Maundy Thursday , 6 Apr 23
You may have seen the film with Harrison Ford in: “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Indiana Jones works with his dad, played by Sean Connery, to thwart the Nazi’s attempts to possess the Holy Grail, which is the chalice from which Christ drank at the Last Supper. They find themselves at a great table with lots of chalices and cups guarded by an ancient knight. They must choose which one is the grail and they will have eternal life. The Nazis look around the table and find a glittering chalice with precious stones shimmering away. The evil man drinks from it and dies a terrible instant death, wasting away literally to dust. Indiana Jones knows better. He’s trying to heal his sick father with the healing properties of the Holy Grail. He chooses the simplest, most plain cup and says, “That’s the cup of a carpenter.” And he’s right: all ends well.
I want to explore the significance of the cup in Christian thinking. The first thing perhaps to say is that this profound scene from Indiana Jones is not an argument for having plain chalices, which is the word used to describe the cup used at Mass to hold the Precious Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the form of wine. They should be of a precious metal for they contain that which is precious. God has made a beautiful world and we use the most beautiful things possible for these divine purposes. It is not meant to be an historical re-enactment, with us all wearing togas and using a wooden cup like Jesus used however much the Church requires us to use elements of bread and wine and the words of our blessed Lord following His institution of this wonderful sacrament on this most holy night.
The first mention of a cup in Sacred Scripture is as an aside to the narrative about the Patriarch Joseph. Joseph tells his servants to plant a silver cup in the food bags he gives his brothers when they come begging for food. The silver cup becomes a pretext for them to be accused of theft and return to their brother in Egypt (Genesis 44). The Egyptian guards are told to say of this planted cup, “Is it not from this my lord drinks? Does he not indeed use it for divination?” This divination is a sort of superstitious witchcraft, an equivalent to reading the tea leaves to discern what’s about to happen. But it shows what such a precious cup might be used for in pagan culture, such as Joseph would have adopted to some extent while in the court of Pharaoh.
This perhaps makes the use of the cup as a sign of suffering and a sign of God’s will all the more poignant as pagan generations had gazed into a vessel seeking to know the will of the supposed fates. In such a way is it described in the New Testament, most famously when the mother of the two Apostles, James and John, ask Jesus that her sons might sit one on His right and the other on His left. Jesus replies, “‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” (St Matthew 20:22). Linked to this is the image our Lord has in His mind on this holy night of the will of the Father. For in the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper, Jesus prays, “‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want,’” (St Matthew 26:39).
At the back of St Mary’s we have a picture indeed of our Lord holding a cup - I guess it should be veiled really but there we are! - and it’s as if the picture says to the person looking at it, “Can you drink the cup which I must drink?” It was painted by a local artist, Beatrice Officer, who lived round the corner about a hundred years ago so she may even have come in to St Mary’s. Most of her works are in Bruce Castle Museum. She didn’t have an easy life: her art was really painted out of necessity because she needed the money and she hadn’t been capable of doing much else after she had an emotional breakdown soon after the end of World War I. The slightly effeminate face is typical of her style, as are the mesmerising eyes, initiating a conversation. Do take time to observe it at some point: I’ve for some time thought it would be better off hung at the end of the North Aisle where it would be a little more prominent and better lit.
Anyway, another bit of imagery around the cup is that some were used at the Passover. There was by tradition apparently four cups and it is assumed the cup Jesus offered at the Last Supper, if it was following these conventions, would have been either the third cup, concerned with redemption, or the fourth cup, promoting the praise of God. It is perhaps for this reason that St Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?” (10:16) if he was linking one of the cups of Passover with the chalice offered by Christ at the Last Supper.
This reinforces the concept of sharing that is important when we think of cups within our faith. St James and St John are asked whether they are willing to share in the Lord’s sufferings: we are asked no less. Hence the Church has never been comfortable about the use of individual communion cups at Holy Communion, it would be the individualising of a communal act. Holy Communion is the meal we as Christians eat as a family and so we hear as well Paul’s words later in that same tenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread,” (v.17).
The question comes when considering the imagery of the cup in Christian art and theology: what is inside it? In the Old Testament and in the Revelation, the last book of the Bible, drinking from the cup means experiencing the Lord’s wrath (Jeremiah 25:15; Isaiah 51:17; Revelation 14:9-10). Whereas elsewhere a full cup is a sign of favour and goodness, as famously in Psalm 22/23:5 ~ “You prepare a table before me … you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” Perhaps as we look in to the cup we are to receive what the Lord wants to give us, as Job reminds us: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Jesus says too does He not, “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous,” (St Matthew 5:45). Whatever the Lord chooses to give us, we accept faithfully as His servants, as the psalmist puts it elsewhere, “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot,” (Psalm 16:5).
There’s been a tradition for many centuries that the grail came to England, brought here by Joseph of Arimathea and the Shrine at Glastonbury in Somerset marks the place where it was placed. Water flows nearby with a reddish hue and at quite a warm temperature. As we ponder not only the cup from which Christ drank on this holy night, let us consider too the cost of us drinking from that same cup. We will have to make difficult decisions, have to do things when we don’t want to and not do things we want to do as we spend each day trying to look in to the cup God has given us to drink from. May we never seek to do do so thinking we know best but trusting rather in God’s purposes and with His strength at work in us, grounded in the fellowship of His Holy Church. Amen.