It is strange to be celebrating Christ’s institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, at a time when we cannot gather as a people round the altar to partake of the Eucharist. That is a painful reality – and we have no idea when this situation will change.
In his document on the Amazon just two months ago Pope Francis was clear about the centrality of the Eucharist. He quoted Pope John Paul II in these words – we need the celebration of the Eucharist because the Eucharist makes the Church. This current crisis asks us difficult questions about how we are a sacramental church without the normal access to the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. Remember, at present, there is no public access to Mass and Communion, nor to timetabled opportunities for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, nor to Baptism, Confirmation and Marriage – and there is a very limited opportunity to celebrate the Sacrament of the Sick. Not surprisingly, I have had correspondence from conscientious people of faith who have a deep-seated hunger to celebrate these sacraments. This is a very painful time for many of them – and, as ever, as Church, we have to see the needs of the fragile rather than be content with a situation that does not cause too much discomfort to the strong. Indeed, I would be worried about those for whom loss of access to the sacraments is no big deal!
So, what do we understand by sacraments? They are not magic actions that merely top up our grace store somewhere on a spiritual cloud. They are part of the ministry of Jesus who wants to redeem all of who we are. The Word really was made flesh and dwelt among us. He healed people in their bodies, minds and relationships with others. He really died on the Cross and was raised up again in the flesh. The Jesus who sits at the right hand of the Father remains with us all days until the end of the world. Our bodies are Temples of the Holy Spirit. The Father and Jesus want to make their home in us. And our bodies will be raised up on the Last Day. Thus, in the sacramental life of the Church, Jesus wants to touch our bodies, hearts and souls – for we belong to him. And he especially want to do so in these weeks when the body is threatened, and the spirit is frightened.
So, on this Holy Thursday evening, what might the Lord be saying to us?
Firstly, we remember how faith in Jesus has found ways of surviving in the absence of church structures and easily accessible sacramental provision. It happened in our own country during the long, harsh 18th century. It has happened in many missionary countries. The core of handing on the faith in those situations has been the domestic church, based in homes and families. The parish community will never thrive without there being healthy domestic churches at its core. The Rite of Baptism tells parents that they are first and best teachers of their children in faith. The parish is a gathering of those domestic churches where faith has been handed on by word and deed, by prayer and sacramentals such as Holy Water and prayer rituals, May altars and religious symbols. This current emergency is a call to look again at the family hearth as the place where the fire of faith is set alight. A faith based mainly on only sacramental observance and is missing something. The sacramental hunger in this desert experience ask us all awkward questions about our faith.
Secondly, I have no doubts that the mission of the Church in Ireland is being remade in these months. We have had a highly sacramentalised service in many parishes. There have been over 200 Masses every weekend in this medium-sized diocese. Our Churches and clergy have been expected to be available at almost all hours to provide sacramental occasions such as baptisms and weddings, fitted around other priorities. I think we see that reality in that government bans on baptism and weddings have actually worked on the assumption that, for very many, the banned event actually means the large party afterwards. From a Church perspective, we look at what is happening in the church. For my perspective, there is little logic in allowing up to 10 people at a Church funeral service – and, at the same time, specifically banning churches from gathering half that number from one family for a much-desired baptism. This evening’s celebration of the First Eucharist challenges us to look again at how we defend the right to celebrate sacraments for people of faith. If, in some cases, they have become the junior party in a cultural rite of passage, then this asks questions as to how we are Church into the future. And it pushes us to seek how we can act within the spirit and letter of the law to avoid infections and deaths – but also on the basis of our priorities as a Church and not just as a civic entity regulated by civil law.
Thirdly, St John’s story of the Last Supper – from which we read tonight – does not contain the institution of the Eucharist. The Eucharistic teaching of Jesus appears elsewhere in the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. But St John does include this striking picture of Jesus who washes the feet of his disciples and who gives that as the pattern for how his followers should behave. There is sometimes the temptation for Catholics to assert that access to Holy Communion is my right. In some ways that is accurate, but it is only part of the truth. The whole purpose of the Church’s sacramental life is not just to build up me, but to promote the building up of grace-filed communities which are known for their extraordinary service of one another and especially of the poor. That was part of what happened in the early Church according to the Acts of the Apostles. This gesture of Jesus in the Upper Room asks us to look at whether our rich sacramental life is making us into active cells of the Body of Christ and where it might be presented as nourishing a merely private and relatively comfortable spirituality. In the Eucharist we celebrate Christ’s real presence among us as the Saviour of the world. In his first sermon in Nazara, Jesus announced that he was anointed to bring good news to the poor. Sharing in his Eucharistic body is a call to be part of that mission.
Tonight, we sit before the mystery of what Jesus institutes at the Last Supper and how we celebrate that today. Jesus is the new Lamb whose blood is shed to free his people from slavery. He gathers us to the sacred banquet where he says, Take, eat, this is my body. He does that tonight, even though God’s people do not have access to the altar. We do so, hungering and trusting that the day of Communion will some again soon and that our communities we return from this period of exile. And in this time of Exodus, we ask not just where God is, but what the Lord is trying to teach us.
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