Eating. Something Armenians especially love. We talk about food while we’re eating, and not necessarily the food in front of us, and we talk about what our next meal will be before we’re done with the meal we’re having. According to American tradition, we have a holiday set aside where we just eat. But this eating is a response. A response of thankfulness. Of course, I’m referring to Thanksgiving.
So what does Thanksgiving have to do with Holy Thursday? What really lies at the heart of our gratitude on that day is communion – with God, and with one another. But Thanksgiving is celebrated once a year. In our Church, we celebrate Thanksgiving once a week! Of course, I'm referring to Badarak (Divine Liturgy, Eucharist). Remember, that the Greek word 'eucharistia' means 'thanksgiving'. And today, Holy Thursday, is the day we commemorate and celebrate the establishment of the Eucharist as we celebrate it in Badarak.
Just like there is a history behind why we celebrate Thanksgiving in America, there is a history behind our Thanksgiving celebration in the Church. In the book of Genesis, we read about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a picture of humanity in paradise. And what instruction does God give them?
Humans are already portrayed as hungry beings, with the world presented as a banquet given to us by God. And it’s given to us for communion with Him. [Schmemann, FTLOTW] The natural reaction from Adam and Eve was to bless God in return; to thank Him with acts of gratitude and adoration. And we read about Adam and Eve doing this when they obediently respond to God by taking care of the garden, and keep it in order.
But, eventually humans turned their back on God, and they ate from the one tree that was not blessed or given to us by Him, and eating from it would not be communion with Him. [Schmemann, FTLOTW] Instead it would be the opposite. Betrayal. Just like Judas in the Gospel reading - in the Garden, Adam and Eve betrayed God. Again, a picture of us.
At the Last Supper, when Jesus mentioned that one of them would betray Him, before Judas asked if it would be himself, the disciples first asked “is it I, Lord?" Why were they not so confident? Like us, we don’t know what we’ll do in the future, and we shouldn’t be so presumptuous to think we’re above any kind of sin. We are all capable of falling, and should remain humble due to our flawed nature. (It was even on Holy Thursday when Peter insisted he would never deny Christ, yet he did that which he could never imagine himself doing.)
So there we were, or here we are, our communion with God severed – left searching, and groping for Paradise again. But in this darkness, God sent a light – His Son – to recover us, and to help us understand, and redirect our hunger. [Schmemann, FTLOTW]
And Lent has been a picture of our journey back to the Garden. On the first Sunday of Lent, we experienced the Expulsion from the Garden due to our betrayal of loving God perfectly. We also heard the story of the Prodigal Son, which represents each one of us on a journey of faith sometimes running from our Father, but always experiencing His extravagant forgiveness.
It’s during Lent that we restructure our priorities, and suppress our will for the sake of God’s will. We curb our eating and redirect our hunger. Again, the idea of eating, and eating as communion with God as it was meant to be, as it was in the Garden, is built right into Lent. Our entire faith journey is a journey back to the Garden to restore communion with God. Lent is just a microcosm of that journey.
And Zadeeg (Easter) is the return to the Garden where we can dine with Him at His Banquet. And Christ is the gate back to the Garden where this newly restored banquet takes place. In fact, we can even see Christ present in the Garden of Eden! As Orthodox priest and writer Fr. Stephen Freeman writes, "We were once prohibited from partaking of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The tree that was guarded was the Tree of the Life. We can now understand that Tree to be the Cross, and Christ Himself is the Life that hangs from that Tree, and it is the fruit of that Tree that we partake of in the Cup of Holy Communion." God’s creation was always to be in communion with God, but we ceased to see our lives as thanksgiving. [Schmemann, FTLOTW]
And so Badarak is the Banquet of Thanksgiving, because the Last Supper is the restoration of paradise, joy, and life as communion with God. Like He blessed the Garden from which we could eat, He once again blessed this food, this time being His own Body and Blood. But before He distributed His Body and Blood, He gave thanks. He did this in order to teach us how we ought to celebrate this sacrament. [Schmemann, FTLOTW] Why? Because salvation has been accomplished. Christ restored us back to what He originally created us to be – in communion with Him. He brought us back to Paradise.
So what is our response? Thanksgiving! To this day, what we do during Badarak has been established by Christ Himself, and our natural reaction, as it originally was in the Garden of Eden, should be to bless God in return; to thank Him with acts of gratitude and adoration. Through the Cup, He lives in us, and through His Body, we become His Body – His eyes, feet, and hands – to do His work in the world; to be the Church – to reveal Christ, heal, and forgive others. Tonight is Vodnlvah – the service of the 'Washing of the Feet'. It’s by loving one another; by washing each other’s feet where we do the work of Christ.
We should also thank God for the privilege to attend His Banquet. And where does that privilege come from? As Christians, we come to this Banquet properly dressed. Our garment is the righteousness of Christ, which we received in Holy Baptism, and is reaffirmed whenever we partake of Communion. In Baptism, God gives us this garment freely. It doesn't need to be earned, or bought. [Freeman] Don’t reject this gift, but accept it with thanksgiving.
So that which began in paradise with “Take, Eat” comes now, and unto the end with “Take, eat…this is my body. [Schmemann, FTLOTW] And drink…this is my blood.” And this can only be found in the Banquet of the Eucharist. So today, as we take, eat, and drink, let us give thanks for the food God has provided to restore Communion with Him, and with one another. Amen.
*[Schmemann, FTLOTW] - Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World