By Sarah Puryear
Tonight on Thursday of Holy Week, we hear the story of the Last Supper, and we recall how Jesus commanded his disciples to remember him by celebrating this special meal together. That Last Supper that Jesus shared with his disciples was also a beginning – it was the first Eucharist, the first of countless celebrations that have happened through history and around the world since the first century, all in remembrance of him. In our tradition, we celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday – in fact, here at St. George’s we celebrate the Eucharist every single day. Tonight is a special celebration of the Eucharist, because on this night we celebrate it as part of Holy Week, an intense and focused time when we remember the events of the week leading up to Jesus’ death and resurrection. As I have celebrated the Eucharist this Holy Week, I have noticed that doing so during this special season highlights the theme within the Eucharist of Christ’s physical suffering. We may not think about it every time we hear this, but each week when the liturgy echoes Jesus’ words at that final dinner, “This is my body given for you, this is my blood shed for you,” it points specifically to his physical suffering, to the way that his body was broken and his blood was shed by whips and thorns and nails.
In our beautiful Eucharist services, with our beautiful altar coverings and robes and silver chalices, it is easy to forget that such a violent and painful story lies behind it. There is absolutely a place for beauty and joy in the Eucharist, because it is not only a remembrance of “his blessed passion and precious death;” it is also a celebration of “his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension.” But on Maundy Thursday we cannot forget that Christ’s suffering and death lies behind the gifts of bread and wine.
When we delve into the true story of Christ’s passion, we do not find the trite and sentimental depiction of Easter that are common in our culture; instead, we find a story of betrayal, injustice, suffering, torture, and death. We may rightfully find it troubling that the story at the center of our faith is one of suffering. In particular, we are likely to feel uncomfortable with the idea that someone else would or should undergo physical suffering for us. I wonder if perhaps that is what stirred some of the discomfort and criticism about the movie The Passion of the Christ being “too violent.” There are plenty of violent, gory movies out there all the time that receive little criticism; but there was something about watching an innocent man suffer so horribly that made people uncomfortable. Perhaps the most discomforting part was that according to the Christian faith, that man was undergoing all of that for you.
The idea of someone suffering for us is not only rather foreign and unusual to us, but it is an affront to many of our cultural values. We devote so much energy to keeping suffering and death at bay in our lives, and yet in Jesus we see someone voluntarily embrace suffering, which is startling, perhaps even unheard of. We rely so much upon our successes and achievements to define who we are, and yet in Jesus we are told that that his submission to suffering is the means by which we are saved. Jesus’ passion cuts through our self-reliance, our attempts to ward off death, and our reluctance to face the reality of pain in a most unsettling way. And yet the gospel states, quite simply, that “by his wounds we are healed.” That through Christ’s suffering on our behalf, we find healing, freedom, and peace.
How can we begin to make sense of Christ’s suffering on our behalf from this vantage point? How is his passion “good news” for us? I find that a saying by one of the fathers of the church sheds some light on the mystery of Christ’s passion. St. Gregory of Nyssa said, “What Christ has not assumed, He has not healed.” Here “Assume” doesn’t mean to “suppose” or “take for granted”; rather, it means “to take upon oneself.” What Gregory mean is anything which Jesus has not taken on himself cannot be healed. Jesus had to take upon himself the full range of human experience in order to redeem it. Jesus didn’t have to enter into every exact situation that we face; but he plumbed the depths of human misery and sin and despair in those final events before his death, and in doing so redeemed them, shattering their grip over us and subjecting them to his reign and rule.
We see in Christ’s passion that God has very particular means of dealing with the problem of sin and death in the world, ones that differ from the methods we might have chosen. We might expect an all-mighty God to snap his fingers and fix everything instantly. That would cater to our preferences to avoid pain and receive immediate gratification. But God in his wisdom, chooses another way; he chooses to “assume” what needs healing, to take it upon himself, to vanquish it from the inside out. In Christ’s passion we see the literal meaning of the word “compassion” acted out before us – it literally means to suffer with someone. Perhaps the prophet Isaiah described Jesus’ suffering with us best when he wrote, “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows.”
That’s the theological explanation of why suffering is at the center of our story as Christians – that Christ takes on human suffering and thereby redeems it. But what does that mean for us? What does it really mean for us today that such a story – one of betrayal and heartbreak and injustice and suffering and death – is at the center of our faith?
It means that the gospel is sturdy enough to handle your biggest trials, to absorb all your deepest darkness, to take them all and throw them at the foot of the cross. It means that there is no problem or trial or suffering or failure that falls outside of the scope of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It means that wherever you are and whatever you are going through, God has been there already. He has been there before you. He knows what it is to be rejected, to be scorned, to be subjected to injustice, to violence. He knows what it is like to have his heart be broken. And because he has been there, he knows how to lead you through it, beyond it, to the life that is on the other side of that suffering.
Tonight we remember that Last Supper, that First Eucharist, that first time Jesus held the bread and wine and told his disciples that they were to now become signs of his suffering love. Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, God offers us those signs of Christ’s suffering, the broken bread and the poured out wine. In those elements, we meet again the suffering Savior of whom Isaiah wrote, who says to us tonight:
Surely I took up your pain and bore your suffering,
I was pierced for your transgressions,
I was crushed for your iniquities;
the punishment that brought you peace was on me,
and by my wounds you are healed.
The Rev. Sarah Puryear is an Episcopal priest who served most recently at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, where this sermon was preached on Maundy Thursday 2012.