Maundy Thursday, 2011
It’s hard for us to bring together everything happening tonight. There is so much.
As a great back-drop, like a tapestry on a wall of the Upper Room, there is the Exodus. It was God’s great act of freeing Israel from Egypt, already 1300 years old by the time of Christ.
There is the commemoration of the Exodus in the Passover, prescribed by Moses, as we heard in the 1st reading.
There’s Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist, and with that of the priesthood.
There’s the washing of the feet - and everything else in this last meal with his friends, not least the commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us.
And all around is the night - the night of betrayal, the night into which Judas goes.
We can see the lamps on the wall, the table and the couches, the bitter herbs and the sauces, the bread and the cups of wine, the faces of the disciples passing from shade to light and back again. And the Master in their midst.
‘Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to pass from this world to the Father,’ says St John (13:1). It is in the light of this Exodus of Jesus, I think, that everything holds together.
Israel, gathered in its households, had its last meal in Egypt, and then set out. Now Christ is going forth on his Exodus. He is bringing the original Exodus to its true completion: not in the milk and honey of the promised Land, not in a material Temple, but in an eternal sight and touch and taste of his God and Father in the temple of his Risen Body. In this Exodus, Christ is the way; he’s the paschal Lamb; he is the new Moses; he is the pillar of cloud and fire; he is the manna and the rock. He washes the disciples’ feet in the Red Sea of his passion so that they can walk after him, and by serving one another help each other on the way. He changes the bread into his body and wine into his blood, so that they will not die of hunger and thirst on the way, or devour one another. His is the real Exodus. It is his passing from this world to the Father, and - the same thing - his love to the end. As the Holy Father puts it in his recent book: ‘Love is the very process of passing over, of transformation, of stepping outside the limitations of fallen humanity - in which we are all separated from one another and ultimately impenetrable to one another - into an infinite otherness. “Love to the end” is what brings about the seemingly impossible [passover / exodus]: stepping outside the limits of [our] closed individuality...breaking through into the divine’ (Jesus of Nazareth, II, Holy Week, pp. 54-55).
And this love invents the Eucharist. ‘In the sacrament of the Eucharist’, writes a contemporary Benedictine, ‘Jesus emerges from his personal individuality and shines forth as a corporate person in his body the Church. He is mystically ‘distributed’ by the power of the Holy Spirit, taking up his dwelling place in the hearts of individual human beings and making them one in unity and love...Only love could have devised such a marvellous method of self-transcendence, allowing Christ to go out from himself, exiting from his single, individual being so as to become present in millions of individuals, making them..“one body, one Spirit in Christ” (Gregory Collins, Meeting Christ in his Mysteries, pp. 179-180).
When Israel left Egypt, it was to enter a relationship. The goal of the Exodus was the Covenant, with its refrain, ‘They shall be my people and I shall be their God’; the Covenant sealed by the sprinkling of the blood of slaughtered oxen. And tonight over the wine, Jesus says, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood.’ There is a unique magnificence to Jesus tonight. He rises to his Hour. He rises above everything immediately around him. He looks beyond his own suffering and death, beyond the Cross, to what it will bring about. ‘I do not pray for them only [the disciples], he says, but for all who through their word will believe in me, that they may all be one’ (Jn 17:20-21); And this blood ‘will be shed’ not just for them, but ‘for the many.’ And so ‘we who are many’ will become ‘one body’. He sees beyond betrayal and denial, beyond sin, to forgiveness. He sees beyond hatred and division to reconciliation and unity. He looks past history and sees the End. He sees a new heaven and earth, and new creation. He sees all this, and thanks the Father. And, as he does so, this small group, this small room in a small city, is no longer hemmed in and besieged by the night. It expands. It expands within him. It enlarges to embrace every eucharistic celebration till he comes. The Upper Room opens onto the great banquet of the heavenly Jerusalem. And, wonder of wonders, as it does, it doesn’t lose its intimacy; it keeps it. None of us can live without being known of, thought of, loved. And tonight - the tradition is sure - each of us is known of, thought of, loved by Christ. He draws each of us into his body. He gives each of us the surety of resurrection. In the Garden he would accept the cup of our sinfulness, the horror of each of us. But already in the Upper Room he had prepared the cup of his love. It is there before and after all our unloveliness.
And in the strength of that love, of this Body and Blood, we too can go into the night: not the night Judas went into, the night of himself, but the night of faith and hope in Another. We too can make the Exodus, behind him, the Exodus of the love of God and one another.
Fr. Hugh, O.S.B.