Thirty four years ago, during the final week of Lent, a single gunshot was fired inside the Cathedral of San Salvador, making Archbishop Oscar Romero the first priest since St Thomas a Beckett in the 12th century to be murdered while celebrating the Eucharist. Romero had just delivered a sermon in which he reminded his congregation about the parable of the grain of wheat that – unless it dies – remains just a single grain. Two weeks earlier, in an interview that appeared in a local newspaper, Archbishop Romero had predicted his own death in these words: ‘As a Christian I do not believe in death but in resurrection. If they kill me, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people’.
Romero was a most unlikely martyr. He was elected as archbishop in 1977 precisely for the reason that he could be trusted not to rock the boat. It seems Romero was a pious but unremarkable priest with conservative views on most things, and no particular interest in El Salvador’s political troubles. So far as the church was concerned that made him the perfect candidate for archbishop – because for the church in El Salvador in the late 70s, staying in business, keeping the doors open despite the disappearances and the political assassinations seemed like the highest priority. Nobody in the Church hierarchy wanted to make waves with the military dictatorship. Facing a rising tide of international condemnation, the government just as desperately needed a compliant Church. Nobody thought for a moment that Romero was going to turn into El Salvador’s most uncompromising advocate for social justice, the most fearless critic of human rights violations. Nobody thought for a moment that within three years this lacklustre priest was going to earn the hatred of El Salvador’s rich and powerful - and be disowned by most of his fellow bishops as a troublemaker. Romero went along with the status quo for a while – like most of us do - and then something changed him. He all of a sudden realised that – when the Church finds itself in a place of social injustice - standing in solidarity with the poor is not just one of the things the Church might do, but the only thing the Church can do. Just weeks before his death, Romero claimed that ‘a church that does not unite itself to the poor and denounce from the place of the poor the injustices committed against them is not truly the church of Jesus Christ – we either serve the life of Salvadorans or we are accomplices in their death – we either believe in a God of life or we serve the idols of death’.
You either serve life, or you serve death. Today, in the church, we celebrate D day – D for decision. Oscar Romero, like Jesus before him, realised the paradox that to choose life is to live in a way that denies the power of those who deal in death, even if the consequence of that choice is that, for a time, the power of death seems only to get stronger. Oscar Romero, like Jesus, discovered the ultimately realistic power of hope, which is the decision and the commitment to persist in choosing life even when the forces of death seem to be overwhelming. Hope is the power to act against the common sense that says there’s no point, cut your losses, be reasonable. Hope implies an orientation toward the future that might be – the future Jesus is imagining when he describes for us what the reign of God looks like – and the refusal to accept that such a future is not possible.
I wonder how many of us watch the TV show, ‘The Simpsons’? I find it wonderful and subversively life-affirming for its apparent cynicism that actually entices the viewer into a real affirmation of what’s important in life – somehow or other it seems to hook into our own world-weariness and our familiarity with everything that’s shallow and self-serving in human nature – then almost without us noticing – leads us to the point where we recognise love and generosity and self-sacrifice as life-giving options. I wonder if anyone saw the programme where Homer ate a blowfish? Blowies as I’m sure you know are poisonous – however in Japanese cuisine they’re carefully prepared in order to be safe to eat – but naturally Homer gets a bad one and begins to turn an interesting shade of purple. The point of the story is that Homer is given 24 hours to live, so he starts thinking of all the things he was going to get around to doing one day – no time now for the big-ticket items like climbing Mt Kilimanjaro or winning the lottery – so he decides to do some of the other important stuff – like teaching 10 year old Bart to shave – telling Marge that he loves her – listening to the whole Bible on CD – in the event he falls asleep in the middle of Genesis and wakes up quite put out that he’s done all this stuff to get ready but he didn’t even die – but we get the point that in preparing for his imminent demise, thinking he is about to die, Homer has actually started to live.
Like Homer Simpson, today Jesus faces D day. What do you live for if you know it’s the last day of your life? My guess is that Jesus knew pretty well where his ministry was going to end up. The Bible tells us he knew and tried to prepare his disciples for his death, and he hardly needed any miraculous powers to predict what would happen if he turned up in Jerusalem in the middle of a religious festival – the Passover that celebrated Israel’s deliverance from unjust slavery in Egypt. This festival – which brought together both the religious and the political dimensions of what it meant to be Jewish - was always a big headache for the Roman occupation army and the Roman governor Pilate, who one year according to the Jewish historian Josephus had the approach roads to Jerusalem lined with crucified resistance fighters as a warning to would-be messiahs and trouble-makers. However successful his Galilean ministry had been, Jesus would have to know the consequences of turning up in Jerusalem in the middle of a Passover weekend and proclaiming the kingdom of God as an alternative both to the injustice of secular power and the corruption of religious elites. Like Oscar Romero, Jesus knew the consequence of choosing life would be his own death.
So what does he do? This night that he surely knows is his last on this earth, what does he do? Jesus does what he has always done – he gathers friends and enemies, good people and bad people, and he breaks bread with them, pours out wine for them. He eats with them, as he has always done. This is when, like Homer Simpson, Jesus should be saying anything that still needs saying, doing whatever has been left undone. But he uses the occasion to share a meal - because as much or more than in any of the miracles – it’s when Jesus breaks bread that we get the point of what he means by his talk of God’s kingdom. But then tonight he says something new – something we’ve never heard him say before – but when he says it we realise that’s what he’s been telling us all along: ‘What I’m doing here, is I’m giving you myself. That’s what I’ve always been up to. This bread – it’s me – my life, my spirit, my future, all of me – that’s what I’m giving you’.
And John’s Gospel tells us Jesus does something else that is new on this last night of his life, but as soon as he does it, we realise that it’s what he’s been showing us all along. Jesus washes his disciples’ feet – the job of the lowliest servant – and we realise that Jesus’ whole life has been an act of divine humility and love. ‘Love one another this much’, he tells us. ‘Lead God’s people by serving them’.
And for the first time ever, we hear the implication that the company of those who eat this bread become Jesus body in the world. The company of those who follow Jesus’ example of humble self-giving – the sort of humble love that leads inevitably to the cross – become an icon of divine humility, which is Christ.
Facing death, Jesus chooses life. What will we choose?