written as always.
This is so beautiful. Here’s to all of us being able to find the sacred in the ordinary. My mother used to keep a little prayer above the kitchen sink…Thank God for dirty dishes! In essence, it meant yes, there was work to do but that meant that we had eaten. I have always loved Holy Thursday mass and now I am looking forward to tonight even more.
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