Holy Thursday: That Fears His Fellowship to Die with Us

He enters the play seeking spiritual counsel. "Where is my gracious lord of Canterbury?" (I.ii.1) When the archbishop arrives, the young King immediately asks if his cause is just, invading France to seize its throne.

My learnèd lord, we pray you to proceed,

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and justly and religiously unfold

Why the law Salic that they have in France

Or should or should not bar us in our claim (9-13)

Henry knows that one does not go to war, does not suffer its inevitable sacrifice of human life, without just cause.

For God doth know how many now in health

Shall drop their blood in approbation

Of what your reverence shall incite us to.

Therefore take heed how you impawn our person,

We charge you in the name of God take head (18-24).

One cannot ask one’s followers to embrace death without a noble purpose, one larger than life and death.

When the end came, the time Saint John calls "his hour" Jesus knew that death was imminent, that his preaching had stirred up the forces seeking his life, and nothing in Christ’s divinity prevented him from fearing death as fully as any man would. Indeed, what Shakespeare wrote of King Henry V is equally true of Christ in his humanity.

I think the King is but a man, as I am. The violet smells to him as it doth to me. All his senses have but human conditions. His ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man, and though his affections are higher mounted than ours, yet when they stoop, they stoop with the like wing. Therefore, when he sees reason of fears, as we do, his fears, out of doubt, be of the same relish as ours are. Yet, in reason, no man should possess him with any appearance of fear, lest he, by showing it, should dishearten his army (IV.i.101-112).

As a man, as a leader, Christ faced a choice we seldom note, because, in our ignorance and at our peril, we take his decision for granted. Yet on the eve of his death, wouldn’t Jesus have wondered whether he should dismiss his disciples, send them away so that they might live, even as he chose to die? If one seriously enters the story, how can one believe that the question didn’t arise? By what right does a Lord call friends to a fellowship of death?

Shakespeare raises the same tormenting question the night before the Battle of Agincourt. Henry’s soldiers are surrounded by the superior forces of the French. The morrow will bring death and, most likely, the destruction of the English. The king forsakes his counsels, puts on a cloak, and, unrecognized, wanders the campfires of his men.

Conversing with this stranger, his soldiers wonder if the King didn’t wish himself someplace else. The stranger replies, "By my troth, I will speak my conscience of the King. I think he would not wish himself anywhere but where he is" (IV.i.117-118). One of the soldiers tells the stranger that if their "cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make" (IV.i.133-134), but the stranger reminds the soldiers that each of us is accountable, before God, for our own souls. We choose our fellowships. We cannot simply say, we did what we were told.

The night before he died, Christ could have sent his disciples from his side. Instead he called them to renew themselves in their ancient faith. In a time of Passover, they were to give their lives anew to the God of Israel. Taking bread and calling it his own self, he told them to eat. He took a cup of wine and asked them to drink of his blood. Christ called his friends, Christ calls us, to a fellowship of death. "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes" (1 Cor 11:26).

Of course, every sacrament is an encounter with the whole of the Christ. In Eucharist we take his death into ourselves, so that flesh and blood might live again in resurrection. In Eucharist, we verse ourselves again in the faith of Israel and her Messiah King. Taking our place at table, we commend ourselves, body and soul, to God.

This is a night of Passover, a night we choose where to stand, fix our fellowship, determine the meaning and course of our lives. "Blood will mark the houses where you are. Seeing the blood, I will pass over you; thus, when I strike the land of Egypt, no destructive blow will come upon you" (Ex 12:13 )

The next morning, seeing the vast array of France, reared round their camp, Warwick laments, "O that we had here / But one ten thousand of those men in England / That do no work today" (IV.iii.16). But the king responds,

What’s he that wishes so?

My cousin Warwick? No, my fair cousin.

If we are marked to die, we are enough

To do our country loss; and if to live,

The fewer men, the greater share of honour.

God’s will, I pray thee wish not one man more (IV.i.19-23)

Like Christ and his chosen band — he has called them to stand with him, and they have made their choice for him — numbers matter little in God’s eyes. Only faith and fellowship count. Henry tells his men, "We would not die in that man’s company / That fears his fellowship to die with us" (IV.iii.28-39). And Christ has made his choice. He has called us to his side. In Holy Sacrament, Sacred Meal, we answer, praying that our fellowship be found faithful.

Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 John 13:1-15

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