Today’s Gospel is a perfect choice for today’s feast: The Body and Blood of Christ, popularly called “Corpus Christi”. It is especially important for this year. To understand why, we will need to look at what Jesus was doing and why he was doing it at the Passover.
The Passover is the celebration of the liberation of Israelites from captivity in Egypt. Jesus and the disciples believed as do pious Jews to this day that this is not a mere commemoration of the event, like celebrating Geroge Washington’s birthday, but a true participation. They are really with Moses and the Israelites escaping Pharaoh. This feast was to be celebrated by every family, if possible, in Jerusalem. Family here could also mean, as it does with Jesus, a rabbi and his disciples. They would bring a Passover lamb to the Temple to be sacrificed and its blood sprinkled on the altar. It would then be returned to the family and roasted. Strictly speaking the lamb should be consumed within Jerusalem and local people would rent out rooms for these meals.
The disciples who had followed Jesus to Jerusalem knew that they must prepare for this meal and were surprised that Jesus had already made arrangements. Notice the secrecy. He does not give them directions to the house but tells them to go into the city and meet a man with a jug. Men did not usually carry jugs so he would stand out enough to be recognized, but would not seem suspicious. Jesus knew that there were people who wished to capture him, and he needed to be careful. Everything that Jesus will do at the Last Supper indicates that he knows he will be executed but that he is still master of events. His death will not be an accident, but an offering.
This is a highly charged situation, but Mark makes it even more in the next verses which are skipped in this reading. Jesus will say that one of them will betray him and unlike John, Judas does not leave the room. No one knows who it will be except Jesus. The tension would have been tangible.
The meal follows: he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them –
This pattern is followed before in the two scenes of the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes in Mark’s gospel. We also see it in every Mass. If a rabbi was at a Passover meal he would offer a commentary about every action and the disciples would have expected Jesus to offer a few words. They would not have expected “This is my body” over the bread. This was a common loaf of bread which he shared with everyone; Jesus is saying that fellowship would now be through him. Ambiguous perhaps, but remember the story of the Passover would have been told and the Apostles would have been alert that this night would be special. But it would take a while.
The cup of blessing did not occur immediately after the blessing of the bread, but at the end of the meal. This was a regular feature, and the disciples knew it was coming and could expect more clarity. After the dishes were cleared, the rabbi would offer a blessing on his disciples. They would never have expected “This is the blood of the covenant which will be shed for many”.
The Covenant was relationship with God that literally made the Israelites part of the LORD’S family. “Blood of the Covenant” is a very rare expression which we find in the first reading today and shows that the relationship with Jesus truly will be a new covenant with the LORD. He then adds that this blood will be shed, that is, he will suffer a violent death.
This covenant connects us to the kingdom of God, the rule of the LORD over all. This kingdom began with the preaching of Jesus but will end when he returns. Nonetheless, the disciples must be terrified. The next line would not be immediately encouraging.
“I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”
This is the messianic banquet. A great feast the Jews expected when the Messiah would come and restore the world. We know with Jesus this will be more than expected, but we can begin to experience this now in the Eucharist. The Eucharist always looks to the past, but points to the future. Because of this, no matter how bad things may seem at any time, we celebrate the Lord’s presence. This is truly the Christian Passover: the power of the LORD which snatched the Israelites from the most powerful empire of the day, will now save the people from all dangers.
That is why the Last supper does not include the sacrifice of the lamb. Jesus is the lamb; it is he who will be sacrificed. Also, this reflects the Mass as we are celebrating it today. All the stories of the institution of the Eucharist show us that the Mass has the structure that Jesus ordained for us.
We celebrated Trintiy Sunday last week and were reminded that the least wrong image of God is community and that forming a loving community is the way we show that we are in the image of God. This week we are shown that Christian community revolves around the celebration of the Eucharist.
Mark emphasizes that the Eucharist was given at a moment of great anxiety. We are now entering into the new normal., However relieved we may be, it will not be easy. From serous articles in the Times to funny but perceptive cartoons in the New Yorker we are reminded that it will be difficult for all and terrifying for some. Let us remember that we are Catholic Christians. And as the disciples in the upper room, we are assured that even our journey to the new normal begins with anxiety, if it is centered on the Eucharist, it will end in joy.