Thursday, April 21, 2011

Remembering the poor on Maundy Thursday

Much of what follows is a riff on Gustavo Gutierrez's chapter "Memory and Prophecy" in The Option for the Poor in Christian Theology. My contribution is a rather poor attempt to connect it to Cavanaugh's thought, the Offertory, and the meaning of Maundy Thursday.

The memory of God - and our inclusion in it - is a major biblical theme. God repeatedly tells Israel that the covenant will not be forgotten. In one of the most memorable passages of the Bible, God says through Isaiah
Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.
Not only are we included in the memory of God, we are called to remember as well. But this memory is more than a simple recollections of events; it is the basis of action. Thus we have the prologue to the Ten Commandments: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." The remembrance of the saving acts of God is the foundation of our religious lives and the model for how the redeemed community should behave toward strangers, the poor, etc. (cf Deut 5:15, 15:15, 16:12, 24:18).

We see the same thing in the New Testament. "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another" (John 13:34). And at the heart of the Eucharist, the central act of the Church's life, are the words, "Do this in remembrance of me".

Christians are, like Israel, commanded to remember the poor and outcast - for we were once one of them. This is not limited, however, to the spiritually poor. In Galatians 2, Paul tells the story of the meeting in Jerusalem where he presented himself as the apostle to the Gentiles. James, Peter, and John - the pillars - accepted Paul's mission with the instruction that he should remember the poor, which he did by taking collections.

Ideally, we do the same today by using a portion of our offerings for the aid of the poor and disadvantaged. It is significant that the offertory is a part of the Eucharistic liturgy. We bring our money to the altar as part of the same liturgical movement in which we bring the bread and wine to the altar for consecration. It is also significant that in the early church (or so I've been told) a portion of the bread and wine brought by the worshipers was put aside for the poor. The remembrance of the poor is thus included in the Eucharistic liturgy.

But not only there. Today is Maundy Thursday. There is some debate about the meaning of the word "maundy". Is it derived from mandatum, meaning command, the first word of Jesus' "new commandment" to love one another? Or is it derived from the "maundsor" baskets in which was collected alms for beggars? Either meaning points to the remembrance of the poor - the first as described above and the second more directly. In fact there survives to this day a "Royal Maundy" service in the CoE, in which the monarch distributes "Maundy money". Originally the monarch not only gave money to beggars but washed their feet. Unfortunately, the coins now distributed are collector's items and no monarch has actually washed anyone's feet since the 17th century.

The remembrance of the poor is also a part of Eucharistic theology. William Cavanaugh has shown us that in the Eucharist the divisions between you and me, between what is mine and what is yours, are broken down. We become food for others. "Those of us who partake in the Eucharist while ignoring the hungry may be eating and drinking our own damnation."

On this Maundy Thursday we remember the Eucharist as the body and blood of Jesus given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins. As Luther said, "We are all beggars." But let us also remember the materially poor, whom we find included at the heart of our worship.

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About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.