Mass of the Lord’s supper
Exod 12:1-14; 1 Cor 11:23-26; John 13:1-15
All four canonical Gospels state that the Last Supper took place towards the end of the week, after Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem and that with his Apostles Jesus shared a meal shortly before he was crucified. During the meal Jesus predicts his betrayal by one of the Apostles present, and foretells that before the next morning, Peter will deny knowing him. This Gospel for Holy Thursday begins St John’s account of Jesus’ total awareness of what lies ahead for Him; and His words and actions are an intimate, loving preparation with His disciples for the storm that is about to break upon them in the hours ahead. St John tells us: ‘He had always loved those who were His in the world, but now he showed how perfect his love was’.
Jesus has long and profound discussion with His closest followers at supper, going into great detail about the content of His message and the meaning of the events that are about to take place. Jesus focuses on love , unity and service, and on the promise of greater things to come. He pours water to wash the feet of the disciples. Suddenly their roles are reversed and their Lord and Master becomes the servant. The leader does not delegate the lowly task, but stoops down himself and tends to the needs of his disciples. The foot washing is symbolic and such emphasis is intelligible if we understand the foot washing as a symbol for Jesus’ salvific death’ washing away our sins. Peter’s questioning enabled Jesus to explain the salvific necessity of his death: it would bring men their heritage with him and cleanse them of sin.
It is now that Jesus most clearly articulates His identity, which has been somewhat fuzzy up to this point—but even now, the disciples will only have at best a partial understanding, because John has already told us that their understanding will only be completed with the crucifixion and resurrection, when all of the pieces will fall into place and they will receive the promised Spirit.
The first reading from the Book of Exodus presented us with the first instance of the Passover, detailing what God wanted Israel to do concerning the Jewish Passover. We see the connection – rehearsal even- for the Christian Passover: the lamb of God, Christ, is sacrificed, gives himself at the last supper, within the framework of the Jewish Passover . Thus he brings salvation to the world. The mystical re-enactment of this redemptive act becomes the central feature of our liturgy, the Mass.
Then we hear from Saint Paul, about what else has happened on that same night, but is not related in St John’s Gospel. Those words which the priest says at the consecration at every Mass: ‘This is my body which is given for you; do this in memory of Me’. This cup is the new covenant in my blood, whenever you drink it, do this in memorial of me’.
These same words of Christ have been handed down by oral tradition from those apostles who were at the institution of the Blessed Eucharist at the Last Supper. St Paul confirms this: ‘For this is what I received from the Lord and in turn pass on to you’. So, in tonight’s reading, Saint Paul was in turn passing the words of Jesus on to the Corinthians. Here he speaks of the Holy Eucharist itself, of the words of consecration and of the real presence of Christ's body and blood. We know that it was at the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, that our Saviour instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. He has provided a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love and a sign of unity.
After the washing of the disciples feet St John tells us that Jesus said to his disciples ‘If I then your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example so you may copy what I have done to you’.
He did these symbolic acts out of love for them and so that his disciples could understand and experience his mission in the world. In the Last Supper and the washing of the feet we witness the mystery of sacrifice and the mystery of service.
Holy Thursday now also brings us this evening to the dark night of the Mount of Olives, to which Jesus goes with his disciples. In our ceremonies, we walk with Jesus as He experiences the solitude and abandonment. Then in prayer He goes forth to encounter the darkness of death; the betrayal of Judas, his arrest and his denial by Peter; his indictment before the Sanhedrin and his being handed over to the Gentiles, to Pilate. Let us try to understand more deeply something of these events, for in them the mystery of our redemption takes place.
Bishop Leslie Tomlinson