The ministry of Jesus was characterised by the meals he ate. Sometimes he ate with the right kind of people — the Jewish leaders, the priests, the rich, the Pharisees; sometimes he ate with the decidedly wrong kind of people — tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners and commoners. His table was open to all. He loved eating, and sharing his life with the people he loved — and that was everyone — rich and poor, those who were important and those who were nobodies, those who went to the synagogue each week, and those who had no idea what the inside of the synagogue looked like. Jesus sat down at so many dining tables to eat and drink with sinners, so that they could eat and drink with God and be made whole.
So is it any wonder? When Jesus was being stalked by the secret police just hours before he knew that he would be arrested, tortured, given the death penalty and killed; even on the threshold of all that, he sat down at the dining table in the upper room to give us his body and his blood, his life and his love, broken in bread and poured out in wine. And he gave us the example of service when he washed the feet of his disciples.
Now God calls us to gather around this dining-table-turned-altar. And it’s our lives lived in common, with and for each other, that God desires be placed on this table under the signs of bread and wine. And it’s our hearts — our very selves — that God longs for us to lift up at this altar. We give to God our hearts — baked into this bread. We give our lives — all the pain and promise, all our joy and grief wrung from them like this wine crushed from grapes. We put all that on this table, and God accepts it and makes it holy and gives it back to us as the body and the blood of Christ. The bread, the wine, ourselves, the world — all of this is changed here.
More than food is put on this table, and more than we who live now gather around it. The body of Christ is not only on this table; the body of Christ is also at this table. Ringing round us at this table are the members of this parish who have worshipped here at this altar over the past few decades and in churches around us over the past century and more and who have gone before us in death. And ringing round us at this table are the saints whose hearts are lifted up to God. And ringing round us at this table are the martyrs, ancient and recent, who gave their lives in perfect imitation of Jesus, their bones broken like bread and their blood spilled out like wine.
And even though all these surround us at this altar, there is still room for more. There is still room for the members of this parish who aren’t born or reborn yet. There is still room for the people in this town and city that we’ve yet to invite inside. There is still room for immigrants and refugees, for people with whom we disagree and for others whom we dislike, for people who are different from us, and for people who sin just like us. Are we ready to welcome them to this table as we have been welcomed? Are we ready to wash their hands and feet, as we have been washed?
If we are, then the disagreements and discord that we may bring to this table will be healed. If we are, then our pains will be soothed, our problems solved and our joy will be magnified a thousand times, so that peace might break out everywhere. For to come to this table is to come to Christ.
For that is finally what we name this table: Christ. When an altar is dedicated, the bishop sprinkles it with water, anoints it with a mixture of olive oil and perfume called chrism, robes it in fine linen and sets lit candles around it. Sound familiar?
We, too, on the day of our baptism were washed with water, anointed with oil, robed in fine garments and entrusted with the light. We were made into Christians, other Christs, altars of sacrifice and banquet tables for the hungry and the thirsty. This consecrated table, this altar stands here, Christ in our midst, the centre of our life, our life lived for the sake of the world.
So we bow to this altar when we enter this church, and we bow again before we leave — not just a nod of the head but a slow, deep bow. And the priest kisses this altar when we approach it, embracing it in love.
These are prayers of the whole body, wordless gestures of profound power.
- The bow and the kiss are not only ways to show our respect for Jesus in our midst, but these signs actually deepen that respect.
- The bow and the kiss are how we acknowledge and celebrate and believe in what happens at this altar of sacrifice, this paschal banquet table.
- The bow and the kiss signify our faith in the one to whom this table points, the one who on this table rests, the one who at this table stands, the one to whom this table, this altar draws us:
- Christ the sacrifice!
- Christ the meal!
- Christ the altar!
- Christ the banquet table of Easter-eternity!
This is our table.
This is our altar.
This is our source of life.
On this Holy Thursday, let us commit to making this table the source of unity for our lives and the place where we invite the community who surrounds our church, to find their place at this table as well.
Disclosure: Many of the ideas in this reflection are not my own, but I cannot find the source. I prepared these notes for a homily some years ago – perhaps my first Easter as a priest? If someone recognises the source of these ideas, please leave a comment below!