This evening the Church begins its celebration of the Paschal feast, of Jesus's journey from this world to the Father bringing with him the host of redeemed human beings united to himself in one body. This is the central theme of our celebration and it is announced by Jesus in the opening words of the Gospel passage.
Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
We are about the celebrate the supreme act of Jesus's love for all those the Father has given him, an act through which the very nature of God shone forth in our world as never before, an act which he holds up to us as the example and pattern to which are lives must be conformed.
Jesus himself entered into this act with the sublime confidence of one who knows he is the beloved Son, 'knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God.. . .' But from the human point of view it is a dark and dismal night on which sinful human beings unite in various ways with the powers of hell to perpetrate a great injustice.
Not only had the devil already put it into the heart of Judas to betray him, but Luke tells us that even at this solemn hour the disciples were still arguing about who was the greatest among them. Not only was Peter about the deny any association with Jesus, but all were about to desert him in his hour of trial. How can he bring this ignorant, fickle, and sinful group to grasp the depth of the mystery in which he has involved them?
On three different occasions Jesus had tried to prepare his disciples for the events which were now imminent, of his arrest, his cruel execution and his triumphant resurrection, but they had shown themselves unwilling and unable to understand him. Now in his last meal with them he uses prophetic actions which they will remember and through which they will eventually come to understand the meaning of this great event. We too in our turn, through the repetition of these prophetic actions of Jesus, must learn not only to understand but to unite ourselves with his passing from this world to the Father.
In the first place, as St. Paul tells us,
he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, 'This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.'
Flesh and blood, these are the elements of sacrifice. They were to understand that the ghastly execution which was to take place the following day, was not simply a tragedy of human wickedness but a sacrifice, the sacrifice in which the blood poured out seals the new covenant between God and human beings, a covenant by which God will put his law within them, and will write it upon their hearts; and he will be their God, and they shall be his people, and know him, from the least of them to the greatest, for he will forgive their iniquity, and will remember their sin no more.
As they ate their portion of the bread which he had made into his body, he joined them to himself in one body, so that he could offer them in himself on the morrow as the fulfilment of the work which the Father had given him.
Saint John tells us that he performed a second prophetic action. He humbled himself, making himself their slave and washing their feet. He portrays his coming agony as the work of a servant who cleanses them for the heavenly banquet by plunging them into his own death and raising them with him without stain or wrinkle. Later in his talk with them at the table he will compare the agony of his death to the work of a servant who prepares rooms for the guests. He came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for the multitude.
Jesus has left us an example that would have been familiar to his readers from the stories about the Jewish martyrs in the time of the Maccabees. If he loved us to the bitter end of his passion and death, then we must love one another, because it is precisely through such love that we shall be alive with the new life which he has won for us.
In the coming days we are called to share by faith in Jesus's knowledge of his Father's plan and our place in it, to understand the meaning of his death into which we have been plunged through baptism. Uniting us with himself through the Holy Spirit, Jesus has enabled us to share in his own love of his human brothers and sisters to the bitter end. In that love, following his awesome example, we are to live and know the blessing of true life. 'If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.'