There’s a moment in the midst of Eucharistic Prayer D (BCP p.372-376), a prayer, Marion Hatchett writes, adapted from the fourth-century Liturgy of St. Basil, that always catches me. Without question, it’s the Prayer Book’s longest eucharistic prayer in Rite II and, unlike contemporary trends, Prayer D sees no good reason to worry about the economy of language. It goes on and on, developing layers upon layers of stunning, moving praise and thanksgiving.
I get easily lost in this prayer, perhaps one of the reasons I love it so much.
But then, right at that moment when a liturgical action is specifically required — one of only two manual acts stipulated in the rubrics — the prayer goes back to layers upon layers, on and on. It’s at the Words of Institution for the bread, and it catches me every time: “When the hour had come for him to be glorified by you, his heavenly Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end; at supper with them he took bread, and when he had given you thanks …”
If this were edited today I’m sure someone would take out all that ‘superfluous’ language. Take out the bit about “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end…” Get to the point: “He took bread, gave you thanks, and said…”
Perhaps that’s why I love this prayer so much. It’s not pared down, not edited for economy and focus. It’s not slim, not worried about time and timeliness. On the contrary: this prayer takes its time; it dwells with the Word and, indeed, it lets the Word (Logos) dwell with us. It’s a prayer in the same spirit of that “disciple whom Jesus loved,” the one we find at the Last Supper “reclining next to [Jesus]” (Jn. 13:23), the same one who was a faster runner than Simon Peter and arrived at the empty tomb first — but waited, “bent down to look in and saw…” (Jn.20:5)
This phrase, this unnecessary, un-economical phrase — “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (Jn. 13:1) — is part of the appointed gospel for Thursday in Holy Week, Maundy Thursday. That’s how Thursday’s gospel passage begins, already giving an indication that this is not just a story about a meal and a supper and washing of feet. This is an invitation into a moment. Slow down, therefore; enter carefully, don’t rush in like Simon Peter will soon do, stumbling unawares into an empty tomb.
“He loved them to the end…” In Greek, “to the end,” eis telos is literally the limit, the extent, but also “that by which a thing is finished, its close,” and “the end to which all things relate, the aim, purpose.” Christ loved them, and us “to the end,” or: Christ loved us to finished perfection. And: Christ loved us to our ultimate purpose and aim.
This is not a run-on sentence. This is the depth and power, the inherent nature of Christ’s love.
Remember, if you will, that the context is the last meal Christ will have with his followers and friends. Danger lurks outside, and he knows that someone is going to betray him. The drumbeat which began with his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and mounting suspicion by the religious authorities is getting more and more intense. You can hear the noise, and feel the anxiety outside that upper room.
And, yet, Jesus does Jesus. He loves slowly, methodically, fully, and well.
Look at the ways Christ shows his love. I’m so fixated on Jesus’ words throughout these chapters in John’s gospel, perhaps because they are such memorable words, but take away the words and look at his actions. Look at how slowly, carefully, methodically he moves:
- And during supper Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. (Jn.13:3-5)
- After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them… (13:12)
- After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit… (13:21)
- So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. (13:26)
“No one has greater love than this,” Jesus said, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn. 15:13) Not only did he say this; he embodied it. Look how often in his last few moments he showed deep love.
- He went out with his disciples to a garden to pray. John 18:1
- He made sure the imperial guards arrested only him, not his friends. 18:8
- He stepped into the brawl between Simon Peter and the guards. 18:10-11
- From the cross, he made certain that his mother would be cared for. 19:26-27
- He spoke the words to fulfill scripture, knowing that “all was now finished.” 19:28-30
- He bowed his head. 19:30
- He gave up his spirit. 19:30
“He loved them to the end…” Christ loved them, and us eis telos — literally to the absolute fullest extent of the most perfect version of the completeness of love. That’s how much Christ loved them. That’s how much Christ loves us. Christ takes his time to move in our direction, to “pour himself out” or “empty himself,” as we read in that famous hymn Paul preserves in his letter to the Philippians (Philippians 2:5-11).
Would that we also love in this way. Would that we also love in some measurable fraction of this way!