The streets of Kathmandu are the most confusing and disorienting place I have ever been. I think of myself as a sophisticated person, having spent part of my childhood in Manahattan, and I like to think that I cannot easily be flustered by something like a foreign city. But from the moment I landed at the airport in Kathmandu I was a little out of sorts.

I immediately forgot whether the guidebook had said you should by no means walk past the taxi dispatcher at the airport and thereby put yourself at the mercy of the cab drivers that await outside at the curb. Or if the book had said under no circumstances should you stop at the dispatcher’s desk when you could get a much better fare by simply walking outside and hailing a cab for yourself. Either way, I’m sure I grossly over-paid for my cab ride.

I thought I knew something about busy city streets, but my experience of New York, Boston, Washington, LA. Sydney, London, Jersualem, and others had not prepared me for the chaos of the streets of Kathmandu, where order is not exactly imposed on the wall-to-wall traffic of cars, truck, bicycles, rickshaws, and pedestrians, who are not, apparently, beholden to the instruction of traffic lights, lanes, or indicators of any kind.

I made it to my hotel in Thamel, the tourist district, where I was immersed again in the craziness of winding streets and alleys lined with shops whose keepers aggressively angled to lure you in, as well as pan-handlers, and scam artists of every conceivable kind, eager to see a pale, plump, pink-cheeked guy with a backpack looking lost.

I was very happy to be connected, by the end of my first day, to a guide who would steer me and the group I was with through most of our Napali adventure. All told, I probably spent a week or more in Kathmandu, and I can honestly say that every time I left the hotel on my own it felt like a roll of the dice. Would I get where I was going, and how? And how would I get back?

Tonight we are celebrating the institution of the Eucharist: that night when Jesus gathered his disciples together in an upper room and shared with them bread, saying “This is my Body,” and wine, saying, “This is my Blood.” Keeping this ritual (since Jesus said, “whenever you eat or drink this, do it in remembrance of me,”) has become commonplace again throughout most of the church, and was commonplace here at Saint Mark’s (daily mass having begun here in 1884) long before Sunday communions were the norm in most of our neighboring churches.

Being commonplace, we know our way around the eucharist, the mass, holy communion. It is celebrated twice most days in this parish (tonight marks the third time today). And the commonplace can easily becomes that which is taken for granted. But tonight the church asks us to imagine that we have arrived for the first time in the streets of Kathmandu: in the midst of a most exotic, wonderful, and perhaps even confusing place. We are asked to sit at table with Jesus and hear him say again for the first time “This is my Body; this is my Blood.”

We are free to wonder what on earth Jesus can mean by these strange sayings, and to remember that there is nothing commonplace about them; nothing to be taken for granted in the suggestion that Jesus offers his own body, his own blood as a sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins and the salvation of the world.

It is for this reason that here at Saint Mark’s we almost always put on special garments before we say or sing the mass. It is for this that we move deliberately and reverently, bowing, here, genuflecting there, crossing ourselves again, and now, again. It is for this that we burn incense, to create an unusual fragrance. For this we sing things that we could just as easily say. It is because we do not wish to take for granted the gift of himself that Jesus offered for us once so long ago. So think of these aisles as the streets of Kathmandu and of this smoke, this song, these vestments as its exotic trappings if you will, and see how all is intended to keep us from taking anything at all for granted.

And yet, ironically, tonight we are reminded of one more thing: we are reminded that Jesus is not hiding from us amidst these winding, confusing alleys, or behind fancy vesture or beneath a cloud of smoke. We are shown that the Lord who allows himself to be truly present with his people wherever they can scrape together a morsel of bread and a drop of wine, is not aloof, not interested in playing hide-and-seek.

The God of the eucharist is a God who is quite clearly eager to be seen, willing to put up with being paraded around, stared at, handled in rough hands, devoured in what are sometimes filthy mouths. And one of the curiosities of this night of ritual is that he did not leave some secret ritual or magic words. He does not even rely on our wisdom or insight, let alone the powers of our personal spirituality. He does not require it to be done one way or another. He just says to his friends, “Do this, whenever you eat it, whenever your drink it.”

And what is “this”? Simply to take bread, bless, it, break it, and share it. Take wine, bless it, pour it, and share it. Jesus gave such simple instructions for finding our way right to the heart of this exotic city of his heart: the eucharist. And while we are to guard against taking it for granted, he wants us to know our way around the byways of his love, he wants us to become like native sons and daughters of this, the most unusual place we have ever been.

Yes, he wants us to see where his love has led – even to the washing of his disciples’ feet. He wants us to become as familiar as we are able with the nooks and crannies of his gift of himself, like the streets of a strange and wonderful city.

For he has built – on altars, and holy tables, and on rocks by riversides, and on the hood of a pickup truck, and anywhere a hunk of bread and a cup can be balanced – he has built a city of his love, connected by all the hands and hearts across the world that know exactly what to do when given the instruction to “Do this,” even though we do it in different ways.

And knowing that this city will always be a city of mystery because the depths of its love can never be fully known, nevertheless, Jesus wants us to move in to the unusual, confusing and disorienting streets of the city of his self-offering of love, and call it home.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Maundy Thursday 2009
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on April 11, 2009 .