On the very morning after Pope Francis was elected I was working on my computer, with a phone-in show on the radio playing in the background. Listeners were sharing their views on the Catholic Church, and two of them particularly drew my attention; funny enough they were phoned in one after the other. One accused the Church of sticking to the Bible literally, while the other of abandoning the Bible completely. The latter opinion was supported by the example of Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice paid once and for all on the cross, therefore making the celebration of Mass totally redundant and contradictory to the New Testament. Surely that listener misunderstood the Eucharist as some other sacrifice, different to that of Jesus Christ’s. Tonight we have gathered here to celebrate not just a Mass, but the very moment of its institution at the Lord’s Last Supper. Perhaps it’s a good moment to ask what actually the Eucharist means to us.
Tonight’s first reading is quite a detailed instruction manual on celebrating the first Passover by the Jewish community enslaved in Egypt. It listed all the requirements that had to be met in preparing the paschal lamb and the meal to follow. But their Passover was not about food – somehow the meal was a by-product of something more important; let me recall a short passage: ‘some of the sheep’s blood must be put on the two door posts and the lintel of the houses. The blood shall serve to mark the house that you live in. When I see the blood I will pass over you and you shall escape the destroying plague when I strike the land of Egypt.’ The meaning of that Passover was the sacrifice that saved their lives and opened widely the way to the Promised Land. That one singular event is the very core of the Jewish religious tradition. There’s something special about it; let’s listen carefully: ‘this day is to be a day of remembrance for you, and you must celebrate it as a feast in the Lord’s honour.’ Over the generations Jewish people have celebrated the Passover, and they still do, as the night of their own release from Egypt. In their annual celebration they make that one time event present in their own lives.
Jesus instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist in that tradition and understanding. At the last supper he announced his ultimate sacrifice which was to be fulfilled the very next day on the cross, where and when the very first Mass was celebrated. That sacrificial death of Jesus is the very core, the axis of Christian religion. Each celebration of Mass makes that one ultimate sacrifice present in the lives and circumstances of those taking part. It’s not a depressive memory of the event from the long gone past, but it is making that event present and effective in our ‘here and now.’
The Passover of the Old Testament freed the people of Israel from slavery and persecution. Geographically they left Egypt behind, yet stayed there mentally. Jesus’ self-humiliating gesture of washing the feet, described in tonight’s gospel, found its completion in his voluntary death. We hear his words said by a priest at every single Mass: ‘this is my body given up for you; this is my blood poured out for you; do this in memory of me.’ These words are an invitation to accept Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice, but also an invitation to follow his example and to sacrifice our own lives. Jesus on the cross freed us from our own selfishness, which pushes us to seeking dominance and significance at the cost of those around us. Eucharist makes that freedom possible.
As you can see, Mass may be only a boring ritual without any significance, fulfilled only out of duty. But it may be a deep and intense meeting with Jesus giving himself up for our sake on the cross and therefore making sense of our own everyday small sacrifices.