Homily preached by the Most Reverend Malcolm McMahon OP, Archbishop of Liverpool, at the Mass of the Lord's Supper. Livestreamed from the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King Liverpool at 7pm on Thursday 9 April 2020.
Watch the Mass at the Metropolitan Cathedral, Liverpool
The faith that we celebrate during these days of Holy Week has always had a down-to-earth dimension. Suffering, struggle and failure have been the fabric of our history, fashioning our identity.
The Passover feast which Jesus was celebrating with his disciples at the Last Supper commemorates the night of the departure from Egypt and the great trek towards the land of promise, towards their God. It involved new beginnings, sustenance on the journey, and solidarity together. At the Last Supper the little community of disciples was falling to pieces. There was a strange sense of foreboding in that upper room. There was mention of betrayal, lack of trust; who is it? Is it I, Lord? Just when it all seemed hopeless, Jesus took the unleavened bread into his hands, saying: ‘This is my body given for you.’ He asked his disciples to take it and eat it. He signalled a new beginning; it was food for their life’s journey; it was a statement of solidarity as one people. He also took the chalice and said 'this is my blood poured out for you', for the forgiveness of sins.
Blood has quite a part to play in our story and in tonight’s liturgy. The roots of the Jewish Passover go right back in the history of God’s chosen people to when they were nomadic tribes, perhaps even before the captivity in Egypt. The nomads would be celebrating a spring festival at this time of year when they set off for new pastures with their sheep. When they stopped at night, they would put a circle of lamb’s blood around their tents as a sign of defence to ward off the power of death, which was encountered far too often in the desert. It explains why Israel still celebrated the day dressed in pilgrim clothes, as if ready to set off, and eating nomads’ food: lamb, bitter herbs and unleavened bread. Furthermore, as we heard in the first reading tonight, the doorposts were daubed with blood to ward off the angel of death. Passover for the Jewish people is a continual reminder of the time when Israel was a wandering, homeless people. Of course, the great events of the original Passover made them not simply free but a people, a nation with a promised land.
In Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection, we too are made free, free from sin, and become the new people of God. By shedding his blood Jesus has set us free from the danger of death and given us new life.
Furthermore, the ancient fathers of the Church tell us that as Jesus’ blood fell from his side and dripped to the ground, it sanctified the land and made creation holy once again, like a libation of the first of the new wine poured into the earth to ensure its fertility. It is by Jesus’ blood that we are redeemed!
So what is Jesus saying? This is me, this is who I am, this is how I have lived; take me, body and blood, within yourselves and feed your souls, minds and hearts on me. Jesus is summarising his total life – he was ‘given’ to others, he lived ‘at the service’ of others. He saw himself ‘like bread’, in that people fed off him, were nourished by listening to him, by paying attention to him. The bread was a symbol carrying something far richer – his whole person, character and approach to life. Eating the bread is a way of declaring openly one’s acceptance of the life and mind of Jesus. But so too was Jesus’ blood.
Jesus’ action speaks of loving kindness, mercy, tenderness and compassion. It speaks of a God whose heart was capable of being deeply moved when confronted by human suffering and need. This is a God with ‘a heart of flesh’, a heart that bleeds. This is a love that washes feet; it speaks of a body that is given for us, and of blood poured out for us. It speaks of someone who is true and faithful. Jesus expresses the constant fidelity of God’s love for us, a love on which we can afford to depend, a love that could be trusted.
In the context of the Last Supper, John, whose gospel we have heard, has Jesus perform an action. This action underlines the meaning of the Eucharist with a basin and towel. With the water he washes the feet of his disciples, wiping them with a towel. In the culture of the day, washing of the feet was a welcome into the home and life of the one performing the washing. It becomes for Jesus a profound offering of intimacy and communion.
This is re-enacted not just when we celebrate our Eucharist, but also when we gather to share what we have – when we do even small things that speak of human dignity and hope.
In our wounded world faced with our fragile limitations, we need to be guided towards our final goal. That goal is Christ himself who conquered sin and death and who makes himself truly present to us sacramentally in the Eucharist. Even though we remain aliens and exiles in this world, pilgrims, nomads on a journey, through faith we already share Christ’s life. In the Eucharist he comes to the aid of our freedom as we continue our journey.
Each one of us can identify at various times with the uncertainty and confusion of the disciples at the Last Supper, whether as parents, married, separated, single, religious or priest. We bring with us to our Eucharist various crosses and crises, disappointments and frustrations, worries and anxieties. In a time of disorientation and uncertainty, like the present moment when we are under threat from a virus, but more generally when we have become too dependent on the things of this world – when we have lost our bearings – we need the sustaining, supportive presence of the Eucharist. We need the divine food of the Eucharist given to us by the Lamb whose blood redeemed the sheep.
Only within the challenges of life do we humans uncover the divine dimension of compassion, forgiveness, love, and joy that lie in the depths of our hearts. It is in this sense of discovering the riches within that in the Eucharist we meet the God in whose image and likeness we were created.