I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you. So begins tonight’s famous reading from Saint Paul’s 1st letter to the Christians in Corinth [1 Corinthians 11:23-26]. Paul’s was the earliest written account of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, a farewell meal that took the place of the Passover feast which Jesus would not live to celebrate and in the process replaced it with something completely new.
By convenient coincidence, the calendar corresponds exactly this year, with the Jewish Passover beginning on Friday night just as it did that year. It is safe to suggest that none of Jesus’ disciples, as they sat down to supper with Jesus on that Thursday evening before the Passover holiday, understood that, by the time Passover began 24 hours later, Jesus would be dead and buried, and that they would all be in hiding. And certainly, none of them yet realized how that otherwise ordinary meal would be dramatically transformed forever by Jesus’ death and resurrection into the Church’s central sacrament.
The New Testament tells us how, from the very beginning, Christian communities devoted themselves to the breaking of bread and prayers [Acts 2:42]. As the Church grew in size and expanded in influence, the Church’s worship, centered on the regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper, would in time transform, first, the Roman Empire and, then, the ever wider world – as it still must continue to transform each one of us and the wider world we are all a part of.
By giving his body and blood to be eaten and drunk, Jesus expressed the deepest truth about what he would do on the Cross, as the true paschal lamb who takes away the sins of the world. The Eucharist we celebrate tonight makes really present that very same body once offered on the Cross, then buried in the tomb, and now risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father. The mystery of the Eucharist, which proclaims the death and resurrection of the Lord until he comes again, is at the very heart of the Church’s life. It is, as we say, the sacrament that makes the Church, which comes into being and receives her unity and mission from the Eucharist [cf. Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, p. 138].
So, whether amid the splendor of a papal basilica or in the simplicity of a missionary outpost, whether with the Bishop in his cathedral or with friends and neighbors in a local parish church, this same Lord’s Supper has been celebrated generation after generation and treasured by every generation as its precious inheritance – a gift given to us, to experience by living and acting like people who recognize what we have received.
The short passage we just heard, however, was originally part of a longer passage that for most of the Church’s history (until just 50 years ago) was what was read at this Mass. This matters because Saint Paul wrote that earliest written account of what happened at that most memorable meal in all of human history not just to tell us a nice story about something that happened a long time ago. It was its present effect that Paul cared most about, and so Paul was in fact complaining, criticizing the Corinthians’ behavior in the present, telling them that they were missing the main point of the Lord’s Supper – receiving the Lord’s Body and Blood in an unworthy way, doing so to their peril. In giving this instruction, Paul wrote, I do not praise you. Your meetings do more harm than good. I hear that when you meet as a church there are divisions among you. When you meet, then, it is not to eat the Lord’s supper.
What an indictment! Saint Paul’s more complete account and discussion about the Last Supper was actually a challenge to the Corinthians - as, through them, it is intended to be a challenge now for us. Saint Paul highlighted the Corinthians’ conflicts, dissensions, and factions – in effect, their unfortunate failure to be changed by the Eucharist. Then as now, in 1st-century Corinth among those to whom St. Paul’s account of the Last Supper was originally addressed, all was not well in the Church. The social, economic, and class distinctions, the inequalities, conflicts, dissensions, and factions, endemic in ordinary Roman society were making themselves felt within the Corinthian Church community, so much so that even the celebration of the Lord’s Supper still seemed to mirror those same social, economic, and class distinctions, inequalities, conflicts, dissensions, and factions.
But those things that matter so much to us in the secular world, Paul insists, should have absolutely no significance whatever within the community of Christ’s body, in which Jesus’ death and resurrection have not only transformed our individual relationships with him but must also change our relationships with one another.
Perhaps the Corinthians couldn’t quite help bringing the world with them - any more than we can, when we come to Mass. That is why what happens here is so important, intended as it is to enable us to leave here different from how we came, to enable us to go beyond our individual self-enclosed limits and so bring something new to the world, something new and different from what we brought here with us from the world. For Jesus’ command to his disciples to do as he did is an invitation to a whole new way of life, made possible for us by what Jesus himself has already done on our behalf.
Back at the Last Supper, in the scene that follows next in John’s Gospel [John 13:27-30], Satan is said to have entered Judas, who, then, after taking a morsel of food from Jesus, left the Supper. How many times has Pope Francis warned us about the danger posed by Satan! The Devil, Pope Francis warned just about a year ago, “poisons us with the venom of hatred, desolation, envy, and vice” [Gaudete et Exsultate].
How well might Judas have benefited, had he heeded such a warning! Instead, we are told, he went out into the night – leaving behind Jesus and his disciples, the community that could have been his, in order to commit himself instead to Satan’s cause.
What was that morsel of food Judas had received from Jesus? Was it the Eucharist? What a warning there is for us in that! What a reminder of Saint Paul’s warning words to the Corinthians that we will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord for how we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
So too, for us now, as for Judas at the Lord’s Supper, how we depart from here may matter much more than how we arrive. What have we heard here, and what has happened to us here that has made us different from how we came? What kind of community have we become, thanks to the Lord’s Supper? In the constant competition for our attention and our loyalty, whose cause have we here committed ourselves to? What kind of people are we becoming? What kind of people do we want to become? What will we take with us from here to challenge and change this conflicted and divided world?
Homily for the Mass of the Lord's Supper, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 18, 2019.