Christ in the Eucharist
(Readings: Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13: 1-15)
Introduction to Mass
The Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper, which opens the Easter Triduum, focuses on the sacrament of the Eucharist. According to St. John's version of the Last Supper, which we hear in the gospel tonight, our celebration of the Eucharist as a ritual has to be accompanied by our living the meaning of the Eucharist in fraternal care and service towards each other. For the times when we've missed that meaning, we now ask God's forgiveness.
The Mass of the Lord's Supper, at the start of the Easter Triduum, takes us back to the Last Supper and the original celebration of the Eucharist. It takes us back to the institution of the Eucharist, and also the institution of the priesthood so that the Eucharist would always be available for the community of Christ's disciples down through history.
When a priest is ordained the bishop, following the Rite of Ordination, tells the new priest to “meditate on the word of God”. Then he goes on to instruct the new priest to "believe what you read, teach what you believe, and translate your teaching into action".
The formula makes a connection between being earnest in believing the content of the faith on the one hand, and being active in witnessing to the faith on the other: "believe what you read, and translate your belief into action".
Put like that, those are words don't just apply to priests, the Church's ordained ministers. They apply to every member of the Church. And the gospel passage we just heard, I think, draws our attention to that, especially in regard to what we believe about the Eucharist and the Mass.
Our belief about the Eucharist is that the bread and the wine that we receive during Mass is the same as the bread and wine that the disciples received at the Last Supper. What we're receiving is Christ's body and blood in exactly the same way that the disciples did, in the upper room.
The word which the New Testament uses about the Eucharist - "memorial" - means that the original event is being made present again - not just that a group of people are playing out a kind of dramatic repeat performance of it. Christ is making himself present again, in the bread and wine, in the same way that he did at the Last Supper.
That's the reason why, right from the start of the Church's history, the celebration of the Eucharist - as well as the bread and the wine that are used, once they've been consecrated - came to be treated with reverence and respect: because the Church believed that Christ himself is present in it.
The practice in many Protestant churches reflects a different sense about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. In many instances, when a Protestant liturgy is finished, the bread and wine is treated like ordinary food again. As someone told me once, the participants might just throw them in the bin. The idea is that the elements only represents Christ - or contain Christ's presence - while the ceremony is taking place.
This has never been our attitude towards the Eucharist. In spite of various distortions, debates and heresies down through the centuries the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist has always been that Christ remains present in the form of the bread and the wine after Mass is finished as well as during the Mass.
So we treat the consecrated bread that's kept in the tabernacle carefully. We treat Communion as unique and sacred, and that belief is expressed in a special way in the ceremony we have at the end of Mass tonight, when the ciborium is removed from the tabernacle and goes onto the altar of repose. Like all our other practices around the Eucharist it goes back to our basic belief about every Mass being the Lord's Supper taking place again, and Christ making himself present in the bread and wine, the same way he did the first time.
But then equally importantly there's the second aspect of the Eucharist: translating what we believe into practice.
The gospel for tonight's Mass doesn't mention anything about bread and wine becoming Jesus' body and blood. Saint John's version of the Last Supper describes a different incident - Jesus washing his disciple's feet - and informing them by this gesture that he's a Messiah who's come to serve rather than be served. And, just as important, he's telling the disciples that they've got to do the same if they want to think of themselves as his followers.
St John's point in putting that incident right in the middle of the Last Supper is this: that's how we put our belief in the Eucharist into practice. The meaning of the Eucharist is lived out in practice when we all treat each other with that attitude of humility, self-emptying, service and love that Jesus himself demonstrated.
Christ is present in the bread and wine as a sacramental sign and when we celebrate Mass together we're making him present in that way. But, says St John, Christ must also be made present in real life, by a concrete commitment to servanthood. We make Christ present when we renounce our own pride and self-interest and respond to the needs, and especially to the suffering and the distress, of others.
So the meaning of the Mass of the Lord's Supper is to remind us, or to warn us, not to separate those two aspects of the Eucharist and always to see them as belonging together.
At the end of Mass we move the ciborium out of the tabernacle and put it onto the altar of repose, and we can stay in church and pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament. That's one aspect.
And then there's the other lesson in tonight’s gospel: translating the Eucharist into practice means service and care and practical love for each other and for the needy. That's the message I'd draw from the Mass of the Lord’s Supper: Jesus asks us to be strong not only in our belief in his sacramental presence in the Eucharist but also active in our “Eucharistic” witness, in imitation of the servant Messiah.