One day when I was serving a church outside of Chattanooga, I received a letter from a woman I did not know who lived in a state far from Tennessee. Her father, she said, was in a nursing home near my church. He had once been an active and robust man, now diminished in both mind and body by Alzheimer’s.
He was a lifelong Episcopalian, always active in the church. Although he was now often confused, she believed the ritual of taking communion would bring him comfort.
Would I take the Eucharist to him? she asked.
And so it was that I entered a stranger’s room, uninvited and unannounced, carrying the body and blood of Christ.
I introduced myself to the man, and talked to him a while, trying to explain who I was and why I was there, but getting no response.
Finally, I opened my communion kit and began to set the bedside tray we were using as an altar.
“I think you might remember this story,” I said. “On the night before he died, Jesus had dinner with his friends. He knew he wouldn’t be sharing a meal with them again, and he wanted them to have a way to remember him.
“So he took the bread and told them it was his body, and every time they ate bread together they should remember him. And then he took the wine and said it was his blood and whenever they drank wine together they should think of him.”
I looked at the old man sitting across from me.
“Do you remember?” I prodded, hoping for some recognition.
He looked at me with confusion in his eyes, then spoke for the first time.
“Was I there?” he asked.
His question took me aback. I paused for a moment and then answered, “Yes, you were. You were there. We were all there.”
I have thought of that man and his question often in the ensuing years, and on reflection I realize that his question was profound. Tonight’s liturgy reminds us that in a very real sense, we were all there.
The poet W.H. Auden once said that “through art, we are able to break bread with the dead.”
The same could be said of the Eucharist.
Maundy Thursday, the last night of Jesus’ life, is traditionally the time we remember that last meal Jesus shared with his friends. In our celebration we are following the instructions Jesus gave that night – “Do this in memory of me.”
The Greeks have a special word for this type of remembrance – anamnesis. Anamnesis is the opposite of amnesia.
It means not simply to call or remember an event from the past, but to bring that memory forward, to make it alive in the present. To make it meaningful in our lives now, a part of who we are.
So I was able to say yes to the man who asked “Was I there?” Every time we gather around the table and share bread and wine we are participants in that long-ago meal.
But the Eucharist is not merely breaking bread with the dead. When we break this bread Christ is alive and present with us in ways that we can never fully understand.
Sharing Eucharistic bread and wine is not the only way in which Christ continues to be present with us almost 2,000 years after his death. There are other acts of anamnesis, other ways to bring Christ forward, to make him a living part of our lives.
The reading from the Gospel of John that we heard tonight reminds us that Christ is present whenever we serve one another.
That is the message of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, giving us a picture of Jesus as servant.
“If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet,” Jesus says. “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
For Jesus, washing another’s feet is symbolic of servanthood. When we become servants we open ourselves to Christ’s presence among us today.
When we are with the least of the world – among the poor, the hungry, the homeless; when we stand with those who are dying or in distress – then Christ is present.
When we stand in solidarity with those who are excluded, those whom the world has pushed to the margins of society, then we are in communion with Christ.
Jonathan Kozol, a nationally-acclaimed writer who focuses on the plight of our country’s impoverished children, tells the story of still another kind of Eucharistic presence through a young boy named Anthony.
Anthony was an acolyte at St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in the South Bronx. The parishioners there are among the poorest of the poor. The streets outside the parish are the hangouts of drug dealers and prostitutes. Worship services are frequently interrupted by nearby gunfire.
Kozol is Jewish, but he often attends worship at St. Ann’s, finding peace and blessing there, although he does not go forward to receive communion.
One Sunday, Kozol noticed that Anthony also did not receive communion. That was surprising, since Anthony had told him before how much comfort and strength he received from the Eucharist.
After the service Kozol asked his young friend why he did not participate.
“I didn’t much feel like bread and wine today,” Anthony answered.
Later Kozol, still puzzled, asked the priest about Anthony.
“That’s not why he didn’t take communion,” she said. “He noticed that you don’t receive communion and asked me why. When I told him, he said that when you were here he would not take communion either, because he didn’t want you to feel excluded and alone.”
By not participating in the Eucharist in order to show solidarity with his friend who was excluded from the feast Anthony was very much in communion with Christ.
The Holy Eucharist is about communion with the living and the dead, about being with each other through confusion and illness, in joy and in sorrow, and in all our needs.
It is in that communion that the presence of Christ is revealed.
In a few moments we will participate in both the rituals that Christ instituted on this night – the washing of one another’s feet and the sharing of bread and wine.
We were there that night and Christ is now here with us – as he was with my wise old friend in the nursing home and our young friend in the South Bronx, both of whom help to teach us the true meaning of this night.