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. It was their Independence Day, in a sense. For that meal they sacrificed an animal, a lamb if possible, and the blood of the lamb was marked on the doors of their homes as a sign that they belonged to God, so that God would protect them. They were saved by the blood of the lamb. We are also saved from eternal death, by the blood of the Lamb. The sacrifice of Jesus—the Lamb of God—was what saved us.
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 that he was holding, was his blood and that they should both eat and drink it themselves and repeat this ritual to remember him.
The second reading from St. Paul, is the oldest account of the mass in the Bible. Listen to what he says: ‘This is what I received from the Lord and in turn passed on to you…’ (1 Cor 11:23). ‘This is what I received from the Lord…’ Jesus revealed this directly to Paul after He had risen. He didn’t learn it from the other Apostles, but from Jesus. And that is reminding us that 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 Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and not a service. It is not just a religious service, but something quite unique.
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 were in disbelief and many left him. Jesus said, ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have life within you’ (John 6:53). Some of them said, ‘This is too much. Who could accept this?’ and many people stopped following him after that. But Jesus’ response is interesting. He didn’t go after them and say ‘Wait, let me explain!’ He just let them go. In fact the only response he gave was to ask the Apostles if they were going to leave too. He didn’t change anything He said. It is the same with the teachings of our faith. We don’t change them to keep people happy. We believe what we believe, because we believe it comes from God. It is not of human origin.
|A deacon being ordained to priesthood
Why did Jesus give us the Eucharist? I’m sure it was for at least two reasons. First, because He wanted us to know that He is intimately with us always. He is interested in the smallest details of our lives. We can receive the body and blood of Jesus into our own bodies, every day if we wish. Every time we celebrate the mass Jesus becomes present to us in the form of bread and wine. It is not just a symbol, or a reminder of him, but really and truly the body and blood of Jesus. It is beyond our understanding, but Jesus doesn’t ask us to understand it, only to believe in it.
Throughout the centuries God has given us many Eucharistic miracles to help us believe, where the consecrated bread and wine have actually turned into flesh and blood and they still exist for anyone to see. Some of these have been studied scientifically and have always been proved to be real human flesh: heart tissue.
The second reason is so that we could be present at the greatest events in history, the last supper and 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 cannot refuse, and that is why the mass is so powerful. It is the perfect prayer, the perfect sacrifice, which makes up for our inadequacies. And Jesus makes it possible for us to be present at this event every time we celebrate the holy 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. It would be a bit like the Pope visiting your house and then going in and cleaning the bathroom. You would be horrified. The Apostles were horrified. 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 others. 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.
Peter felt he could not allow Jesus 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.
Sometimes people tell me they feel they are unworthy to receive the Eucharist and I always assure them that they are right! They are unworthy to receive the Eucharist. All of us are. Naturally, we do everything we can to prepare as well as we can and to confess serious sins if we need to, but it is the Lord himself who makes it possible to receive him. And it is the Lord who wants us to receive him. That is why we begin every mass by acknowledging that we are sinners. The only way to come before God is by acknowledging the greatness of God and our unworthiness to be in his presence. Think also of the prayer that we say just before we receive the Eucharist, ‘Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’
When Jesus asked Peter if He could use his boat to preach from and afterwards worked the miracle of the huge catch of fish, Peter’s reaction was one of fear: ‘Leave me Lord, I am a sinful man.’ But Jesus’ response was one of reassurance. ‘Do not be afraid.’ This is also the approach that we should take. We are not worthy to ever be in God’s presence, let alone receive the body and blood of Jesus into our bodies, but it is the Lord who wants us to, which is why He gave us this wonderful gift. Jesus wants to be intimately close to us, in every aspect of our life and He has given us the opportunity to have him in our physical bodies. How great God’s love for us must be, to give us such a gift.
‘Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’