How good to see the church so packed! It reflects what we are remembering this evening – that packed last evening of Jesus’ life on earth. It was so full, so dense, so emotionally charged, so rich in both suffering and joy. The movie Of Gods and Men – a fine film – tells the story of the Cistercian monks in Algeria, who were murdered and martyred in 1996. If you have seen it, you will remember the monks’ last supper, the passing of the wine, and the background music of Tchaikovsky. Then the terrorists came. But that just an echo of what happened in the Upper Room and what we remember tonight.
The crucifixion and death of our Lord took place outside, under a darkened sky. The discovery of the empty tomb on Easter morning likewise, at dawn in a garden. But tonight is set indoors, after sunset, in an upstairs room lit by oil lamps. This too makes for something intense, interior, intimate.
Against the background of the Jewish Passover evoked in the 1st reading, so much is happening: the last meal of the Lord with his disciples, the departure of Judas into the night, the long last exchange which St John especially relates, the washing of the feet we will re-enact in a moment, the giving of the new commandment to love one another, the priestly prayer of Jesus, the institution of the Eucharist and with that of the priesthood. In all this, it is, of course, the Eucharist that shines out.
The Eucharist! Those simple gestures of Jesus! He takes bread, takes a cup, prays a thanksgiving over them, shares them with his disciples, and bids them “do this in memory of me”. And, at the heart of it, the momentous words we hear at every Mass: “This is my Body which will be given up for you”, “this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many.” Words that can never become stale to those ordained to proclaim them, and “awesome” for us all. The Eucharist!
What was Jesus doing when he did this? Christians have been thinking and praying about this for two millennia and there will always be more to see and to say.
The Eucharist is a sacrament. According to St Augustine a sacrament is “a word we can see” (verbum visibile). When Jesus did what he did at the Last Supper, he was showing us something. In the 2nd reading. St Paul says that in the Eucharist, we “proclaim” or “show forth”. We show forth his death.
Here perhaps is a first answer. Jesus knew full well what awaited him. It was death, not a natural death, but death at the hands of others. There was a judicial process, however skewed, which ended in a sentence of death and execution. In this light, Jesus was simply a passive victim, stripped of agency, overcome, to be written out of history. To his friends it would all appear as absurd, as defeat, as an end. But on this day before he suffered, while Judas was busy in the dark betraying him, he took bread and said, This is my body given for you, not taken but given, freely, willingly given. He took the cup and said, This holds my blood, not shed for you but poured out for you, freely, willingly given. I am not just undergoing something, I am doing something, and doing it “for you” – the people round the table – and “for many”, the innumerable inhabitants of a future, for all those included in Jesus’ prayer. The Eucharist shows us Jesus’ vision of his death. Maundy Thursday illumines Good Friday from within. They cannot be separated. Externally Jesus is a victim, inwardly he is a priest. He is offering himself to the Father for us. The action of the Last Supper takes us inside the Passion that will follow – to its true meaning. It undoes its absurdity. It reveals Christ’s inner freedom and what St John calls “his love to the end”. The Eucharist, said Vatican II, “represents the triumph of his death”. It already, therefore, suggests Resurrection. And it has the power to transform our lives in the same sense, giving a new “inside” to what comes to us from without.
And, then, why did Jesus show all this in the form he did? In the form of bread and of wine, of food and meal? He named the bread his body, i.e. his whole self, and he called the wine his blood, i.e. his life. And by naming them such made them such. He gave us his whole self and did so “under the form of bread and wine”. But why? Why didn’t he, for example, leave us a song to sing? Bread and wine, surely, stand for the sustenance we draw from Mother Earth, they are “fruit of the earth and work of human hands”. Food and drink keep us alive, enter into us, penetrate our whole physical being. They become part of us. They help us grow when we’re young. They restore us when we’re weak and tired. They fuel and energise us, the whole of us, mind as well as body, and in the case of wine injects our life with delight. All that natural food is, and more, infinitely more, Christ wants to be in us. He wants to enter and fill and energise us with his sonship of the Father. In the Eucharist he self-replicates in us. He can become the life of our life, the energy of our energy, the joy of our joy, the friend in our friendships, the mind at work in our mind, the love in the love of our lives, the unity of our unity. This is unthought of, unique, unparalleled, unsurpassed. On the eve of his Passion, confined in that upstairs room, Jesus is already filling creation, making us and it his Body. He is, in a sense, already risen, already Lord of heaven and earth – and through such simple things as bread and wine!
No wonder St John Paul II spoke of “eucharistic amazement”! No wonder a Thomas Aquinas was lost in wonder!
In another gesture tonight, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. By doing that, he was – say some Church Fathers– empowering them to spread the Gospel. He was mobilising them. “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news!” In this Triduum we are all, in a sense, being washed, being baptised, by the Paschal mystery. In the Eucharist that mystery is encapsulated. May its grace of the Eucharist flow over and into us and make us, like the Apostles, evangelists of the Gift of God!
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 14 April 2022