‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it’ (Jn 1:5).
Tonight we’re with the Jesus and the Twelve in ‘the large upper room, furnished and ready’ (Mk 14:15).
‘Night has fallen’ (Jn 13:30), and there is a sense of mounting menace. Judas will slip out into the night and alert Jesus’ enemies to his whereabouts. And the squad of soldiers will put on weapons, take up clubs, prepare their lanterns and torches, ready to set out on the errand of arrest. And meanwhile the City settles down to sleep.
Jesus knows his hour has come. And in these last few free hours with his friends, he invests everything he is. There’s a luminous intensity to this Upper Room. The light is shining in the darkness.
This is Jesus’ last Passover with his disciples, perhaps anticipating the actual feast by a day.
This is his Last Discourse, found in John chapters 13 to 16, with the Sermon on the Mount, the longest single stretch of Jesus’ teaching the Gospels give us.
This is when he gives the new commandment: ‘love one another as I have loved you’ (Jn 13:34).
This is the night of the high priestly prayer, found in John 17: ‘Father, that they may all be one, even as you Father are in me and I am in you’ (Jn 17:21).
This is when he washes the feet of his disciples.
And most of all, literally incorporating all of this, it’s the night he takes bread and wine and does those simple, extraordinary things with them thanks to which we have the Mass. It’s the night he commands the apostles, ‘Do this in memory of me’, and so empowers them to be what we call priests.
‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.’ How well those words of John fit this night!
When Jesus is arrested in the Garden, he says, ‘This is your hour and the power of darkness’ (Lk 22:53). Yes, the power of darkness closes in on him and seems to seize and overcome him. But in the Eucharist, Jesus has already lit the fuse of his Resurrection, and the Resurrection is the victory of light. In the Eucharist, Jesus has already passed from this world to the Father. And the darkness cannot overcome him.
‘Do not go gentle into that good night. / Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’ So said Dylan Thomas in the poem inspired by his dying father. But Jesus does go gentle into a very evil night – like a lamb led to the slaughter. The young man cut down in his prime, he doesn’t rage. He doesn’t have to. Because in the Upper Room, he has already signalled what is really going on. He has undermined the darkness with his light. He has made it clear that, though it seems to be, darkness is not in power. He has taken bread and wine – the gesture that lives on in our Offertory. He has thanked and blessed God – a prayer that lives on in the great Eucharistic Prayers of the Mass. He has said, ‘This is my Body which will be given up for you’ and ‘this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant’ – words that echo at every Consecration. And he has broken and given the bread and shared the chalice, as he does among us at Holy Communion. And he has said, ‘Do this in memory of me.’ And we have.
Tomorrow we recall the Passion of Christ, what he undergoes; tonight, his action, what he does. Tomorrow, he’s the Victim; tonight, he’s the Priest.
Tonight, in the Eucharist, Jesus shows us the real, inside meaning of all that will happen tomorrow. He’s giving another account of it, the true one – the one that springs from himself, who is the Truth. He isn’t a passive victim. He’s not just another casualty of human injustice. He’s passing from this world to the Father, opening the road from death to life for all of us. He’s the Lord of creation, taking the ‘fruit of the earth and work of human hands’ into his own and transforming, transubstantiating them into Himself. He’s the high priest coming before God, not with animals and their blood, but with his body and blood, ‘giving his life for the ransom of many’ (Mk 10:46), taking away our sins, sealing the new and eternal covenant, creating peace and reconciliation. He’s the One who’s so great he can make himself small, and through a morsel of bread and a sip of wine entwine his life with ours, making a brotherhood, a solidarity, a unity hitherto undreamed of and unleashing a whole new brand of love, love to the end. He’s the One who, as Pope Benedict inspiringly put it, gave thanks ‘that his prayer was heard.., gave thanks in advance that the Father did not abandon him in death.., gave thanks for the gift of the Resurrection, and on that basis..could already give his body and blood in the form of bread and wine as a pledge of resurrection and eternal life’ (Jesus of Nazareth, II, p. 140).
This is what happens tonight. This is the light that’s lit. This is what lives on in the Mass. And though Jesus and his friends will go downstairs and out into the night and on into the garden, though a great sadness will fall on him, though the tramp of boots will sound through the olive trees, the powers of darkness have already lost. They’re too late.
Extraordinary the gentle means our Servant King chooses: bread and wine and a few words, and men as fickle as the apostles. Yet by these means, on a thousand altars, the light is always being lit. Yesterday a few of us were interviewing two fine young men hoping to join the three we already have in seminary and be priests in this diocese, joining our 30 or so active priests. Time will tell. Pray for them, pray for many more! But on such frail lampstands does the light shine.
Shine, though, it does. Imagine our Catholic life without the Eucharist. Imagine the world without the Mass. When Christianity is without it, it turns so pale. The Mass, the Eucharist – it’s the great sign in time, generation after generation, of the victory of light over darkness. It means that peace and unity and freedom and reconciliation are not just nice words in UN or EU documents, political rhetoric, but actually have a real location, exist as the Body of Christ in every sense. The Eucharist is the ‘sign of unity, the bond of charity’. It’s the great re-assurance when darkness invades us. It’s what can help us keep on loving when we’d rather shut our loving down. It opens our eyes to Christ in unlikely places, in the bodies of the suffering. It makes our whole life a Passover and a prayer and a eucharist. It can confer a wholeness. It’s the medicine of immortality and the pledge of resurrection. It’s the sign that he is among us. It’s him.
Tonight we give thanks for this measureless gift, and tonight we pray for priests, past, present and to come. And we ask for the humble greatness of Jesus.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen