In these days we celebrate the core events of our salvation. The Gospels contain various accounts of what happened at the Last Supper and on Good Friday – but we don’t have a real understanding of what was really going on. We struggle with the vocabulary that was available to the Jewish listeners 2000 years ago and seek to make sense of the huge questions of death, sin, forgiveness, redemption and resurrection. Maybe the best we can say is that we cannot know the full import of the events that we celebrate – and yet we cannot not try to speak of them, for these occurrences in Jerusalem are the still point around which our whole understanding of who we are revolves. This is where the axle turns that drives our faith, hope and love.
The vocabulary that the Gospels give us has to do with a solemn liturgical meal celebrated once a year, and refers to eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood. There is talk of sacrifice and of a new covenant in his blood – and St John’s Gospel talks about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, just before he is arrested. And Jesus invites his followers to do certain actions again in memory of him.
So what is happening here this evening that brings us together to remember these events of 2000 years ago in Jerusalem?
Firstly, our faith deals with the mystery of who we are and places our lives in the context of a transcendent God. But Jesus asked more questions than he gave answers. So much of what he did and said burst the bounds of normal, agreed, sensible vocabulary. Indeed, even after the Resurrection, the apostles seem not to understand what Jesus had been trying to do. Unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees, he did not leave a nicely worked out religion. Rather, he proposed an outrageous childlike relationship with the God of the universe – and a message that he had borne the weight of human sin on the Cross. The Eucharist is a mystery to be delved into, to be savoured, to be enjoyed. In it, we come into contact with the mystery of what has done for us in Jesus on Calvary. Through the pinhole of Good Friday we glimpse something of heaven’s dream for us as revealed in Jesus, God made man, the Word made flesh. The Mass is sacrifice and meal and communion and covenant and celebration and consecration. It is none of these on its own. We do the scriptures an injustice if we over-emphasise one or leave out another. For God’s work among us cannot be imprisoned and chained in one image. It is no wonder that adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is now so widespread. Amazement and worship are the most natural responses to the God who so loved and loves the fractured world in Jesus.
Secondly, the washing of the feet makes it clear that, because of the God made man in Jesus, love of God and love of neighbour are intimately connected. There have been times in history when the emphasis went too much in either direction. But love of God has been the driving force for so many renewal movements and religious congregations. Those who seek to know God cannot but share something of the same passion that Jesus had for the welfare of the lost sheep and the sick. Faith is not an escape from social engagement but an incentive to it.
But as we see from Peter’s reaction to Jesus, it can sometimes be easier to minister to others than to let others minister to us. Pride and mistaken understandings can hold us back. It takes humility to let others minister to the needs that we might not like to recognise. Let Jesus minister to you – and do not be afraid to let others know where you need to be touched and healed.
Thirdly, the emphasis on our receipt of the Body of Christ – so that we can become the Body of Christ – points to the centrality of community in Christian faith. In this country we still have a strong sense of belonging, of rootedness. That intricate web of relationships provides great shock-absorbers when it comes to dealing with tragedies and crises. We know from recent events in this diocese and city that we possess great resources of grace to help us process the challenges that we face so often. A me-centred culture that emphasises things and superficiality actually does huge damage to our ability to flourish as human beings. The faith community is thus a pointer to both the possibility of having a deep relationship with God and the capacity that we have to build supportive and liberating communities. The absence of God is an impoverishment of our humanity. All revolutions will remain unfinished business with place for the vertical and horizontal relationships that make us deeply human.
So what we celebrate tonight is not some mystery that is so heavenly that it is no earthly good. The Eucharist invites us to delve into the mystery of our being loved and forgiven by God in Christ. This is the mystery of our liberation by the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Here we are present at the heart of the world’s salvation. And adoration is the only real possible response.
- Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry.
- The Mass of the Lord’s Supper was celebrated on 13 April 2017.