Our faith is full of symbols, visible signs which remind us of invisible truths. So our first reading this evening told of the preparation of the Jewish people for their escape from slavery in Egypt. They were about to set out on a long journey and God ordered them to eat a special meal before doing so. The Church sees that escape from slavery in Egypt as a sign or symbol of our liberation from slavery to sin through the sacraments. Let me remind you that there are three sacraments specifically designed to free us from our sins. The first is Baptism. Most of us were baptized as children and probably have no recollection of it. It’s very different for adults who have asked for instruction and finally receive that sacrament which not only frees them from their sins, but also integrates them into the Christian community. Regrettably, few of us live absolutely blameless lives. Anticipating this, Jesus instituted the sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation through which we can obtain forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism. And then of course there is the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. Even if the Christian can no longer make a confession, this sacrament will take away his or her sins.
Scripture records many meals, and some of them can be read as signs of Holy Communion, the sacrament which itself builds and fortifies the Christian community. So all those people whom Moses was to lead out of Egypt had to gather together by households to eat the paschal lamb. They had to mark the posts and lintels of their doors with the blood of the lamb they were about to eat so that the exterminating angel would pass over their houses. Rashi of Troyes was a very learnèd mediaeval rabbi. He wondered about the fate of an Egyptian who happened to be in a Jewish household on that night, and decided that the Egyptian would be spared with the rest of the household. By contrast, a Jew who for some reason was visiting an Egyptian household – not marked with the blood of the lamb – would not be spared. In other words, eating the paschal lamb helped constitute the community of those who were saved.
A key element of our faith is our understanding of what Jesus did at the Last Supper. Our second reading just now, from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, is the oldest account we have of the institution of the Eucharist. Paul himself was not present at that meal, but listen again to what he writes: This is what I received from the Lord, and in turn passed on to you. In other words, at some time after Paul’s meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus, Jesus himself explained what the other disciples had experienced that night in the upper room. Jesus had taken some bread and said these words: This is my body, which is for you; do this as a memorial of me, and similar words over the wine.
We all know that when a priest has spoken these words at Mass there is no visible change to the bread or the wine. Remember though that God’s word is enough to make things happen. God said ‘Let there be light’ and there was light. The Irish Jesuit Raymond Moloney writes: “When Our Lord says ‘This is my body’, by that very fact the creative power of the word reaches down to the ultimate reality of the bread, so that it becomes the instrument of his presence for those who look beyond the appearances. Empirically there is no change, but existentially the bread and wine are drawn into the one plan of the Creator to address us through these gifts.”
Our Lord Jesus Christ is present in several ways at Mass. First of all, the congregation gathers in his name. Then he is present in the passages of Scripture that are read and expounded. He is present in the ordained priest who celebrates the Eucharist. He is present in a most solemn way in the bread and wine once the priest has spoken the words of consecration. He is present in all those who receive him in communion. When those people go out from the church at the end of the celebration, they carry him into the world.
You might say that the whole of Scripture is a record of God’s care for his people. In addition, it contains specific examples of God providing for that most basic of human needs: food. We see it in the regular provision of manna to the Hebrews wandering around the Sinai Peninsula. We see it when Jesus multiplied loaves and fishes for the people following him. And of course he taught us to recognize where our food comes from when he said we should pray: Give us this day our daily bread. There is a passage in Isaiah which presents heaven as a banquet: On this mountain, the Lord of Hosts will prepare for all peoples a banquet of rich food, a banquet of fine wines. Jesus clearly had something similar in mind when he said: I tell you that many will come from east and west to take their places with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob at the feast in the kingdom of heaven.
It is no exaggeration to say that the Mass is a stylized banquet which anticipates, symbolises and leads to that heavenly banquet. The New Testament contains four accounts of the institution of the Eucharist: St Paul’s, which we’ve already touched on, and those of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Curiously, St John does not mention this event, even though he provides a long account of the instructions which Jesus gave his disciples at the Last Supper, and he opens it with the incident which he alone relates, and which we have heard tonight: the washing of the disciples’ feet.
We have already mentioned the fact that sharing a meal helps to build community. Sharing the Eucharist is a vital part of building Church. Receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion draws us closer to Christ – but it also draws us closer to each other. After receiving Communion, we don’t sit around in church waiting for the last trump to sound. We return to our normal occupations, fortified by the grace of the sacrament. And we are expected to learn from today’s gospel. Jesus said: Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Master and Lord, and rightly; so I am. If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.
The Church itself is meant to be a sign or symbol of the community of the blessèd in the kingdom of heaven. God never ceases to care for us in word and sacrament. That is why he offers to strengthen us with the food he provides for our journey through life. After all, we have a task to perform: to carry his message to those who do not yet believe. (Quentin Howard)