I always tell people that what we do here tonight, gathering to mark Maundy Thursday, is among the most meaningful services that churches do.
We tell elements of its story every time the Church celebrates Communion.
But to be honest, I’m not sure it always registers.
I think for many people, Communion is just one of those hokey things that churches do.
We talk about it as meal, even a banquet, and yet it’s scarcely a crumb and just barely a sip…and from that we’re supposed to feel something—not just “fed,” but closer to God, or at least, closer to one another (although truth be told, that’s often the harder of the two).
Communion is supposed to teach us.
How it’s supposed to do that can be hard to say.
That’s why tonight is so helpful.
Tonight, we tell more of the story, and that equips us particularly to remember that the meal comes just before the lights begin to go out.
It happens at the threshold of the hours when the darkness will grow, and when suddenly it will seem poised to win.
It will seem as if Jesus’ light has been extinguished.
The writing is on the wall for all that as he welcomes the disciples and washes their feet and prays and teaches…and then ultimately, takes the bread and the cup.
Knowing what he knows, this is what he chooses to do.
It’s unclear at best if the disciples sensed anything different about the occasion.
If they noticed a kind of heaviness about him on that evening, it is not recorded, anywhere.
In some ways, the heart of John’s whole Gospel is the extended sermon that Jesus was said to have delivered that night, a farewell discourse which runs through five full chapters of wisdom and warning, ominous if you’d read it just a few hours later.
It seems possible to imagine Judas sitting there, with silver in his pocket and detailed plans for what will happen next, but for the moment he is there listening, still nominally one of them, even as he scans Jesus’ face for any inkling and wonders when he might slip out the door and meet up with the Romans for the short march to Gethsemane.
If I had been there, would I have wanted to know? I’m not sure.
It’s also possible, I suppose, that the church might have elected to remember this evening by reading those five chapters from John together in their entirety, in the hope of making better disciples out of us.
Except that’s not what Jesus said to do in order to remember him.
He said to remember the meal.
When it comes to the darkness, we probably don’t need reminding.
In our own ways, we are not strangers to moments when the darkness grows and our own light seems at least to flicker.
H.L. Mencken once observed that “Happiness is the china shop; love is the bull,” which, like Mencken himself, that has the quality of being simultaneously funny and utterly grim.
But it seems to suggest that avoiding love is our only hope of happiness, and Jesus, of course, says just the opposite.
Jesus’ view was that when life comes crashing down around us, what will see us through is being able to love in the ways he teaches us to love.
So then, knowing what we know, about life, about people, about our own shortcomings, about heartbreak in any of its many forms, what will we choose to do?
When life comes crashing down around us, will we shun brokenness or learn to find God within it?
What Jesus shows us in Communion is God’s willingness to bring all that is broken and all who are broken permanently into the life of God.
It reminds us that in those moments when the lights seem to go out one by one, there are people able to sit with us in the darkness, holding our hand until the dawn comes, waiting until it becomes possible to speak about gathering the fragments back up again.
This seems to be what Jesus had in mind, both for Communion and for us, as he faced his own hour of darkness.
Maybe it makes sense, then, that when we practice it, all we get is a crumb and one small sip.
It shows us that even the smallest gesture and the easiest act of kindness, offered in love, and in memory of the one who loved us so deeply, can represent a banquet for the person who needs it.
A token of the coming dawn.
May it offer us strength and peace tonight, and all our days.