Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ - Year B
Mark 14:12-16, 22-26
Bishop Untener's Homily
To help us catch hold of the truest and deepest meaning of the Eucharist, I'm going to pose a strange scenario.
Let's imagine that Jesus did everything we read about in the Gospels except for one thing: There was no Last Supper. Pretend, in fantasy, that on the Thursday before Good Friday, Jesus and his disciples spent all day in the city, and then simply went to the Mount of Olives in the evening and had some leftovers. And there never was a meal where Jesus took bread and wine and said, ”This is my body... This is my blood... Do this in memory of me."
In this imaginary scenario, that’s the only thing left out. Everything else is the same. Jesus is arrested in Gethsemane, condemned to death, crucified, and on the third day rises from the dead. The one and only thing missing is the Last Supper itself.
If that were the case, what would be different for us today? Let's do some brainstorming and identify some of the differences.
- We wouldn't have the Mass. (True. We'd probably still gather on Sundays, the day of the resurrection, but the service would simply be a Gathering Rite, a Liturgy of the Word, and then a Dismissal Rite.)
- There would only be six sacraments.
- In Holy Week, there would be no Holy Thursday rituals. (Yes. The foot washing was part of the Last Supper and closely tied into the Eucharist. If there were no Last Supper, there would be no foot washing.)
- There would be no altar in this church building... and no tabernacle. (True. The shape of this church building would probably be very different, more like an auditorium.)
- We wouldn't be able take Communion to the sick and the homebound.
- There would be no First Communion. (True. And there'd be no "last Communion" either - no Viaticum for the dying.)
- There would be no Benediction, no Forty Hours. (That's true, but remember that the Church was without them for most of its history. Benediction didn't begin until the 15th century, and Forty Hours in the 16th century.)
The Heart of the Matter
All those are correct. But none of them gets to the heart of the matter.
Jesus celebrated the Last Supper for our sake. He didn't need to do it for God's sake. He accomplished everything he came to do by becoming one of us, by proclaiming the Reign of God, by living the life he lived, by his words and miracles, by accepting death, by going through death to a transformed human life, by and sending the Spirit upon us. All this was God's great act of love toward us.
If that is so, then why did Jesus do those rituals at the Last Supper? That gets to the heart of the matter. Jesus did this so that we could enter into what Jesus did.
At the Eucharist, what Jesus did - which was ultimately expressed in his dying and rising - all that Jesus did is made present to us... so that we can enter into it. We believe that the Eucharist is the "live" re-presentation of what Jesus has done and still is doing: Giving himself completely to the Father. It is not something simply remembered... not something simply represented through symbol... not a way making the merits of Jesus spill over onto us. It is made present to us so that we can enter into it.
And that's what would be missing if there were no Last Supper. We would not be able to "do this" in memory of Him.
The Declaration of Independence was a great event, and it is over and done with. We can honor the memory of the people who signed it. We can watch a re-enactment of the signing in a documentary film. We can go to the National Archives in Washington and look at the original. We can even buy a facsimile of the original and have it in our home. But in all of this we are looking to a past event and remembering it.
Now let's imagine that the signing of the Declaration of Independence was open-ended, and you and I could still go and sign it. Imagine that the first 56 signers of the Declaration decided that they would leave it open for anyone who wished to sign on, and this would continue to be open for succeeding generations.
What a huge difference that would make - the difference between going to Washington and looking at the document... and going to Washington and saying, "I want to add my name to that," and then signing the document as one of the official signatories. That gives a hint of what Jesus did for us at the Last Supper, and what we do at the Eucharist.
Jesus gave us the Eucharist so that his great act of love, expressed ultimately in giving his entire life to the Father... so that this great act would be made present to us and so that we could join with him in doing it.
If Jesus had not given us, in the Last Supper, what we call the "words of institution" ("This is my Body... This is my Blood), and if Jesus had not instituted the continuance of this ritual ("Do this in memory of me"), we would not have the opportunity to join "live" with Jesus in his dying and rising. We could remember it, give thanks for it... but not actually enter into it.
When we recognize this difference, we begin to realize how wondrous the Eucharist is. Time and space dissolve and the great act of love of Jesus is made present to us... not so that we can simply watch it, reverently remember it, but so that we can enter into it. If we did not have the Eucharist, we would not have the doorway to enter into what Jesus did in his life, death and resurrection.
The words and actions of the Eucharist express all this. Perhaps we need to be more aware of their meaning.
- In the Eucharistic prayer, after "This is my Body... this is my Blood," there is always a prayer expressing the offering of ourselves with Christ. The wording of one of the prayers expresses this very clearly: "Therefore, we ask you, Father, to accept us, together with your Son."
- Every Eucharistic prayer ends with the Bread and Cup being held up high to God, and the sung or spoken words: "Though him, with him, in him all glory and honor is yours, almighty Father, forever and ever." We are joining the Lord in giving "all" to God. Clearly this is something we are doing "live," not simply as a remembrance.
- When we come forward to receive the bread and the cup, we are connecting ourselves with the Lord in the giving of himself entirely to the Father. We are joined with him as he stands before the Father and says, "These are my brothers, these are my sisters. I'm with them, and they're with me and together we give ourselves completely to You."
All of this would be missing if Jesus had not given us the Eucharist. It is his gift to us, enabling us to join in his great act of love to the Father.
For 150 years people have been doing that here at this Cathedral. And because they did this, the world is different. In this church building, parishioners have been bringing part of the human race, part of creation to God. And each time, the reign of God inches closer to fulfillment. And the whole world, all creation, all people, are affected by it.
One of the Prefaces for the Mass on this feast says, "Jesus is the true and eternal priest who established this unending sacrifice..." Indeed it is "unending". It is open-ended to make room for us to join in for which we are very, very grateful. And that is why we always end the Eucharist by saying, "Deo gratias... Thanks be to God."
Originally given on June 22, 2003