Communion Matters IX: The Nations and Holy Week
One thing Communion has to do with is the inclusion of all the nations of the earth, the enthne in Greek, in Latin translation ‘the Gentiles.’ This has to do with us, unless you are of Jewish background. It is essential to the nature of the Church, entailed in the word ‘catholic,’ ‘of the whole,’ the world. Not by accident, but by divine intent, the Church is made up of representatives of the nations. One way to see what this means is to follow the theme of the nations throughout Holy Week, and thinking this through is an appropriate task for Lent, when we prepare to recall those saving acts.
Palm Sunday: This is the triumphal entry of the Messiah into Jerusalem. It was imagined that it would lead to the throwing off of the Gentile tyranny of the Romans, indeed the victory of the nations who rage against the Messiah (Psalm 2) as envisioned bloodily in the prophet Zechariah. But it is a different kind of Messiah, foreseen in a different part of Zechariah (chapter 9), who enters humbly on a donkey. And no sooner does he enter than he cleanses the Temple, or more specifically the Court of the Gentiles, in order that the Temple might be, as intended, a ‘house of prayer for all peoples.’
Maundy Thursday. The Last Supper was a Passover meal, and so tells of the redemption of the people of Israel from the hands of murderous Gentiles. But resonances of another kind are mentioned by Jesus. He envisions in the Gospel of Luke that at the end peoples from ‘north and south and east and west’ will come to the feast of the kingdom of God. This may hearken back to the prophecy of Isaiah that the veil of death would be lifted from the nations in a ‘feast of fat things’ for all the nations (25:6).
Good Friday Again, at first glance, the death of Jesus is murder at the hands of the Gentile tyrant. But remember that he was ready to have his death count for the forgiveness of those who enact it (‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing…’). He dies outside the holy city, made to be sin who knew no sin. The centurion pronounces him first the Son of God. All of this hearkens back again to Isaiah, whose mysterious suffering servant dies so as to evoke awe in the nations. His death is a ransom for ‘the many,’ which is to say, all peoples. Here the providential plan in the exile to Babylon is fulfilled on behalf of the nations.
Easter Recall here that shocking story of the Syro-Phoenician woman, who sought Jesus’ help. She answers his brusque dismissal with bold faith (‘even the dogs eat the bread from under the table…’) that impresses him. The point is this: the witness to, and the ingathering of, the nations could not take place until the resurrection. It is the sign of the ushering in of the Kingdom. The surprise is that Jesus’ resurrection as preceded, and so must the outreach to the nations, a new fact which takes the Church awhile to adjust to (e.g. the question of the keeping of kosher, circumcision, etc.). The resurrection of Jesus and the imperative of mission to the world are tightly connected to, and interpret, one another.
Ascension Here the passage to look carefully at is Daniel 7. The imperial Gentile rulers have been like monsters to the people of God. But the Father has sent the Son of Man, who after his victory is given the nations as his prize to follow in his train, as he ascends his throne. This is the best exegesis of the meaning of the ascension of Jesus, and as with the resurrection ties his reign closely with the mission to the Gentiles.
Pentecost We come now to the most obvious feast of the Gentile mission, the gathering of Jews and proselytes in Jerusalem in advance of the mission itself. The world must be present in divine reversal of the rebellion in the tower of Babel in Genesis 11; there humankind sought a false unity of its own will to power, but now a unity of all humankind, ‘all tribes , families, and nations.’ (Revelation 7) is given by God himself. Cultures are honored, even as their pagan pretensions to holiness in themselves is defused. The Church henceforth must be open to the Gentiles, since the salvation offered, ushering in the end, must resemble and more than repair, the beginning (Romans 15).
The center of our attention must be Christ’s saving work. But the community which witnesses to it, the Church, represents the whole world with its groupings, and this is no accident, but a necessary feature of that witness. Salvation, Church, Mission, and the Nations are knit together, in that order.