Words on the Word
Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14: If the household is too small, a man must join with his neighbour.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26: This is my body, which is for you.
John 13:1-15: If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.
‘This is my Body.’ ‘This is my Blood.’ These words touch us more deeply almost than any others. Men and women have gone to their death, in this land, to uphold their faith in the transformative power of those words. We hear them each time we go to Mass, firm in our conviction that they convey a transformative mystery: the possibility of a living communion with God, a communion staggering in its simplicity. On Maundy Thursday we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist. The liturgy transports us through time and space to the moment in which Jesus first broke bread with his disciples ‘on the day before he was to suffer’. The supper in the upper room takes place ‘today’. As we reverently enter this wide-open space of a continuous, effective present, let us look afresh at what it means, this sign of bread and wine. At one level, we know it well. Some of us could write treatises on transubstantiation. That is good. It can be useful. But it is not what the Twelve would have thought of then—that is now—in the Upper Room. What did they think they received from the hands of the Lord? Why did the Lord bestow this great gift the way he did?
As we consider this question, there is one fact we must not lose out of sight: Jesus knew what lay ahead; his disciples did not. His repeated attempts to describe the violent destiny in store for him had failed. To the end they thought ‘he was the one who would redeem Israel’. They thought he would do so by a glorious deed: a public profession of Messianic kingship or a summons to anti-secular revolt. They had built him up as a hero. They felt sure he would not disappoint. We see this from the way the Supper was prepared. According to Matthew, on the day of Unleavened Bread, the disciples asked Jesus, ‘Where would you have us prepare for you to eat the passover?’ We sense they expected him to eat it alone while they stood by and served, like a half-score of footmen, pouring wine, straightening the linen. He would partake of the Easter Lamb, a richly symbolic dinner, seasoned with the salt of freedom. Then, like Moses, he would rise up, proceed, and lead his people out of servitude. Jesus’s perspective is different. Sending two disciples into town, he asks them to follow a man with a water jar. Where he enters, they too should go, and relay this message: ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I am to eat the passover with my disciples?’ What Jesus has in mind is a meal of communion, a meal taken together.
There is an intrinsic grace to table-fellowship. There is the gracious joy of being variously host and guest. There is the sensual pleasure of enjoying good fare. There is the bond created by sharing an activity as intimate as eating. Proposals of marriage are made over dinner. Family festivities are celebrated with a meal. We may invite a friend to dinner if we have something difficult to talk about. What was the talk at the Last Supper? It is strange, but we find, on reflection, that Jesus does not talk about himself. He makes no graphic prediction of his Passion like he did, months before, at Caesarea Philippi. Instead, he talks about the pain soon to be felt by his disciples. He says things they would rather not hear. He speaks of Peter’s denial, Judas’s betrayal. ‘You will all’, he says, ‘fall away.’ A little later, he would utter those harrowing words: ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even unto death.’ In the midst of this utter dereliction, he took bread, blessed it, broke it, and said: ‘This is my body, given for you.’ He took the chalice filled with wine, blessed it, too, and sent it round, saying, ‘This is my blood, which is poured out for you.’ The taste of that bread, that wine, would linger in their mouths hours later when, with one exception, they had all run away. We know that Peter wept for overwhelming grief. Who would doubt that the others did the same?
The contemplative retrospect of the Gospels is imbued with these twin experiences, inextricably entwined: his self-giving; our falling away. It is a coincidence that defines the Church’s image of Christ Jesus. He knows what we will do, yet does what he does: ‘Take, eat; take, drink.’ By this incomparable gesture, Christ forgave the betrayal of his friends even before it had happened. ‘This’, he told them, ‘is who I am. I came for this. This is what God is like.’ From that moment on, we know that our sordid passion, caused by infidelity and sin, is caught up in his pure, redemptive Passion. His blessing hand reaches even the squalidest depth of our despair. We have not, then, to be fearful. The Eucharist proves that our sins are forgiven, that nothing can stand between us and Christ’s love—unless, of course, we reject the gift held out to us. We are about to fulfil the Lord’s command: ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ Let us be mindful of this sacrament’s immensity. Let us resolve to be faithful to the grace it bestows. What we cannot of ourselves, grace will let us do. Christ pours out for us the medicine of immortality. Will we take it? When I receive Christ’s Body and Precious Blood, do I mean what I say in professing, ‘Amen’?