This evening at mass we commemorate the institution of the Eucharist by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper on the night before he died for us. This is, of its nature, a very solemn occasion but don’t think of solemnity as stuffiness for it is indeed the very opposite. What we celebrate tonight is something truly joyous and enriching, for the Eucharist is the very life-blood of the Church.
At the table in the Upper Room Jesus took the bread and gave it to his disciples saying, ‘This is my body which will be given up for you’ and he did the same with the wine saying, ‘This is my blood which will be poured out for you.’
To the Apostles at first hearing all this might have sounded extremely gory; after all who but a cannibal eats flesh and drinks wine. Remember though that Jesus had already taught the Apostles in advance that they must eat his body and drink his blood. At the time he gave them this teaching we know that it puzzled them greatly but now in the Upper Room all becomes clear to them at last.
Here at the Last Supper the flesh is hidden in the form of bread and the blood is contained under the guise of wine. Here in the Eucharist we are enabled to come as close as it is possible to get to Christ because we consume his body and blood in the form of sacramental signs. Here in the Eucharist it is truly possible to become one with him.
We are all well aware that when we celebrate the Eucharist we are calling to mind not just the Last Supper but in fact the whole Pascal Mystery; the entire sequence of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. And since this is a sacrament that we are celebrating we are not just reminding ourselves what happened all those years ago but, through the action of Jesus, we are actually making it present on our altar.
When we celebrate the Eucharist it is as if all of time has suddenly telescoped and we are taken back to the Upper Room and we are enabled to witness the action of Jesus taking and blessing and distributing the bread and the wine. We become present there in that Upper Room and share in his body and blood alongside the Apostles gathered there.
What happens then on our altar in this Church is that we become one with the events of the Last Supper. The priest stands in for Jesus and says the words that he said, and the rest of the people stand in for the Apostles and receive the gifts of his body and blood which renew and reinvigorate them. Spiritually we become one with the Apostles and one with Christ our beloved Saviour.
Here is a sacrament beyond all others. Here is a sacrament which actually feeds our souls and brings us ever closer to the Divine Saviour in whom we put our trust. Here is a sacrament which is our true pledge of eternal life.
On this special feast day we not only remember the institution of the Eucharist but also the commencement of the priesthood because these two things are inseparable. The Apostles become the priests who are commanded to continue to celebrate the Eucharist for the rest of their lives; theirs is the task of bringing the Eucharist to the people enabling them to become united to Christ in this special way.
And so tonight priests throughout the world are particularly reminded of their solemn duties as ministers of word and sacrament and are invited to renew their promise to faithfully minister to the People of God.
In the Eucharist we are also celebrating service. In the Liturgy of the Word we are always given for our consideration tonight the extract from the Gospel of John which recounts the Washing of the Feet that took place in the Upper Room. Jesus gives his Apostles this wonderful example of loving service, an example that is repeated throughout the world on this holy night as in every Church during the liturgy the priest washes the feet of the people.
The point is that there is no love without service. It is totally useless to celebrate love without doing anything loving. And Jesus washing the feet of his disciples is as good an example of loving service as you could get.
In our liturgy tonight it might be slightly embarrassing for those concerned, but they should regard themselves as privileged to participate in this ritual because of the wonderful example of service it gives.
Ideally we should wash feet at every mass but I suppose for reasons of expedience this was something that has only ever been part of the liturgy on this most holy night. I say the washing of the feet should be done on a daily or weekly basis because I believe we need to be constantly reminded that the essence of our Christian commitment is service.
It is of the very nature of Christianity that we should serve one another. There is certainly plenty of scope here for creativity because all of our needs are different. There are lots and lots of ways that we can help one another, there are numerous things we can do to assist our neighbours. It can include anything from passing the salt to giving evidence in court.
Let me suggest that one of the very simplest things we can do is to give people praise when it is deserved. All this would involve is opening our mouth to say something positive and encouraging at the right moment.
And yet so often we hold back and we fail to assist others even when it is obvious that they really need our help. A Christian should always be looking for opportunities to give aid to other people. It is surprising therefore that we are frequently very diffident and extremely reluctant to serve others. Let us resolve to do better in this regard in the coming year.
Of course, we must also realise that it is not always easy to accept the service of others particularly when they don’t always fully understand what our needs really are. There is a certain graciousness that is required when it comes to accepting help from others. We need to be very careful not to rebuff those who offer us help in case we discourage them from helping others.
Let us go back to briefly consider once again the Liturgy of the Eucharist before concluding; it deserves serious attention since it is at the very heart of our life of worship.
We need to be very careful not to take the mass for granted; we need to be attentive that we do not get lost in the routine of the weekly celebration. By being open to every aspect of the mass we will over the course of our lives gradually grow in appreciation of it.
The mass is a ritual; it is a set way of reciting sacred words and performing sacred actions in a holy place. But while it is a ritual it can in no way be considered routine. The important thing about a ritual is that it is full of meaning; it is a sequence of words and actions that gives life and purpose to its participants.
Our task then as Catholic Christians is gradually over the course of our lives to enter into the Eucharist and to progressively uncover its meaning. Little by little we will grow in appreciation and love of the mass until that day when we are invited to step out of this world and into the next world where we will be able to take our place at the greatest liturgy of all, the liturgy of heaven.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket