Tonight we celebrate a very special mass, the first mass, when Jesus took the bread and wine and told the disciples that this was his body and blood. It is also on this night the first priests were ordained. The Passover meal which they were celebrating was and is a very special meal for the Jewish people. It was the feast that remembered their being set free from slavery. During that meal they sacrificed an animal, a lamb if possible, and the blood of the lamb was marked on the doors of their houses as a sign that they belonged to God, so God would protect them. They were saved by the blood of the lamb.
During this meal Jesus did something totally unexpected, which has left us baffled ever since. He suddenly told them that the bread which was in his hands, was now his body, and the wine was his blood and that they should both eat and drink it themselves, and repeat this ritual to remember him. This is what St. Paul says in the second reading which is the oldest account of the mass in the Bible: ‘This is what I received from the Lord and in turn passed on to you…’ We did not invent what we call the mass; the Lord Jesus himself gave it to us directly and asked us to repeat it as a way of remembering him. That is why we never change it for something else. That is why we also call it the mass and not a service.
From the very first time that Jesus taught the people about receiving his body and blood, it caused division. It says in John’s Gospel that when he gave this teaching the people complained and said ‘This is too much. Who could accept this?’ and many people stopped following him after that. But he didn’t go after them and say ‘Wait, let me explain!’ He just let them go.
Why did Jesus give us the Eucharist? I’m sure it was for two reasons. First, because he wanted us to know that He is intimately with us always. We can receive the body and blood of Jesus into our own bodies every day if we wish. And so every time we celebrate the mass Jesus becomes present to us in the form of wine. It is not just a symbol, or a reminder, but this is really and truly the body of Jesus in an extraordinary way. This is completely beyond our understanding, but Jesus doesn’t ask us to understand it, only to believe in it.
The second reason is so that we could be present at the greatest event in history, the sacrifice of Calvary: the offering of God the Son to God the Father. That is what the mass is; the offering of God the Son to God the Father, an offering which the Father can not refuse, and that’s why the mass is so powerful. It is the perfect prayer, the perfect sacrifice which makes up for our inadequacies. Now Jesus makes it possible for us to be present at this event every time we celebrate mass.
Then another crucial thing happened. Jesus got down and washed the feet of the disciples, to teach them something. I always smile when anyone is asked to come up for the washing of the feet because if they do volunteer, you can be sure they will have carefully washed their feet, so really there is no need to wash them. But Jesus got down on his hands and knees and washed dirty, sweaty feet. Why did he do this? To show them that they were being called to a life of service. If he was prepared to serve them, they must also be prepared to serve everyone. That is what our work as priests is supposed to be about: it is meant to be one of service to the people. It is also the mindset that we are all called to have as Christians; service; looking after whoever is in need.
Now here is the essential thing. Peter’s reaction explained it all. Peter felt he could not allow Jesus the Lord, to wash his feet, because he was a sinner. He wanted to keep Jesus at a distance because he was a sinner. This is the typical reaction of most of us. We say ‘Leave me Lord I am a sinful man.’ We don’t really believe that God could love us as we are. We are afraid to allow God to come too close. But Jesus’ answer was to say that he ‘must’ do this. In other words he was saying ‘Peter, you must not allow your unworthiness to keep me from you.’ God is well aware of what we are like and all the things that we’ve done wrong, but it doesn’t stop him from loving us and even from washing our feet. For our part we must not be afraid to allow the Lord to come close to us either. He offers himself to us, so let us never be afraid. ‘This is my body which will be given up for you.’