Tonight we celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Each of the readings takes us into a different aspect of the Eucharist, and our Eucharistic faith.
The reading from First Corinthians is the most straightforward. It’s worth noticing that Paul reports the Eucharist. It is one of the few things reported in all the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us the story straight. John, as always, gives a commentary. And then Paul reports it as something central to Christian worship. Even the birth of Christ is not so centrally reported in all parts of the New Testament. For the early Christians, this was the center of the Church’s life.
“On the night he was handed over, he took bread.” Paul underlines the connection between Holy Thursday and Good Friday. The Eucharist is not just something Jesus did at some point in his life. It is directly connected to his death. “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” This is our entrance into the shedding of Christ’s blood, our communion with his death.
“As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord, until he comes.” This is our memorial, our form of worship, always tied back to Good Friday. Christian worship revolves around the remembrance of the Cross, made present to us through the Eucharist.
But we gain deeper insight into this when we know the Old Testament setting. In fact, the whole of the Old Testament culminates in the Eucharist. When he says “this is the new covenant,” for some reason modern translators have decided to obscure the matter, but what he is really saying – it’s not obscure in the Greek, or the Latin – is “this,” the Eucharist, “is the New Testament,” the fulfillment of the Old Testament. “Covenant” is another translation for the Hebrew and Greek words for “Testament.” Everything in the Old Testament can tell us about the New Testament, the Eucharist.
But most central of all is the Passover, the setting in which Jesus situates his death and his institution of the Eucharist. So the first reading for tonight’s Mass of the Institution of the Eucharist is the Institution of the Passover, in Exodus.
“This day,” too, “shall be a memorial feast for you.” Just as the Eucharist remembers the death of Christ, the Passover remembers the death of the firstborn in Egypt.
“This is how you are to eat it: with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand, you shall eat like those who are in flight.” The Passover is a celebration of flight, of leaving Egypt behind. This is also why it is eaten in the family home, not in a big festal gathering, and why the lamb is slaughtered that very evening, and roasted, the simplest, fastest way of cooking, with bread that has not had time to rise. The Israelites are on the run.
They are leaving behind the land of death. They eat the passover with “bitter herbs,” a reminder of the bitterness of Egypt. The sacrifice of the lamb saves them from the death that passes over Egypt.
For us, the Passover is a reminder that Jesus saves us from the world of death. His death is our flight from the land of death. Our reminder of the bitterness of the world of sin, and of the possibility of escape – not out of the world, but out of sin.
John’s Gospel, with exquisite poetry, shows us what we escape to. John is like a commentary on the other Gospels. Where they give the multiplying of the loaves, he has John 6, the bread of life discourse: a deepening of our understanding that the true provision is in the Eucharist, which saves us from death: “if any man eat of this bread, he shall have eternal life.”
And where the other Gospels tell the Last Supper story straight, John gives us other details. He gives the long farewell discourse (chapters 13-17), where Jesus promises to prepare a place for us, says he is the vine and we are the branches, and promises to send the Spirit. All of these teachings reveal the depths of what he gives in the Eucharist.
But tonight we read about the washing of the feet. This is the promised land. Through the Eucharist we flee Egypt, but go to the land of love. “He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end . . . I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, should also do.” This is the fruit of the Cross.
Do you take time to remember the good things Jesus does for us in the Eucharist?