While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.”
Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it.
“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. “Truly I tell you, I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”
When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
- Mark 14:22-26
“I do not know and can’t imagine what the disciples understood Our Lord to mean when, His body still unbroken and His blood unshed, He handed them the bread and wine, saying they were His body and blood. … I ﬁnd ‘substance’ (in Aristotle’s sense), when stripped of its own accidents and endowed with the accidents of some other substance, an object I cannot think. … On the other hand, I get on no better with those who tell me that the elements are mere bread and mere wine, used symbolically to remind me of the death of Christ. They are, on the natural level, such a very odd symbol of that. … And I cannot see why this particular reminder—a hundred other things may, psychologically, remind me of Christ’s death, equally, or perhaps more—should be so uniquely important as all Christendom (and my own heart) unhesitatingly declare. … Yet I ﬁnd no difﬁculty in believing that the veil between the worlds, nowhere else (for me) so opaque to the intellect, is nowhere else so thin and permeable to divine operation. Here a hand from the hidden country touches not only my soul but my body. Here the prig, the don, the modern, in me have no privilege over the savage or the child. Here is big medicine and strong magic. … The command, after all, was Take, eat: not Take, understand.”
- C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer
When I was a young believer, I placed an importance on Maundy Thursday worship about as much as Easter Sunday. The churches that we attended had Communion (or the Last Supper) once a month plus special occasions, and Maundy Thursday was one of those occasions. Since this was celebrated on the night in which the first Last Supper was done, it seemed a more appropriate time to do that in remembrance.
But C. S. Lewis is quite correct. When the disciples heard Jesus say to take and eat or take and drink, the body and blood of Jesus were still intact. It must have been totally confusing for those in the Upper Room.
For us, looking back, we have so much more to remember when we celebrate the Last Supper. We can celebrate Jesus’ life, remembering how He proved that He was the Son of God, tying His Life with the Old Testament prophecies. We can remember all the events from that evening. Jesus said He would be betrayed. Jesus washed the feet of His disciples. Jesus told Peter that Peter would deny Him.
As recorded above, they sang before going out to pray. That seems, in itself, bizarre. Jesus just said that He would be betrayed and that He would die, but they sang a hymn. The disciples had something to remember Jesus by that we do not have. They knew which hymn, and I am sure when they sang it again, they remembered that night.
But unlike the disciples, we can keep reading. The disciples fell asleep while Jesus prayed. The guards came with Judas and Judas kissed Jesus. There was a mock trial. Jesus was trundled from one place to another until he was finally before Pontius Pilate, where Jesus was condemned to death. A death necessary to pay for our sins.
And we could keep reading. Jesus rose from the dead.
But in the here and now of an Upper Room in Jerusalem, they did not have the advantage of having all that in front of them in a book. The eleven remaining disciples had left everything to follow the man that they thought was the Messiah. And the Messiah said that He would die the next day.
Yes, without the advantage of flipping the page and continuing to read the story, we are left with following the command.
The understanding would come three days later when Jesus rose from the dead, but only in part. The ultimately understanding came fifty days later on Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit indwelled them, guided them, empowered them, and most importantly perhaps, at least for this sacrament, the Holy Spirit explained to them what Jesus meant each time He said, “For those who have ears, let them hear.” The Holy Spirit gave them the ability to “Take, understand.”
But for that Thursday night during a Passover Feast, it made no sense to them. They just obeyed.
Maybe, with that in mind, this Maundy Thursday service might mean more to us.
Soli Deo Gloria. Only to God be the Glory.