[The following is an excerpt from my Holy Thursday homily of 2009]
…In all of the Eucharistic Liturgies I know of, the narrative of the institution of the Eucharist is always connected with the betrayal by Judas. The context of the Last Supper is always given as: “on the night when He was betrayed,” or a similar phrase. This is not merely an aid for our understanding of the chronology of events. It underscores the poignancy of what Jesus was doing. He said that the body and blood which He was giving the disciples at the Mystical Supper would be given over and poured out “for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus knew, and He said, that “the hand of my betrayer is at this table.” I am reminded of Psalm 22(23) in which it is said: “You have prepared a banquet for me, in the sight of my enemies.” This profound act of self-giving for the forgiveness of sins was performed in the presence of one who was about to commit one of the worst sins imaginable. Yet if Judas would have repented and returned to Jesus as Peter did, that broken body and shed blood would have been for the forgiveness of his sin as well, and for his salvation.
But Jesus’ great gift of his body and blood to the Church of all ages, marred, as it were, by the context of betrayal, is not an indication that Jesus’ life and mission were subject to the vicissitudes of history and of evil men. All this was foreknown and accepted by Him as the path He was destined to follow. In the Eucharistic anaphora in the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, there’s a little correction of its own text which makes this point, and it is left in the text for theological emphasis. It reads: “After He had come and fulfilled the whole divine plan for our sake, on the night He was given over—or rather, gave Himself for the life of the world—He took bread…”
This calls to mind two passages from the Gospel of John. As Jesus was coming to the heart of his great “Bread of Life” discourse, when the people were still murmuring about his saying He had come down from Heaven and would give them bread more miraculous than the Manna of Moses, He solemnly declared: “The bread which I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.” This is where the Liturgy gets its text. In the narrative of the Last Supper, we are immediately reminded of Jesus’ teaching on the Holy Eucharist which He gave long before the Supper. So the Church can rightly say that what He was doing at the Supper was beginning the mystery of giving Himself for the life of the world—and this gift will endure until the end of time in the holy Churches of God who are faithful to his mandate to “Do this in memory of Me.”
The other passage this text from the Liturgy calls to mind is a somewhat more general one, but no less important. This is the basis of the contrast in the text: “on the night he was given over—or rather, gave Himself…” And here is where it becomes clear that Jesus was not the hapless victim of the politics of Palestine or of the evil designs of men. Jesus said: “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again; this charge I have received from my Father” (Jn. 10:18). I quoted this text on Palm Sunday regarding Jesus’ power over death manifested in the raising of Lazarus, as a sign of his power to rise from the dead. But here it is the basis for the Church changing the text from passive to active in her Liturgy: from “was given over” to “gave Himself.” And we see from the text that this power, and the command to exercise it, were given by the Father.
Perhaps we don’t sufficiently reflect on the role of the Father in all these mysteries of Christ. Or if we do, it’s in a rather negative way. The Father is the One who didn’t grant Jesus’ anguished prayer in the garden; the Father is the one who seemingly forsook Jesus on the Cross in his most profound agony. Yet everything that Jesus said and did was the Father’s will. This is because, as Jesus said, the Father’s command means eternal life, so everything Jesus said was exactly as the Father wanted it (see Jn. 12:50). And everything that Jesus did or endured, even his most painful sufferings, were done out of love for the Father. Shortly before going to his Passion, Jesus said explicitly that He was doing it “so that the world may know that I love the Father” (Jn. 14:31).
So we have no argument with the Father. We can almost say that the Father loved us more than his only-begotten Son, because it was for the forgiveness of our sins—which merit eternal punishment for us—that He willed his Son to endure the agony of the Passion and to sacrifice Himself in expiation of our sins. The Father didn’t spare his Son, and this was solely because He wanted to spare us. Let us remember this as we meditate upon these great mysteries.
Jesus gave his flesh and blood for the life and the salvation of the world; and He did it freely, with the power the Father gave Him to lay down his life and take it up again. We see this power, this sovereign majesty, even when it seemed that he was wholly in the power of others. He allowed the mob to arrest Him in the garden, but He still could teach and command his disciples, probe the consciences of his assailants and declare that they were unwittingly fulfilling what the Scriptures foretold long ago…
In all these events we have read about, and in those we have yet to celebrate in this Great and Holy Week, Jesus is manifested as Lord—not as one who was given over, but as the One who gave Himself; not as one whose life was taken, but as the One who laid it down of his own accord, by the will and power of the Father, with whom He is one in love and in being.
We are coming now to the table of the Lord, to share in the mystery of the Mystical Supper, his flesh and blood given for the life of the world and for the forgiveness of our sins. Let there be no hand of a betrayer at this table, but only those who love the Lord and who are willing to walk with Him into the garden of interior struggle and even to the Cross. It is true that we are all sinners, but let us then be like Peter who wept in repentance and who henceforth followed his Lord all the days of his life.
The Lord, as He has said, desires with great desire to share with us this Passover, this bittersweet banquet of the New Covenant in his blood. The Passion is bitter but the Resurrection sweet, and both mysteries are mingled in the Eucharistic Chalice. Let us stay close to Him now, that we may be found worthy to drink the sweet wine of his everlasting love when He shares it new with his faithful ones in his heavenly Kingdom.