Communion and Service
(Readings: Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13: 1-15)
Introduction to Mass
You could say there are two great liturgical celebrations in the course of the Church's year that focus our attention on the Eucharist. One is the feast of Corpus Christi, the Body and Blood of Christ, which highlights our belief in, and devotion to, the presence of Jesus in the bread and wine consecrated during the Mass. And the other is tonight's celebration, the Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper, at the start of the Easter Triduum, which highlights the practical implications of participating in the Eucharist, as Jesus explained to the disciples at the Last Supper.
As we come together as God’s family…
Like all the gospels, Saint John's gospel was written for us, his fellow-disciples of the future.
And John's description of the Last Supper is written in such a way that we will automatically connect our celebration of Mass and our receiving Christ's Body and Blood with this attitude of service towards one another symbolised by Christ's washing of the disciples' feet.
In the culture of the day, of course, this was one of the duties of a household servant or a slave. And for Saint John, the community that gathers for the Eucharist must be a community that assumes servant's duties towards each other as a basic facet of it's Christian faith and spirituality, and as a basic facet of it's practical Imitation of Christ.
We might say, putting it negatively, that the community that gathers for mass without putting this mutual care and service into practice is violating an essential aspect of the Eucharist as definitely as someone who shows irreverence for the consecrated bread and wine or desecrates them in some way. That's how essential this principle is for John.
The Eucharist uncovers something fundamental about the purpose of our lives and our relationships, as human beings and as God's creatures. It tells us, in Saint Paul's language, that we're all members one of another. God never intended us or made us to live for ourselves, competing against each other and engaged in little - or not so little - contests of mutual exploitation and manipulation. That's part of the essence of sin, our fallen-ness: the spirit of self-assertion and egotism that alienates us from each other.
We seem to live in a society which is increasingly fragmented, where the commitment to mutual service put forward by Christ in tonight's gospel is increasingly absent. The strongest influences in our modern culture are all the other way, encouraging egotism and self-assertion, and so fostering division rather than communion.
In these circumstances, as the circle of Jesus' present-day disciples we've always got to be looking for ways of appealing to people to embrace the "better way" of the gospel and calling them into the spirit of communion and service that lies at the heart of the gospel and, as Saint John shows, is linked so closely to our central act of worship, the Mass.
In fact I believe that unless we can find ways of introducing the leaven of the gospel into the moral and spiritual shambles of our society now, there's nothing ahead for us except a further descent into the viciousness and selfishness that have been steadily rising over the last twenty or thirty years.
I also believe myself that Pope Benedict is right to call on us to resist the tendency to exclude Christianity from the public sphere: from culture and politics and the debates about the moral shape of society as a whole. Right now, all the evidence supports our Christian conviction that when people try to live apart from God, cut off from his grace, which lifts us out of sinfulness and viciousness and makes us holy, we create a hell on earth.
So as I say, right now, more than ever, we need to find ways of announcing the Good News of salvation through Christ.
But in looking for ways of manifesting the Christian faith in an environment that is indifferent and in many ways even hostile, there's one temptation which I think we should try hard to avoid.
If, as Christ is telling us tonight, we must always strive to foster the bonds of love and service among ourselves, as well as offering worship to God, then I think we also have to avoid fostering a spirit of purely human fellowship divorced from worship of God.
The ideal symbolised by the washing of the disciples feet is a fellowship of mutual service, not of mutual admiration, and in an environment where the Christian community becomes marginalised from society as a whole, the danger is that its members become inward-looking and self-serving and do no more than provide a sense of belonging to counter general feelings of disconnectedness and fragmentation.
Jesus didn't carry out his mission on earth, and go through his passion and death, to teach us the value of having a cup of tea and a friendly chat.
If the inner life of the Church gets no further than that, if "community spirit" becomes an end in itself, divorced from basic elements of Christian spiritual life such as belief in Jesus as Saviour, constant conversion, prayer, communion with God, then its a very impoverished and hollowed-out version of the gospel we're advocating - and a caricature of the Eucharist. And yet its not uncommon now for people to appear surprised when they discover that belonging to the Church involves identifying with Christ and putting his commandments into practice, rather than having their own emotional needs supplied by others.
So we’ve always got to be looking for ways of being true to Christ’s actual teaching, and that partly involves having an eye for certain false options or inadequate expressions of Christian faith.
There's a lot more I could say and a lot more we could always say about the Eucharist and it's practical implications. These are just a few reflections, this Holy Thursday, on Saint John's account of the Last Supper, and the values he calls us to practice as the men and women who are trying to follow in the footsteps of Christ's first group of disciples.