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The Sacrament of the Altar was instituted by Jesus on Maundy Thursday in an Upper Room in Jerusalem. No one except His 12 apostles was present. Jesus knew that He was about to be betrayed and handed over to Jews and He wanted this night to happen without interruption or interference. Not even a servant is present to wash their feet when they come into the room lest His location be leaked to His enemies.
This is the reason that Jesus sent just 2 of His disciples to prepare the meal. His instructions to them are so mysterious that none of them, not even the two, are sure of the place He is talking about. “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The teacher says, ‘Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples. And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us.” Try plugging that into your GPS.
Judas, the one who would betray Him, is in the room. By the time he is dismissed, it will be too late to lead the soldiers to this place to arrest Him.
The mysterious arrangements and the high security tell us that what is to take place on this night is of great importance. The Sacrament that Jesus will institute on this night will be critical for the life of His Church after He is crucified, resurrected and ascended into heaven. This Meal will be the means by which He will continue to be present with His Church and feed His flock and give them His life until He comes again on the Last Day.
There have been times in the Church’s history when the Lord’s Supper has been treated though it was not that important; optional but not necessary; to be administered occasionally but not frequently.
Jesus however did not feel the same. With all that He is faced with, knowing all that is about to happen to Him, He takes every precaution to see to it that His passion does not begin until this Sacrament is firmly established and in place.
The timing of the institution of the Lord’s Supper is significant, not only for what it will mean for the future of His Church, but also for it means about its past. The fact that Jesus establishes this Sacrament on the night of Passover, which as St. Mark carefully points out, is the night “when they sacrificed the Passover Lamb,” is very significant.
The Passover festival was established for Israel by Moses. It commemorated the awesome deliverance of Israel from the life of oppression and slavery in Egypt under Pharaoh. On the night that God had declared that every firstborn male in the land of Egypt would be struck dead, He provided the means by which the firstborn sons of His people would be saved.
An innocent lamb was to be slain in each household and its blood poured out on the house where they lived. When the angel saw the blood, he would ‘pass over’ that house and those inside would be spared the curse of death.
Throughout Israel’s history, the celebration of the Passover recalled this miraculous deliverance by God. And every time the Passover was celebrated, Israelites would remember what God had done.
The timing of the institution of the Lord’s Supper on the night of the Passover festival connects and clothes the Lord’s Supper in Israel’s history. From this moment on, the Passover celebration will become obsolete, replaced by the very thing to which the old festival pointed. The old was just the ‘shadow’ of what was to come. Now that Jesus was instituting the “real thing”, the old was no longer needed.
Jesus Himself would be the Passover Lamb of God who is sacrificed for all of Israel, both old and new. His blood now replaces the blood of the Old Covenant which we heard about in our first reading from Exodus. “And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (Ex. 24:9)
The innocent blood of Jesus marks the cross on which He is crucified for men and women, boys and girls who live under the bondage and slavery of their own sins. And now, death passes over everyone who lives under His cross in faith.
On Maundy Thursday, just 18 or so hours before His crucifixion and three days before His resurrection, the old is already giving way to the new. Jesus is already replacing what is about to become obsolete with what will be the very life of His Church until He comes again on the Last Day.
How strange would it have been if Jesus would have established a new ‘shadow’ to replace the old ‘shadow;’ a new ‘symbol’ to replace the old ‘symbol.’ The one thing that the Church does not need is new symbols and symbolic ceremonies. We need the real thing that all of the past symbols pointed to – and that is what Jesus gives to His Church on Maundy Thursday.
“This is my body.” “This is my blood.”
In the same way, how strange would it have been for Jesus to establish a new sacrifice for us to offer to God in place of the old sacrifice? For all of the innocent sheep and goats and bulls sacrificed at the Temple, not one ever was ever an adequate sacrifice for the sin of the man or woman offering it. That is why they had to be repeated over and over again. What we need is ONE sacrifice that is so much greater than us that it atones for our sin and rescues us from death, ONCE FOR ALL. And that is what Jesus gives to His Church on Maundy Thursday.
“This is my body.” “This is my blood.”
Let’s consider the events of that night as we heard them from Mark’s gospel. Jesus sent two of His disciples to make the preparations for the evening meal. Then we read, “And when it was evening, he came with the twelve.” Keeping time according to the Jewish way of keeping time, ‘evening’ marks the end of one day and the beginning of another. Before the next ‘evening’ come, Jesus will have been crucified, died and buried.
“As they were reclining at table and eating, Jesus said, ‘Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.’ They began to be sorrowful and say to Him, one after another, ‘Is it I?’
All the way around the table, one at a time, ‘Is it I?’ ‘Is it I?’ ‘Is it I?’ ‘Is it I?’ You get the idea.
No one is really so sure of themselves that they are ready to confidently say, “It is NOT I.” For all of their bravado and fist-pumping faith, each one knew what he was perfectly capable of. Each one has a troubled conscience. “Is it I?”
As we heard, St. Paul writes, “let a person examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” Before Jesus institutes His Holy Supper, He has each of His 12 apostles examine themselves. And none concludes that He is worthy or noble or right. Each one acknowledges that he is by nature sinful and unclean and entirely capable of betraying his Lord in thought, word and deed.
And tonight, we join the 12. “Is it I?” And we all know the answer. “Yes Lord, IT IS I.” “How often have I betrayed you in what I have done and in what I have left undone; in what I have said and what I have left unsaid. I have not loved you with my whole heart.”
We all know the 1st Commandment – “You shall have no other gods.” We should fear, love and trust in God above all things. But none of us does. Judas betrayed his Lord for 30 pieces of silver. We betray our Lord for far less than that.
So, right from the start, before He consecrates the bread and the wine, Jesus has already established that this sacrament is not for the righteous but for sinners. Sinners like the 12 Apostles and sinners like you and me.
This Sacrament is not be for the self-confident who are sure of their integrity before God and their power to resist temptation and do what is right. This Sacrament will be for those who are weak and vulnerable and those who know that they are capable being turned against their Lord by the most ridiculous and meaningless temptations.
“Let a person examine himself…” “Is it I?” “And if we thus examine ourselves, we will find nothing within ourselves but sin and death, from which we cannot free ourselves.”
If we examine ourselves, we will find that the only thing we can say is, “IT IS I.”
And it is now, and only now, that we are we ready to receive this sacrament rightly. For it is not the well who need a physician but the sick.
“And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it, broke it and gave it to them, and said, ‘Take, this is my body.’ And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they drank of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”
In response to their confession and ours, “IT IS I,” Jesus answers with this bread and wine and says, “It is I.” “This is my body.” “This is my blood.”
This is the ‘BLESSED EXCHANGE” in high definition. He takes our “is it I?” and give us His own “it is I.”
• He takes out guilt and gives us His innocence.
• He becomes what we are, sinful and unclean, cursed by God, and makes us what He is, holy and righteous, dear children of God with our Father is ‘well pleased.’
And He does all of this in the eating of the bread and the drinking of the wine.
Before He is handed over to death, our Lord hands Himself over to His church. “This is my body.” “This is my blood.” He feeds His sheep with His forgiveness and life and salvation.
We come to the Good Shepherd who calls us and gathers around His table, and He holds out His hands and satisfies the desire of every living thing with His grace and mercy and presence. And He does this in the eating of the bread and the drinking of the wine.
From the Upper Room – to the cross – to your hands and your lips, His holy and sinless body and blood is given and shed for you. You have nothing to give unless you take.
Tonight on the Maundy Thursday, we receive the Passover Lamb, eating His body, drinking His blood according to His will. In this sacrament, He becomes one body with us and we become one body with Him. And as we eat of this one body and drink of this one cup, we become one body with each other in this ‘holy communion.’
So tomorrow on Good Friday, when we see Him crucified, we know that we are also crucified with Him – because we have received His crucified body and blood in this Supper. His death is our death. The sin He dies for is my sin and yours.
And on Easter Sunday, His resurrection is our resurrection, His life from the dead is our salvation.
And so tonight, without fear but with faith, we examine ourselves and confess, “it is I.” Not to make ourselves feel bad, as if this were about feelings, but because it’s true. We bring OUR true body and true blood to this table, and Jesus gives us HIS true body and true blood.
It’s a wonderful exchange.