With this festive celebration this evening, the Church begins the first of three dramatic days – the first devoted to Christ crucified, the second to Christ buried, and the third to Christ risen. We will end this first day, some 24 hours from now, with Mary at the foot of the cross, but we begin by remembering the most memorable meal in all of human history.
Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. It could have been just another ordinary evening meal, one day before the annual feast of the Passover. Probably none of the disciples would have imagined, even then, that by the time the Passover holiday began on Friday night, Jesus would be buried in a stranger’s tomb. Yet this would be a meal like none other, and would become the most remembered and repeated meal in all of history – for the hour had come for Jesus to pass from this world to the Father, the hour to which Jesus’ whole life and ministry had been directed from the start.
A certain air of anxiety, a certain feeling of foreboding, fills the scene. The devil, we are told, had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand Jesus over. This would be Jesus’ formal farewell meal with his disciples. Jesus, as we know from so many stories in the gospels, ate many meals in his public life, often very publicly and with all sorts of people present. This meal, however, was reserved for those most closely associated with him, those who would be sent out to continue his mission from then on. For them, this Last Supper of Jesus would be the first Lord’s Supper of the Church.
And so our interest naturally turns to the cast of characters present at the Last Supper. Besides Jesus himself, three others are mentioned individually in the Gospel we just heard – the devil, Judas, and Peter.
We last encountered the devil exactly 40 days ago in the account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert – at the end of which, we were told, the devil left him. But now he was back - having induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand Jesus over. Once again, however, Jesus took the initiative. Before letting himself be handed over, he handed himself over to his Church in the sacrament of his Body and Blood and arranged for the Church to continue this sacrament through the ministry of its priests.
Having been induced to do the devil’s work for him, Judas quickly earned for himself the opprobrium of the greatest traitor in human history, his name a virtual synonym for treachery. Books and movies have speculated about his motivation. Perhaps, like the unfortunate source of the worst security breach in US history (about whom a movie was made a few years ago), Judas may have felt his cleverness insufficiently appreciated. Whatever! In the decisive decisions of our life, it is our actions that ultimately reveal who we really are and what we really care about.
Thus, at the Last Supper, in the scene that follows next in John’s Gospel, Satan is said to have entered Judas, who, after taking a morsel of food from Jesus, left at once, into the night – leaving behind the community that could have been his, the company of Jesus and his disciples, in order to commit himself instead to Satan’s cause. So too, at the Lord’s Supper, how we depart from here may matter more than how we arrive. What kind of community have we become a part of at the Lord’s Supper? Whose cause are we committed to?
Such was the import of Paul’s account of the Lord’s Supper in his 1st letter to the Corinthians, from which we just also heard – and explains why that earliest written account of what happened at the Last Supper was set in the context of a complaint by Paul, Paul’s criticism of the Corinthians’ behavior, telling them that they were missing the point of the Lord’s Supper, to their peril.
The third major character in tonight’s gospel account is Peter. As portrayed in the Gospel, Jesus’ final conversation with Judas seemed subdued, almost private. His dialogue with Peter, however, was quite different. So, in responding to Peter’s resistance to being washed by Jesus, in challenging Peter to allow his imagination to be stretched somewhat and not to withdraw from the community (the way Judas did), Jesus appealed through Peter to us.
Witnessing Peter’s initial resistance, we will, of course, remember Lent’s 2nd Sunday and recall Peter’s behavior at the Transfiguration, typically blurting out the first thought that came into his head – until a voice from the cloud commanded “This is my beloved Son … listen to him.” The important thing about Peter’s behavior at the Last Supper is that – unlike Judas – Peter did listen, his assertive protestations giving way to a complete conversion.
In the short term, Peter’s conversion was not quite so complete as it immediately may have seemed – quickly collapsing in the sad scandal of his sinful denial. But the lesson Peter had learned by listening to Jesus at the Last Supper soon brought him back through real repentance and recommitment, leading him in time to a heroic ministry and martyrdom in Rome. In other words, Peter not only came back, but, once back, once he had returned, he stayed, showing us the uniquely transforming effect of forgiveness – in his life and in the life of the Church Jesus had appointed Peter (and his successors) to lead. Judas, in contrast, didn’t come back. Whereas Peter’s remorse returned him to Jesus and resulted in forgiveness, Judas instead rejected Jesus. Having lost all faith in forgiveness, Judas instead died in his shame.
Before receiving Holy Communion, the priest at Mass prays silently: Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, by the will of the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit your death brought life to the world. By your holy body and blood free me from all my sins, and from every evil. Keep me faithful to your teaching, and never let me be parted from you.
Sadly for him, Judas apparently chose to be parted from Jesus. If only he had listened and learned at that Last Supper. Peter, in contrast, both listened and learned – fortunately for him, and for us, the Church Christ commissioned Peter to lead, the Church in which (as Peter’s successor Pope Benedict has recently reminded us) “Jesus’ action becomes ours, because he is acting in us” [Jesus of Nazareth Part Two, p. 63].
Sometimes Jesus did things that had obvious meaning to people - like riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, fulfilling a well-known prophecy about the Messiah’s arrival. Sometimes, however, as at the Last Supper, he did things that were somewhat strange and certainly unexpected. We still remember and commemorate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, but only once a year. The Eucharist, on the other hand, we celebrate every day. Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper, initially so confusing and disconcerting to Peter (but then welcomed and embraced by him) were meant to illustrate in advance what Jesus’ Passion was all about – and what this Lord’s Supper is meant to signify for us, who, like Peter, keep coming back for forgiveness, and (constantly transformed by forgiveness) are to continue Christ’s reconciling life and work in the world as his Church.
In 1st-century Corinth, however, among those to whom St. Paul’s account of the Last Supper was originally addressed, all was not well in the Church. The few verses read tonight are part of a longer text (which used to be read in its entirety at this Mass), which provides the context for Paul’s account, highlighting the Corinthians’ conflicts, dissensions, and factions – in short, their unfortunate failure to be transformed by the Eucharist, to be taken to someplace new, as Peter was at the Last Supper. St. Paul certainly understood that social and class distinctions were an integral part of Roman society – as in all societies. He wasn’t asking his hearers to pretend that the laws of economics had suddenly been repealed and that such distinctions had disappeared or no longer mattered in the world, but he did want them to understand that those distinctions have no significance within the community of Christ’s body, in which Jesus’ sacrificial death has transformed not only our individual relationship with him but our relationship with one another.
In the very act of celebrating this sacrament, as we stand, sit, and kneel together as one body, we profess our union with Benedict, our Pope, Richard, our bishop, and all who hold and teach the catholic faith that comes to us from the apostles.
In the Eucharist, Christ is truly, really, and substantially present. The Christ we receive in Holy Communion and adore in the tabernacle does not flee from our failures, any more than Jesus fled from Judas at the Last Supper. Christ continues to be present in the Eucharist - even in spite of our conflicts, dissensions, factions, and other failures. But, as St. Paul so pointedly warned the Corinthians (and, through them, is still warning us), our conflicts, dissensions, factions, and other failures do get in the way of where the Eucharist is supposed to be taking us.
This beautiful 125-year old building and all that happens within it – and the somewhat less beautiful building next door and all that happens there, and indeed everything that goes on in Christ’s name in our parish community – all that is centered on, and derived from, and empowered by what happens at this altar (and all the other altars around the Catholic world). This is where it all comes together, and where we all can come together in a way we would never otherwise have done – and, again like Peter at the Last Supper, be taken where we would never otherwise have gone.
As Pope Benedict has recently written: “with the Eucharist, the Church herself was established. Through Christ’s body, the Church became one, she became herself, and at the same time, through his death, she was opened up to the breadth of the world and its history” [Jesus of Nazareth: Part Two, p. 138].
Proclaiming the death of the Lord until he comes, the Eucharist is the very heart of the Church’s life. It is, as we say, the sacrament that makes the Church.
Homily for Holy Thursday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 21, 2011.