Tag Archives: Maundy Thursday

Whose body? Whose blood? Whose feet? Whose meal?

Holy Thursday, also known as Maundy Thursday is the feast day when we celebrate Jesus doing women’s work. Most celebrations of this within the Roman Catholic tradition leave out women or relegate them to bit-parts. The feeling of injury and offence I feel at this goes deep, however this is only a tip of the true iceberg. Symbolic “sacrament” can all too easily go hand in hand with deep failure to nurture the world. Jesus asked us to enact and embody sacrament not to empty it out into words and wafers with which to keep out the world. See also my last year’s post

I am going camping this weekend, so I will keep this short. But thinking about our church’s celebration of the Last Supper, or the First Eucharist or however we wish to label it I need to think about the idea of God’s table of grace.

I live in a world where women prepare food and clean tables and set cloths on them and serve food and make guests welcome and clean up afterwards. Not only women of course, but still overwhelmingly the real material work of feeding, cooking, serving, welcoming and entertaining is gendered work, women’s work. I spent the day preparing eggs with patterns of grass, flowers and leaves that we boiled in onion skins at work. The two women in the kitchen were busy hand-making dumplings for lunch for 50 children but they had time to discuss my eggs with me, ensure I had everything and do the background work of boiling them too.

In the midst of all this I was transferred to the baby room to serve lunch, encourage them to eat, work out which baby was the right age for which milk and ensure everyone got what they needed. There was coaxing, there was insisting, there was modelling “look sweet potato…yum” and there was a lot of laughing and affirmation o give our babies a welcoming experience of sitting around the table together. There was also a lot of sweeping and wiping and changing of clothes and the team of adults (all women) had to support each other through doing that while also entertaining and comforting babies.

Then it was back to the “big kids” room where I was welcomed with “when are we going to have the eggs”. They had, had lunch but were already looking forward to afternoon tea as children do. We broke coloured eggs together and served them up with a plate of antipasto prepared by the kitchen women and whichever teacher gave up their break to do some slicing. Once again there was a lot of cleaning up to do, then I went back to babies and helped with more afternoon teas in there and then back to the “big kids” for late snack.

It was as if my whole day, this Maundy Thursday revolved around the preparation and cleaning up (and joyful celebration of) food for others. Coming home my son was in the midst of making his dinner. We will eat and go to “mass” the one meal that I am supposedly not worthy to prepare. How offensive then that women cannot preside at the eucharist (and how untrue that we “can’t”, I presided at many really significant Eucharists today- celebrations of the bounty of the earth, out grateful and inclusive selves coming together and feeding our bodies and minds for growth- what is that if not eucharist?) I witnessed also a baby smile in relief at the end of his childcare day and latch onto his mother’s breast as well as two tiny boys lay down together in the cushions with their bottles of milk, their heads touching companionably while a third friend came and lay his head down too though he didn’t have (or need) a bottle. My day was full of Eucharist coming out of the tireless and often trivialised work of women (though it must be admitted our children and families are grateful). How am I “not Christ enough” to break bread at church?

But then who else do we exclude? Who in our world is not fed because of my privilege? Whose feet are never washed? Whose foot-washing is not given due respect and dignity, or is taken for granted? Who labours to stock a table they may not sit down at? Who is mocked and earmarked for crucifixion? Whose body is broken and thrown to the wolves? Whose blood is spilled? Whose voice preaching unheard?

If we are really going to get serious about communion, Eucharist, the body and blood of Jesus, the idea that sacrament gives life then we must be transformed for radical sharing and service by it. It is not enough for a privileged man in a dress to stand in front of relatively privileged people one evening a year and them all to produce symbols of feeding and serving and including. LET’S GET REAL about sharing sacrament (bread, security, welcome, washing, love). Let’s touch and see and hear each other. Let’s break the bread of justice and fill every heart and belly with it.

And let’s not kid ourselves. The people who are feeding and wiping noses and sweeping up for the “least of these” are the ones who are following the call to “do this in memory of me.” Like Judas we say we will never betray Jesus. But we exclude him from leadership or even lock him away on Manus. We allow mining magnates to take away the earth that was growing his body to feed and nurture the world. 30 silver pieces and an insincere kiss is an every-day occurance in the neoliberal mind set.

Bread of life call us back to eat you, to become you, to love each other,

Forgive us for we are tired and liable to fall asleep

Feed us, wake us, wash us, draw us in and in and into your radical commitment

Transform the world!

Take, eat, this is my body

“Take my body and eat, take my blood and drink” that all seemed very confusing and creepy when I was a child, and from reading male “experts” on faith I think it can seem creepy to them as well. But perhaps there is a type of person for this is actually a very ordinary and sensible thing to do? I am referring of course to those very ordinary people known as MOTHERS.

I am not going to claim to be Christ in any sort of a grandiose way, but of course there is something of Christ in an ordinary human experience…which is the point of Jesus grounding all his teaching in ordinary things like meals and weddings and wheat and fig-trees and shepherds (which may be exotic to the 2016 Australian reader but were ordinary and common-place to the original hearer). I would argue sacrament too is ordinary. Beautiful, precious but ordinary as a kiss from your mother, as your child’s grubby hand seeking yours.

In 1996 I first experienced my body being broken to give life to another person. This “breaking” was alleviated by some very good pain-killing medicines and the experienced midwives and a reasonably comfortable and clean bed, so it was not completely like crucifixion, my suffering was limited and I was safe and tended. But for the first time in my life I realised how powerfully creative pain and suffering can be; I could understand a love that would willingly (mostly) enter into pain and suffering. I had spent months giving the nutrients of my body over to the small and so far unresponsive life inside my womb, I had vomited and fainted with the trauma of it…I realise this is an ordinary thing that every mother does. But I had literally used my body to feed another, to nurture another so that then my body could be broken radically transforming that smaller life and giving it meaning, power and independence.

A couple of years later, it all happened again and suddenly I had two children. Both children listened to me and loved me and were free to think their own thoughts and to be themselves. Not long after this I first discovered feminist theology and I was struck by the way that the patriarchal church has to take on very ordinary things like birthing, feeding, forgiving, loving and make big liturgical “events” of this; which you could argue is a beautiful celebration of women’s work except when they say that only men can preside at celebrations of baptism (better than birth), communion (better than food) and marriage (better than just sex). And many feminist have argued that the sacramental reality is already in the mundane event itself.

I thought at once then of my mother, her hands sticky with dough night after night when she gave up hours of sleep to make fresh bread. She loved us, she loved baking…it was a sacrifice of love and in the morning we broke fresh fragrant bread like the people of God do in the sacraments. Her womanly hands were good enough for this work, despite not being ordainable because she (and I) were “only women”. Sometimes I took her work for granted, took the fresh roll for my school lunch, didn’t eat it at school (most kids at times forget or refuse to eat their school lunches) and then unable to face the sadness of my mother’s face seeing that I had wasted her labour of love and fresh ingredients I threw the roll out of the train before I got home. I remember the guilt of doing that so vividly.

But is that not also the nature of sacrament? Of the death and self-giving of Jesus that at times it is rejected, wasted, or we are unable to absorb it. Sacrament is extravagant love to those who are loved, not just to those who deserve. I pondered thoughts like this as I went home and fed my baby breast-milk which for some people is an enjoyable process, but for me was painful and difficult. It became clear to me how much nonsense the church weaves around sacraments, mystifying and codifying the very stuff of life. It is like putting a handful of good fertile earth into a golden reliquary where it can no longer feed a seed.

Consider for example the nonsense of children not being allowed to receive communion until they are old enough to magically be entered into this sacrament. I accepted this no question as a child, I loved the thought of earning a privilege through growth and learning and being more than I had been before. But if we say that only those who “understand” the Eucharist ought to have it then I suspect none of us should, or very few of us. And if the oh-so-clever but celibate male fathers of the church had only asked a REAL parent about feeding children they would see how silly it is to only give nutrition for a child’s growth after the child has already been growing for a few years. Silly ideas about child development I suppose were part of the root cause.

But any mother, even a half-arsed one could tell you, you have to feed the baby.

Once I considered this,  I considered that my babies were at least as worthy of Eucharist as I was, and considered moreover that they had already received whatever physical, tangible “reality” of Eucharist there is in the wafer and wine through their umbilical cords, just as they received the nutrients and minerals they needed through it and just as they received first language and then hopefully the Word of God through their ears and through their experience. And I made it an act of faith-activism to ALWAYS breastfeed my baby during or immediately following communion so that I was self-consciously saying “the body of Christ” to the baby at this time and passing on whatever gift of grace I supposedly received from it. And this meant that I was saying that my body was a suitable conduit for God’s embodied grace and since only women (mothers) can breastfeed I was claiming something Christlike about a mother’s body. Which was a direct disagreement with the idea that only the (male) priest can represent Christ. But after all God made a world where babies are fed by breast-milk and when you look into it whatever the mother eats seems to be passed into the baby for good or ill. So if I participated in communion as a breast-feeding mother that also logically was passed to the baby. So I marked it as sacrament.

Jesus said “do this in remembrance of me” and perhaps he was referring to breaking bread together and talking about the gospel events like we do each Sunday. Perhaps he was referring also to washing feet (serving) and feeding, giving our bodies for the well-being of others, radical sharing, radical giving of life, transformative relationships such as the mother-baby one (but any mentoring and gifting relationship could also mirror this sacrament). Jesus used humble, ordinary events in many societies presided over (or invisibly performed) by women to take us into the deepest realities of radical grace. Jesus did all this and then was killed for being too radical, going too far.

Jesus didn’t say “make safe, ritual versions of this with some special people who are more important than the rest of you and who can emphasise how much more important the ‘sacramental’ version is than the ordinary version”. Jesus said “do this to remember me”. We can be ordinary. We can be real. We can enter into grace and provide grace for others. In memory of Christ, for the growth of those we feed. Ordinary, women’s-work grace. Heartbreaking, body-wearing, radical gifting in love. Sacrament.