Today begins the great celebration of the Easter Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday. All in preparation for that great feast of our redemption, Easter Sunday, when Christ rose from the dead, conquering sin and death and bringing life and salvation to the world. Let us consider the events commemorated today.
We hear of the central event of this day at every Mass. On the night he was betrayed, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: "Take this, all of you, and eat of it; this is my body, which will be given up for you." When the meal was ended, he took the cup, said the blessing, gave it to his disciples and said: "Take this, all of you, and drink from it; this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me."
Jesus had told the crowds, "Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life within you." Many wondered what this could mean -- "How could this man give us his flesh and blood to drink?"-- and as he insisted further, "Unless you gnaw on my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life within you," many turned away. The Gospels tell us it was at this moment that Judas decided to betray Jesus. He could not accept his teaching on this matter. Peter, on the other hand, though he may not have understood at the time, did not leave, did not turn away. When Jesus asked if he, too, would go, Peter responded: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." That of which Jesus speaks is that which brings eternal life.
Just what is Jesus talking about? How can he give us his flesh and blood to eat and drink? He reveals the answer to us here, tonight, at the Last Supper. The Jews, in following the covenant of Moses, had offered animals in sacrifice to God in reparation for their sins. Now, Jesus would be offered as the definitive sacrifice, the one perfect, eternal sacrifice which would pay the debt for all humanity's sins for all time. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Here's the key: when the Jews offered their sacrificial lambs in reparation for their sins, they would then eat the lamb that had been sacrificed. They would partake of that which had been offered to God so that they were sharing the sacrifice with God; in this, they renewed friendship with God. Just so, as Jesus was to be the Lamb sacrificed for our sins in this new and eternal covenant, in order to fulfill that which was foreshadowed and prefigured in the sacrifices of the old covenant, we had to partake in that which was being offered: we had to eat of the flesh of Jesus. And Jesus shows us how.
This bread and wine had been used as part of the Passover ritual, in which the Jews remembered that night when the angel of death smote the first-born of Egypt; but the Jews were saved by the blood of the lambs spread upon their door posts. Jesus takes these signs and brings them into the new covenant: he is the Bread of Life, his is the blood of the Lamb which saves, which fills the cup of salvation. These signs are brought together into one: the bread is the flesh of the Lamb, the Body of Christ; the blood is the blood of the Lamb, the Blood of Christ. By eating his flesh and drinking his blood, we renew our participation in the New Covenant; we renew our friendship with God by sharing in the sacrifice offered him.
And that sacrifice which is offered is God himself! God, in the person of the Divine Word Incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity, was made man, and truly suffered, truly died, and truly rose. In Jesus Christ is both the sacrifice offered and the God who receives it. Christ is both man who is redeemed and God the redeemer. By our sins we owed God an infinite debt we could not pay; by God's justice the debt had to be paid. Only God could pay an infinite debt; but it was man who owed the debt. Thus God took flesh and became man, able to render payment on behalf of humanity, able to render infinite payment as God.
By that flesh we are saved. In eating that flesh and drinking that blood, we participate in that covenant and receive the very life of God. And it is truly the flesh and blood of Christ that we receive, for if it were not, we would not receive God. But how can God make bread and wine become his own body and blood? It seems so incredible. I ask: is it any more incredible than God becoming man? How could one believe one but doubt the other as "just too much to swallow" (no pun intended)? Just as in Jesus that which appears to be man is really God, in the Eucharist that which appears to be bread and wine is really God.
Today we remember the gift of that great sacrament by which we would perpetually remember Christ's sacrifice and re-present it to God in reparation for our sins. Tomorrow we remember the sacrifice represented by this sacrament. Today let us ask pardon for our sins, and give thanks for the sacrament of our salvation.