Mass: CW: Exodus 12:1-4(5-10)11-14; Psalm 116:1,10-end; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17,31b-35
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Tonight we are remembering the Last Supper that Jesus ate with his disciples. It’s a meal full of symbolism – we would normally re-enact the washing of the feet that John describes in tonight’s gospel reading; our readings remind us of the Exodus, that encounter with God that is so foundational for the Jewish people; St Paul writing to the Corinthians gives us the earliest written account of the words used by Jesus for the meal that is the foundational act of worship for the church of God.
Jesus calls his disciples friends, and at this Supper he seals that friendship with friendship’s highest token: ‘For greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ Jesus gives himself – tonight in the sacrament, tomorrow on the cross. And he reminds us that we are his friends, not just his servants, because we know what our master is doing.
But can we really understand all this? Surely the events of Holy Week seem quite beyond the understanding of friends. Tomorrow afternoon, when the sun is darkened, and the veil of the Temple is rent in two, when the earth quakes, and the rocks are rent, and hell itself is shaken, are we really his friends? No sympathy, no grief, no human compassion seem to fit the case. Much better, perhaps, the centurion’s cry of fear: ‘Truly this was the Son of God.’
This seems to be God’s business rather than ours. Friendship, surely, implies mutual understanding, mutual good will – and that involves an equality, or at least some proper proportion, between the parties. What proportion can there possibly be between us and the dying Son of God? How can we be friends?
But, as we hear so often, God’s ways are not our ways. The friendship between Jesus and his followers – you and me and those countless other disciples that have called themselves his disciples throughout the history of the world – is founded on the infinite mercy of God in the Incarnation and Passion of Christ, whereby the distance of man from God is overcome and we are called his friends. In the atoning sacrifice of Christ, God manifests the ultimate good will towards us: ‘Greater love hath no man than this.’ God makes known that good will, and sets it in our hearts – and that is the principle and ground of our friendship with him. We are friends of God, because his grace makes us so. He makes us god-like, and grants us the equality of friends, the proportional equality of sons. As St John writes in his first letter, ‘Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God.’
It is the friendship which Christians call “charity,” ‘the very bond of peace and of all virtues.’ It is the friendship which binds us to God, that unites us to one another in the new commandment of love, ‘Fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God.’ And as friends, even in the isolation of our coronavirus lockdown, we must do as friends do – we must delight in God’s presence, we must rejoice in our relationship with him, find security in his love for us. As friends we care for all that belongs to God.
Today is the day of the “Maundy,” the mandatum, ‘the new commandment’ of love. Today is the special day of friendship, and the traditional ceremonies that we would usually perform today – the washing of feet, the reception and blessing of oils for the sick, and so on – all reinforce that friendship.
And above all, today is the day of the banquet, the celebration of friendship, in which our friend gives himself, that we may dwell in him, and he in us. It is the moment of friends rejoicing together before the pain of tomorrow.
At the end of the Mass of the Last Supper, it is customary that we follow Jesus symbolically to the Garden of Gethsemane, to watch and wait in prayer. And as this watch of prayer begins, we would normally remove all the trappings of the feast, leaving the altar bare and cold, for tonight is, of course, the night of betrayal, and tomorrow is the day of despair.
But Jesus has called us his friends, and so, symbolically, we will watch with him, and ‘not fear, though the earth be moved, and the mountains shake.’ We watch and pray that the bond of charity may hold us firm as his friends, and friends of one another – even if the Covid-19 lockdown prevents us from actually seeing one another in that shared friendship. Tonight and tomorrow, the fruit of the vine is crushed in the winepress – but as his friends, we shall drink the wine new with him in the joy of his risen kingdom. Amen.
 John 15:13
2 Mark 16:39
3 1 John 3:1
4 BCP Collect for Quinquagesima/CW Collect for Second Sunday after Trinity
5 Ephesians 2:19
6 Psalm 46:2