In the Gospel of John, the concept of the ‘hour’ has a specific significance. At the Wedding at Cana, when the Mother of Jesus draws his attention to the fact that “They have no wine”, Jesus comes up with the very sharp reply, “My hour has not come yet” (Jn 2:4). But the Mother of Jesus continues to act as if the hour has already begun to come. In a sense she ushers in the hour. During the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, Jesus assures her, “Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” (Jn 4:21). Today’s gospel text introduces the last supper with these words: “knowing that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father” (Jn 13:1), Jesus sat at table with his disciples. Later during the long prayer after supper, Jesus would raise his eyes to heaven and say: “Father, the hour has come: glorify your Son so that your Son may glorify you” (Jn 17:1).
So, what is this ‘hour’? It is the hour of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. These three events are together referred to as the ‘Paschal Mystery’. It is going to be a difficult hour for Jesus, but it is also the hour of glorification. It is also the hour when Jesus will pass from this world to the Father. It is this hour that we are beginning to celebrate today in the Easter Triduum. The liturgy of these days invites us to accompany Jesus in his suffering, death and resurrection. One of the memorials that constantly remind us of this ‘hour’ is the Eucharist.
They were at supper (Jn 13:2): Eucharist as a meal
Today as we recall the celebration of the last supper, we also commemorate the institution of the Eucharist. The earliest form of Christian worship was to commemorate the last supper – the Lord’s Supper. That is to say, every Sunday evening when the early Christians gathered in the homes of people to recall the resurrection of Jesus, they simply broke bread together reliving the last supper. This is the tradition that St Paul recalls in the second reading of today from his first letter to the Corinthians (1Cor 11:20-34). The second reading reminds us that the Eucharistic celebration is a meal – a table fellowship; and the Eucharist is bread and wine –objects of food. It is important not to forget this simple truth.
Why did Jesus choose the context of a meal to institute the Eucharist? Why did he choose food as the Eucharist? In the Hebrew tradition, as is the case in most cultures, having a meal is a moment of bonding. Therefore, the Bible, particularly the New Testament, has many references to meal as a moment of building relationship between us and God/Jesus:
- In the Book of Revelations (3:20): “Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in to share a meal at that person’s side.”
- The occasions when Jesus feeds the multitude (Mt 14: 15-21; Mt 15:32-38; Mk 6:35-44; Mk 8:1-9; Lk 9:12-14) were forerunners of this eschatological meal. This symbolism is very explicitly explained after the feeding of the multitude in the Gospel of John. Jesus would make an open statement: “I am the bread of life. No one who comes to me will ever hunger; no one who believes in me will ever thirst” (Jn 6: 35).
Why did Jesus choose bread (a common food object in his culture) to make this statement: to illustrate the possible communion between him and the people he loves. To me this is very simple, yet very deep. The food I consume becomes part of me. It becomes part of my flesh and blood. So this is what happens when I partake of the Eucharist. God becomes part of me; and I become part of Him. This mystery is well encapsulated in the prayer that the priest silently utters when he mixes a drop of water in the wine when he prepares the chalice for the offertory:
By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.
This holy exchange is what makes the Eucharist a tremendous wealth in our Christian tradition. And it is the institution of this mystery that we celebrate today.
Do this as a memorial of me (1Cor 11:25): Eucharist as a sacrificial meal
The meal in which Jesus offered up his body and blood as our food, is also the precursor of the sacrifice on Calvary. Already Letter to the Romans sees the death of Jesus by shedding of blood as a sacrifice offered for reconciliation (Rom 3:25). Therefore Christian tradition developed a theology of the Eucharist as a sacrifice. The Eucharistic Prayers, particularly the first Eucharistic prayer, strongly allude to this understanding. It is in this context that the role of the priest is recognised. Therefore we commemorate today also the institution of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. There is no Eucharist without the priest, and there is no priesthood without the Eucharist.
During some centuries in the history of the Church, the sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist was given more importance even to the detriment of the meal aspect. The 2nd Vatican Council has attempted to correct this anomaly. Looked at very deeply, there is no sacrifice without a meal. What do we see in the anthropology of sacrifice? From among the creation of God, humans offer Him something – often objects of food. Once offered to God, it becomes consecrated – set apart – divine. In a sense, since God cannot eat it He gives it back to humans. Human beings partake of that sacrificial food and thus experience ‘communion’ with God. This is the gist of the meaning of the Eucharist as a sacrificial meal.
He then began to wash the disciples’ feet (Jn 13:5): Living the Eucharist
Interestingly, the Gospel of John has no narration of the institution of the Eucharist. The institution narrative is found in the Synoptic Gospels (Mt 26:26-28; Mk 14:22-24; Lk 22:17-22) and in St Paul which we heard read today (1Cor 11:23-26). The Evangelist John highlights the washing of the feet in the context of the last supper. He perhaps wants to point out the implication of the Eucharist in our daily life: sharing in the one bread and one cup invites us to honour the dignity of every individual, because potentially everyone is capable of being raised to share in the divinity of Christ. The experience of the Eucharist has to be carried forward to our daily life: at home, to our places of work, in the streets and the market places. The parting words of the priest at the end of the Eucharist – “Go in the Peace of Christ”- is a counsel to continue to live the Eucharist.
Let the feast of today move us towards a better appreciation of the Eucharistic celebration and the Sacrament of Eucharist.