Homily for Maundy Thursday

Last Sunday, Palm Sunday, began with St Matthew’s account of the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem. And the Evangelist noted how shaken the city was by his coming. And everyone asked, “Who is this?”

Brothers and sisters, we are beginning the Triduum, the three days of the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection. We need a thread to hold on to. Perhaps it’s this question: “Who is he?” I think the grace waiting for us these days is simply – splendidly – to know him more. That he may be more real to us, and, as a poet said, “easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east” (G. M. Hopkins).

Tonight, then, still in Jerusalem, entering our Triduum, let’s ask this same question: “Who is this?” Let’s ask it for all the Jerusalems that don’t.

Who is this one reclining at a table in an upper room with his friends, rising and stooping to wash their feet, then returning to the table, taking bread and taking wine and then talking, talking to his disciples? Imagine the scene – great artists have painted it! – Jerusalem packed for the Passover, but this upstairs oasis, a large furnished room.  Evening filling everything – outside, inside, hearts and minds; intimacy within, threat outside, a strange combination of moods; oil lamps lit, a bowl and water and a towel, a table, couches, cups and plates, bread and wine, and what else on the table? Herbs and sauces perhaps? Was there a lamb or wasn’t there? The scholars debate. In one Eastern icon, there are two parsnips – parsnips, imagine! There is no other night like it.

“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” (St Thomas Aquinas, Pange Lingua, tr. E. Caswall).

Who is this, then? Who is the host of this meal? Who is it the troubled apostles are fluttering around like frightened birds? Perhaps, a poet suggests, he the Lord is like the evening himself, filling everything like twilight does, all-pervading. This is after all the evening of his life. Who is this, though? “You call me Master and Lord, and rightly; so I am.” Yes, Master and Lord. “On the same night he was betrayed, says St Paul, the Lord Jesus took some bread” – the Lord Jesus. Yes. It is he. Taking bread and taking wine, a priest, the Priest of his own sacrifice. Yes, that too. A Servant washing feet. And more, he himself the Passover Lamb. But let’s choose this: the Friend. The final, fullest Friend. It’s at the Last Supper that Jesus says, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn 15:15). Jesus was never more himself than at the Last Supper. He was at the height of his creativity. He was in the fulness of his mission. He was, as St John so beautifully says, loving to the end.  Only his death and resurrection would surpass this, but they were already here. This is the moment of the Eucharist. And the Eucharist is the proof of his friendship. He creates it at the very moment of Judas’ betrayal. He performs it at the moment of farewell, of rupture, knowing what would befall him, and his friends, on the following day: the shock and horror of it. He made this new thing, bread of his body, wine of his blood, knowing that these frightened birds would, when the enemy struck, almost all fly away. But he put out this branch, his Body and Blood, for them to return to when he rose. He made this eucharistic nest for them to find safety again. And his friendship outflew even them: his blood poured out “for you” – my first and dear disciples – AND “for many”, for the many who would follow – for us too then in our turn. A friend is a presence; so is the Eucharist. A friend shares; what else is the Eucharist? A friend comforts; so does the Eucharist. A friend strengthens – as does the Eucharist. A friend delights. It’s all there. In the Eucharist there’s given us the ultimate intimacy possible in this life: body, blood, soul and divinity poured sacramentally into our body, blood, soul and humanity. Thus, as one poet said, did he “twine / dust into a state divine”.

“All Heavn is melted, & doth drop
Into ye Cup:
Which smiling there, invites each Guest
To come & taste,
Come taste, sayes LOVE, & drink in MEE
At one short draught Eternitie.

Sit downe, Dear Friends, & feast, sit downe;
All is your owne…
…this Fare
I did for humble Men prepare”  (Joseph Beaumont).

We can go with our friends to a pub and drink to our heart’s content, for better or worse. But this friend has us to the house of himself and gives us “everything he has heard from his Father”, everything his Father has given him, his very self to eat and drink, and so intoxicate us not with the usual but with the Holy Spirit.

Who is he, then? Though one short word will never do, he is a Friend indeed. He loves to the end, he lays down his life for his friends and takes it up again, to share it with us. He holds nothing back. Yes, Jerusalem should certainly quake. And he has packed all this in transubstantiated bread and wine.

“By this we know love, says St John, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our life for the brothers” – or at least wash each other’s feet, which means: help one another to walk life’s paths. And so this evening will be everywhere, and Christ, man’s truest Friend, shine forth.


RC Diocese of Aberdeen Charitable Trust.
A registered Scottish Charity Number SC005122