Thursday, May 5, 2011

Holy Thursday Letter to Three Area Baptist Pastors

On Holy Thursday (2011), I sent the following letter to the three Baptist Pastors with whom I have been in dialogue.  (NB: My dialogue with Pastor Hill has basically been between me and his sermons.)  These pastors are Pastor Carlo of Fairwinds Baptist Church (Bear, DE), Pastor Witmer of Lighthouse Baptist Church (Newark, DE), and Pastor Hill of Ogletown Baptist Church (Newark, DE).


Subject: Greetings on this Holy Thursday

Dear Pastor Carlo, Pastor Witmer, and Pastor Hill,

A happy and holy Triduum and Easter to you, your family, and loved ones! As you know, it was on this Holy Thursday night that Jesus prayed that his disciples would be one as He and the Father are one. He prayed this unity would be so visible that the world may see it and know that Jesus was sent by the Father. Let us join our hearts in prayer this evening with Jesus's High Priestly Prayer in John 17. Lord, let us be one!

On this night when Jesus prayed the first Mass, instituting at once the sacraments of the Eucharist and of Holy Orders (His ministerial priesthood), Jesus began his paschal sacrifice in the most perfect manner: by voluntarily laying down his life for his bride, the Church. And so, it was through His one bread--that Bread of Life that is truly His body, blood, soul, and divinity--that we, His Bride, became and continue to be one Body. As St. Paul says in Ephesians, the oneness of Christ and his bride is a great mystery, for which the Latin word is sacramentum. The great sacramental mystery of Christ and the Church finds its consummation every time we "do this" as a memorial of his sacrificial offering--an offering that began in the upper room, followed through to Calvary, and finds it completion in the eternal offering of the Son (the "Lamb standing as though slain" from Rev. 5:6) before the Father. These three components constitute a single sacrificial offering, and it is the eternal offering of the sacrifice--an offering that occurs in the ever-present "now" that is the eternal life of God--that Christians enter into through the Mass, where we commune with the divine spouse of our souls.

But, you don't have to take my word for it! Those first preachers of the early church who learned the Christian faith at the feet of the apostles firmly believed that the Eucharist was really Jesus. It is He, the Lamb of God! Christ our passover has been sacrificed, says St. Paul; let us keep the feast! As we see in Acts 2, the breaking of bread was central to the liturgical life of the early Church. They celebrated it every week! As we see on the road to Emmaus in Luke, Jesus revealed himself to his disciples in the breaking of the bread. It was in this sacramental act that they recognized Him, even though their hearts burned within them as He explained the Scriptures. Yet, it was in the breaking of bread that they recognized him. These disciples in Luke mirror the experience of the entire early Church. (Indeed, no one seriously challenged the teaching of the Church on Jesus's Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist for almost 1,500 years!) For instance, St. Ignatius of Antioch, a long-time disciple of the apostle John, once preached that "they abstain from the Eucharist because they do not confess the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes." (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1 [A.D. 110]) Many other early writers echo this same belief--and they do so less than a century after the death of the apostles. Jesus himself tells us in John 6 that the bread he will give is his flesh, the same flesh that will suffer for the life of the world. I know, my dear brothers in Christ, that this is a hard teaching. Jesus's listeners said the same thing! Yet, Jesus did not back away from his literal language and explain that he was speaking symbolically. Rather, in John 6, Jesus intensifies the language to the point that those following Him turned away. The problem for them, and for us, is that we can only believe Jesus's teaching by faith and by the Spirit. Our fleshly minds can not help us when it comes to the divine mystery of the Holy Eucharist, no more than our fleshly understanding could have perceived two thousand years ago that this Jew with dirty feet and calloused hands was God incarnate. No microscope looking at Jesus would have discerned that he was God, just like no microscope trained on the Eucharistic bread and wine will reveal the divine presence. But Jesus said, "take and eat; this is my body." Just as God spoke the world into existence, Jesus's word speaks bread and wine into his body and blood. Only the appearance remains (though in the case of hundreds of Eucharistic miracles throughout history, even the appearance has changed). On this Holy Thursday night, let us together beg the Lord for more faith, more grace, and more of the Holy Spirit so that we may recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Let us subject ourselves to the apostolic teaching, faithfully passed down from Jesus to John to Ignatius and Polycarp and Justin Martyr and all the faithful witnesses who have delivered the message undefiled and unchanged to Christians down through the centuries. Our faith is Catholic--universal in all times and places. As one of my favorite Italian pastors likes to quote (from Malachi 3:6): "I am the Lord; I change not!"

I leave you with two links that I hope you take the time to consider. The first is a link to my blog, which contains a moving video of a father's surprise return from Iraq, and his daughter's reaction to his visit. Daddies out there--you can't watch this without misting up! There is a lesson of love to be learned from this video that relates to Jesus in the Eucharist.

But far better is Benedict XVI's Holy Thursday homily. I pray that you will take some time to read it, if not during the busy Easter weekend, then sometime soon. And of course, if you have any questions/concerns about anything he says in it, know to whom you can turn!

Lord Jesus, we praise you, we bless you, and we thank you, for by your very cross you have redeemed the world! Make us one, Lord, so that we, by your grace, may convert the world to you!

In the Savior,


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