I remember exactly where I was sitting the first time I heard the words that Saint Augustine used to describe communion. The back pew of a tiny chapel that creaked a little when you knelt to pray; I remember the white stone walls and the old stained glass that shined in on that sunny Wednesday afternoon. The priest, in his brief homily invited us, as St. Augustine did, to receive what you are, and to be become what you receive when you partake in communion. Receive what you are, become what you receive. This sentence made a thousand connection points in my heart and spirit, and it felt like the key to discovering why Eucharist was so deeply important to me. It is not only for solace and pardoning, but also for strength and renewal. The Holy Communion is where we not only receive the body of Christ, but we also recognize that we are the body Christ, and ever since that day in that tiny chapel, St. Augustine’s words “receive what you are, become what you receive” have stuck with me.
Which is why, we I looked up what is now called Sermon 272 to make sure I got Augustine’s words right, I was a bit disappointed to learn that the way he described it was not the way I learned it. As is often the case in phrases that have traveled through humanity for more than 1600 years, the words have become a bit jumbled. What he actually said was “Be what you can see, and receive what you are.” And although I like the poetic rhythm of the mis-quote, in Augustine’s sermon addressed to folks about to undertake the rite of Baptism, he describes to them that they are the body of Christ, which we believe to be represented by the bread upon our table. Be what you see; be, he says, the body of Christ, and by receiving it, you will be empowered to become it.
There is perhaps no greater day in the church calendar in which we can see the truth of what patterning our lives after Christ might mean than Maundy Thursday. On this day, we remember and follow Christ as he washes feet of the people with whom he is in community, and we recall, using Paul’s own words from our Epistle lesson today, the institution of the Lord’s supper. It is on this day that we see that being what we see means being uncomfortable in washing or having our own feet washed as Peter was; being what we see, to model our lives after Christ requires a willingness to share life around a table, to give and receive intimate acts of service, and, as we all know, it requires us to follow Christ to the garden where he prays as he awaits his crucifixion.
There is no better day to know the breadth of what is asked of us when we accept the invitation to follow Christ than this day. It moves from discomfort, to joy, to pain; and this, I think, is the best way to describe a life of faith. Although it is terrifyingly easy to be a Christian in name only, this day, and the next few to come, will challenge us if we let it. The walk from foot washing to institution of holy communion to crucifixion to the empty tomb is only available to us when we take on St. Augustine’s words, or at least, the way St. Augustine’s words have become to be presented: that we receive what we are with our tender, fragile hands, and in the act of taking communion that we allow ourselves to be changed. That when we make the sign of the cross or say amen or leave the altar rail that we admit that we are not the same person that we were; that we have been given the opportunity, through communion, to become more like Christ than we were when we left our pew—that we are given an opportunity to become what we receive.
So on this holy day, whether through foot washing or receiving communion or both, I invite you to become what you see and to receive what you are. When we accept God’s invitation to pattern our lives after Christ, we take on not just Jesus meek and mild in the cradle, and not just the suffering Christ on the cross, but we take on the Jesus who sat with friends and shared a meal, we take on following the one who touched the untouchables in order to heal them, the one who saw and valued those whom the rest of the world overlooked. To follow Jesus to have our feet washed, but also to wash the feet of others. To follow Jesus to see the bread of heaven upon our altar table and to know that when we receive it, it empowers us to navigate great discomfort and pain, but also immeasurable joy. Easter is almost here, but we’ve got a long walk to get to the empty tomb, and it starts on this day, this day of modeling our lives after Christ, of receiving who we are and becoming what we receive, and even though we know what comes tomorrow, we trust in the hope of the resurrection to come.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY for Maundy Thursdays on April 14, 2022.