Given at the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Maundy Thursday, 13th April 2017, in Westminster Cathedral.
This evening we celebrate the Last Supper with his disciples of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. On Sunday we took to heart his entry into Jerusalem: his deliberate and determined journey towards his death.
We accepted palms as a sign of peace that he alone can bring. We proclaimed Hosanna (save us!) recognising our need. We place the palms prominently in our homes as a reminder that he is our beloved Saviour in whom we trust.
Now we are entering the time of the Passion. Shortly this band of disciples, gathered round their Master, will be engulfed by darkness and terror. In the darkness, a traitor from their midst will betray the Lord with a clamour of soldiers and swords. Jesus is snatched away. Their world falls apart.
Knowing this, a question pervades the celebration of this Last Supper: ‘How can we survive without him? When he is gone, what shall we do?’
There is a one-word answer that occurs in the title of this day, Maundy Thursday: Maundy, now associated with the gift given by the Monarch, Maundy money, but older in origin. Maundy from mandatum: command.
Jesus tells us what to do when he is gone: A double command, two inter-connected actions, which we do this evening.
‘Do this in memory of me.’ Take bread and wine and do what he told us to do.
I wonder if in the entire history of humanity any command has ever been so widely or consistently obeyed: in cathedrals and great churches, in prison cells, out in fields, on mountain tops and before crowds of millions. In most countries on earth, this command has been obeyed. And Jesus, he who was snatched away from us, is with us.
The second command, or mandatum, is inseparable from the first. It is the command to love and serve one another, as symbolised in the washing of feet: ‘If I, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet.’
In this Gospel passage, St John leaves us in no doubt: Jesus knew what he was about. The phrases ‘Jesus knew the hour had come’, ‘Jesus knew that the Father had put everything into his hands’, ‘He knew who was to betray him’. Then he said: ‘Do you understand!’
Now, washing feet was the duty of a slave. Here it is an offering of love. While the world is full of people standing on their own dignity, here we see the only lasting greatness: the greatness of service. This is my command. Do this in memory of me.
These two commands are inseparable. Service flows from the true participation in the Mass. Service is the gateway through which we must pass in order to be truly part of this Eucharistic celebration.
Yet, so often they are pulled apart. Service without any reference to the source of that loving service, God himself: a service which can be truly selfless yet not revealing of its depth. Celebration of Mass without any source of life which both brings us to the altar and truly flows from it.
In the light of faith we can see these two as inseparable; we see that Jesus, the Eternal Word in our flesh, shows us the wholeness of human life; a service that springs from a glimpse of the wonder of God; the finest of prayers, the Mass, which flows in selfless service of those most in need.
Shortly the choir will sing ‘Ubi caritas et amor Deus ibi est’. Where there is charity and love, God is there.
And, just a little while ago, I said these words, the central prayer of this solemn occasion: ‘O God who have called us to participate in this most sacred Supper in which your only begotten Son, about to hand himself over to death, entrusted to the Church a sacrifice new for all eternity, the banquet of his love, grant we pray, that we may draw from so great a mystery the fullness of charity and of life.’
This is his MANDATUM, his great command. So let us obey.