Homily for Maundy Thursday 2024

The Last Supper, and our Mass tonight, are intense and full of “stuff”; full of words and gestures, of old and new; so intimate and anguished all at once, desolate and consoling in one. So dense with atmosphere. It’s too much really.

At that Last Supper the Lord, among so much, institutes the Eucharist. Let’s focus, then, on that.

In supremæ nocte coenæ… goes the hymn of St Thomas Aquinas.                 “”

“On the night of that Last Supper, / Seated with His chosen band, / He, the Paschal Victim eating, / First fulfils the Law’s command; / Then as Food to all his brethren / Gives Himself with His own Hand.”

The institution of the Eucharist is  the climax of Jesus’ ministry. Of all his words and signs prior to the surpassing Word and Sign of his death and Resurrection, this is the most momentous. He knows his hour has come. “He knows that he is the Lamb of [this] Passover Meal. He knows that he is the Passover” (DD 4), and that all his life has led to this.

“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

The Eucharist is the key, the door-key, to his Death and Resurrection. It gives us the spectacles, the lens, we need to see his Death and Resurrection clearly and truly. When Jesus breaks bread, eyes are opened.

For tonight, two ways this happens.

The first is this: without the Eucharist, we might have missed the agency of Jesus. We might have seen him simply as a victim – of the Jewish authorities, of Roman politicians, of the cowardice of his friends. A victim of human hostility. A passive patient who, through no fault of his own, has fallen foul of “man’s inhumanity to man”. The Passion would be just one more victory for the dark side; another, perhaps the worst, instance of our self-destructiveness and our hatred for the light. The Passion is all this. Jesus was a victim. But if it and he were only that, it would simply have confirmed what we already know. It would just be the “same old”. It would not have broken the pattern. We’d still be trapped, “in our sins” as ST Paul says.

But in the Upper Room, before all this begins, before anyone has laid hands on him, while still fully free, Jesus deliberately, consciously, takes bread “in his holy and venerable hands”. He takes the chalice. And he says the words we know so well: “This is my Body which will be given up for you. This is the chalice of my Blood which will be poured out for you and for many.” He shows himself to be not a mere suffering patient, but an Agent, the Priest of his own sacrifice. And first of all, he gives thanks – that is, to the Father. He gives thanks for finally being able to do what he had come to do. He gives thanks for the action he is about to perform, making the whole gift of himself. Before it is a Passion, something undergone, the Passion is an Action, something done. It’s the supreme Action. Jesus’ divine person, his divine will, his human will, his freedom, his obedience, his love and his prayer, the whole of him, are fully engaged, fully invested. Forgive the metaphor, but he is driving  in top gear. In complete freedom, he drank the cup of suffering and actively turned it into an offering to God, a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, an atonement for our sins, a liturgy of obedience, an act of love, a priestly, eucharistic prayer, returning mankind to the Father. Only so could the Lamb take away the sins of the world. And the Eucharist, with its gestures and words, reminds us of this, embodies it, em-breads it, we might say. We see in the Passion the Agency, the Priesthood, the sovereign Loving of the Lord. Outwardly a defeat, inwardly victory.

The Eucharist opens our eyes to this. Maundy Thursday illumines Good Friday. And we ourselves, thanks to this agency of Christ, need never be mere victims. A thought to develop perhaps…

Then a second thing. Why did our Lord die and rise, lay down his life and take it up again? Was it just for his friends? For the first Christians? Was it just to leave us an example of courage and trust? Surely more, much more. Why did he translate, as it were, his death and resurrection into a meal? Why did he make himself food and drink, the most accessible, least frightening of things, the most sociable?  Why did he say to the Apostles, “Do this in memory of me”? And by saying that to the Apostles, say it to their successors, the bishops, and those on whom bishops ordain, the priests of the world? Why did he institute a rite that can be repeated in every time and place?  Why has he made himself so small and accessible, so vulnerable, so simple, so edible? All this surely from a desire to prepare a table to which all are invited. “To gather into one the scattered children of God” (Jn 11:52). To bring together a new humanity. So that the arms outstretched on the Cross may be seen for what they are: an invitation to a wedding, an embrace of the whole world. So that his opened side can be a haven for everyone, and the blood and water drench the whole earth. “For you and for the many”, he died and rose and instituted the Eucharist tonight.

“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” He loved them to his final breath, yes, but he loved them to that “end” which is the Eucharist, intimate communion with him and each other. He loves to the end by sending to the ends of the earth and the ends of time apostles and priests who will set fresh tables for the children of God to sit and eat at. He loves to the end by loving each one and all of us to the point of becoming one body with us.  He loves to the end by inviting even me to this Table. “Take and eat. This is my Body.” He loves to the end because “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” – the end without an end.

And so, brothers and sisters, in awe at God’s generosity, in the light of the Eucharist, we follow the Lord on his way, eyes opened to his love.

St Mary’s Cathedral, 28 March 2024


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