Mass of the Last Supper

02 Apr 2015

Tonight’s Mass of the Last Supper marks the beginning of the Sacred Triduum, a three-day-long, more or less continuous Liturgy commemorating the saving events of Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection. We know that on the night before He died, Christ instituted the Eucharist and the Priesthood, as means of perpetuating His all-sufficing sacrifice for the salvation of the world and effecting our participation in it even as far away as Sydney, Australia, in 2015. As we walk with Him out into the darkness and on His way to the cross and tomb, we ask Him to ready us to rise with Him out of the graves of our sins and anxieties to new life at Easter.

Fed for trial and washed for burial
Homily for the Mass of the Last Supper
St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, Maundy Thursday, 2 April 2015


Tonight we recall the terrible story of the first Jewish Passover, when an angel smote the first-born sons of Egypt but passed over the children of Israel; the chronicle of salvation by sacrifice of a lamb, by blood painted on door-posts, by a ritual meal celebrated furtively at night and gobbled quickly while standing ready to flee into darkness, uncertainty but, hopefully, liberation.

Tonight we also recall the terrible story of the first Christian Passover, when men smote the first-born Son of God; the chronicle of salvation by sacrifice of a very different kind of Lamb, of Blood smeared not on lintels but on the lips of devotees, of a ritual meal celebrated furtively at night before going out into the darkness, uncertainty but hopefully resurrection. In this narrative the lamb of sacrifice is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” – Jesus – and it is immortalized not only by an annual commemoration but weekly, daily, hourly on our altars: the story of a young man beaten, nailed, hung naked and booed while He slowly suffocated and bled to death.

How far removed our celebration can seem from all that. Jewish seders today are family meals on comfy chairs, with a chicken bone as the sacrifice and horseradish cream for bitter herb. The Christian Passover is likewise celebrated in (relatively) comfortable churches, with fine vestments, vessels and song. And so, of course, it must be: every generation ritualizes and sanitizes, if only to cope with the ugly side of life and the awesomeness of God; our ceremonies unavoidably reduce the rawness of things like life and death, grief and hope. The risk is: we fail to take seriously enough what we ritualize; our domestication of the Mysteries let us think we’ve got them all sorted and under control.

We haven’t. Tonight Jesus “first fulfils the Law’s command” by gathering His ‘family’ for the annual Passover meal. Yet far from domesticating it, He utters strange and portentous words: this routine bread is… My Body; this wine for the toast is… My Blood; these guests… will betray Me. Jesus borrows a house and a Rite to create His Church, and it is deeply unsettling. Now He discomforts us further: abandoning all propriety, He removes His outer garment, gets down on the floor and plays slave to His inferiors. As a young fellow attending this ceremony in this very cathedral I was tapped on the shoulder to have my feet washed by Cardinal Freeman: I remember worrying how clean my feet were and being awed that an elderly prince of the Church would do this for a uni student, as a symbol of what Christ does and so we should do for everyone. Tonight the Pope will do it for prisoners. 

Year after year, on Maundy Thursday night, Christ subverts our neat ideas of God and man, life and death and afterlife, authority and service, to reveal what we conceal, to draw us deeper into mysteries we might rather not fathom. He holds His first Eucharist on borrowed premises because, like Christians so often since, the Son of Man is a refugee, with “nowhere to lay His head” – nowhere, that is, until tomorrow, when a wooden cross and stone tomb will be His bed. It’s far from the ideal of domestic concord, with disciples arguing about who is important and who traitor, drinking themselves so sleepy they cannot watch with Him even for an hour. Tonight Jesus joins the many for whom life is like that: whose daily grind is smelly feet and worse, whose relationships are fractured, who crawl a lonely path to the grave, wondering, as He did: will anyone remember Me? Will anyone accompany me? Will anyone stay awake and pray with me?

Tonight Jesus joins all those who live in terror of the night. He plunges into the dark chaos of the Kedron Valley to confront the Angel of Death, in the form of Judas and his army, the first persecutors of Christians. He takes us with Him. But first, to ready us for this ordeal, He washes and feeds us. Baptism washes away our sins and prepares our bodies for burial. Eucharist sustains us with Christ’s very substance and prepares our souls for trial – for the ordeals of human life until our Last Communion, Viaticum or journey-food, for our own passage into the valley of death.

In an article in the London Tablet writer Paul Johnson reminisced about his school days when, as a cadet, he wore puttees and a peaked cap, brass buttons and shining boots. On the Feast of Corpus Christi the boys provided a Sovereign’s Guard of Honour at High Mass, not to glorify military service or earthly sovereignty, but to mark the Real Presence of the King of kings in their chapel and His power to turn swords into ploughs, rifles into ex votos. Boys lined the aisle with rifles and, as the Consecration approached, marched up to the altar and greeted the Host held on high with the Present Arms. Then, at Solemn Benediction in the evening, two thousand candles were arranged on the altar of the pitch dark chapel, unlit but linked by a thin thread of gun-cotton. At a signal from the MC the outermost candle on each side was lit and the flames leapt from one to another until the entire vast altar was incandescent.

As we approach the centenary of ANZAC, we recall other young men who wore puttees and slouch hats, brass buttons and shining boots, who carried rifles and gun-cotton to a futile battle that left more than 10,000 ANZACs and 53,000 British and French troops dead on one side and a similar number of Ottoman Turks dead on the other. It was a military disaster in a war that failed to end all wars. On the very eve of that first ANZAC Day also began the Armenian genocide, in which up to 1.5 million people were killed, reducing Christians from 20% of the Turkish population to only 0.2% today. When Christ ventured out into the darkness of Gethsemane He knew He was going to His death and that many Christians would join Him as martyrs thereafter. With the rise of the evil ‘Islamic State’ death cult, the ‘cleansing’ of Christians from the Middle East has accelerated and they are persecuted in other places too.

Nor are Australians exempt. Our own servicemen have been injured or died amongst those trying to contain terrorism. Incredibly, some Aussies have joined the jihadis. And the Martin Place siege, only a few blocks away, brought these conflicts very close to home. There have been other, hopefully isolated incidents, of attacks on or threats to churches, synagogues, priests and nuns in our own country in recent times. We ask: are human beings doomed to keep crucifying each other? Can human ingenuity not be put to better ends than cruelty to our fellows? Can spears be made into pruning hooks? Can we build a civilization of life and love, instead of lies and hate?

Tonight there will be no final blessing, no dismissal, because our Mass continues through the Passion tomorrow afternoon to the Easter light on Saturday night. Only then will a full answer to our questions emerge. For now, we see that our hero is no ordinary sovereign, as He kneels to wash His disciples’ feet and feeds them His own substance. He is no military champion, as He falls again to the ground in the garden, sweating blood in terror and praying for relief. He is no vengeful Lord, as He calls down mercy on those who arrest and crucify Him. Tonight He tells Peter and us in Gethsemane to “put away the sword”. No angel of death, then, no terrorist or executioner, His profession is to save and salve and reconcile; His weapons, washing and feeding and forgiving; His backup troops, weeping women and a Father-God present even when seeming absent. And His greeting is always Shalom Aleichem, peace be with you.