Fr. Wilfred Sumani, SJ
Readings: Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14; 1Corinthians 11: 23-26; John 13:1-15
The Supreme Gift of Christ
The liturgical celebration of the Lord’s Supper is full of gestures that speak louder than words. First, Jesus gives his own body and blood to his disciples as food and drink, respectively, as a sign of ultimate love. Second, he washes the feet of his disciples in order to underscore the primacy of charity in Christian life. Self-giving and Service – this is the summary of the New Commandment, the mandatum! We will focus on the first gesture, Jesus’ giving of himself as food and drink to his disciples.
The exchange of gifts is one of the most important elements in human relations. Theologians and philosophers are beginning to pay attention to the role of gifts in the consolidation of human relations. The relationship between God and humanity is also characterized by the exchange of gifts – the mirabilecommercium (the marvelous exchange). God’s gifts to humanity take the form of providence, while humanity’s gifts to God are called sacrifice. Without the exchange of gifts, any relationship is sure to wane. As St. Ignatius affirms in the Contemplation to Attain Love, “Love consists in interchange between the two parties; that is to say in the lover’s giving and communicating to the beloved what he has or out of what he has or can; and so, on the contrary, the beloved to the lover. So that if the one has knowledge, he give to the one who has it not. The same of honors, of riches; and so the one to the other.”
At the Last Supper Jesus makes the most valuable gift in the history of humanity. He does not give things that are external to his person; he does not simply give a part of his estate. Rather, he gives his own body to humanity: “This is my body that is for you”, says Jesus. He gives himself to us so that, by partaking of his body and blood, we may become like him who became like us in all things but sin. As the saying goes, we become what we eat and what we eat becomes part of us.
An ancient paschal homily describes Jesus a choregos, that is, a person who finances a party. The party in question, in this case, is the paschal festivity, which the author calls “mystical choregia.” By offering himself as a paschal lamb, Jesus makes it possible for the people of God to celebrate their redemption from slavery. The paschal lamb is no longer an animal; Christ has become our Passover Lamb (1Corinthians 5:7).
In Christian tradition, Jesus has also been compared to the pelican. This image is based on a legend which stated that, in time of famine, the mother pelican would strike her breast with its beak and feed her young with its own blood so they may not starve to death. The image is taken up by Thomas Aquinas, in his hymn Adorote devote:
O loving Pelican! O Jesus Lord!
Unclean I am, but cleanse me in Thy Blood!
Of which a single drop, for sinners spilt,
Can purge the entire world from all its guilt.
Similarly, in his Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri applies the image of the pelican to Christ. Speaking of the beloved disciple, Dante writes:
This is he, this, who on the breast reclined
Even of our Pelican; ’tis he who bore
The great charge from the cross to him consigned
Jesus is the pelican who takes his own flesh and blood and offers it to his brothers and sisters so they can have eternal life.
By offering himself as food and drink to humanity, Jesus teaches us to offer ourselves to God, in return, so as to complete the circle of mirabilecommercium at the heart of our relationship with God. It is not enough to offer sacrifices of goats and grain to the Lord. It is not enough to offer the sacrifice of praise to the Lord. The ultimate gift we can ever make to God is the offering of our own selves: “Do this in memory of me”, says the Lord. Paul’s invitation to the Romans applies to all of us: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (Romans 12:1).
It is easy to donate billions to the poor; it is easy to give tithe or a part of one’s earnings to the Lord. But it is quite hard to offer one’s own person to another. It is one thing for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to donate millions of dollars to poor communities. It is another thing altogether for Melinda and her daughters to spend a night in a poor family’s home in rural Tanzania.
As we sit at the table of the Lord’s Supper, let us consider God’s supreme gift to humanity. Let us also consider what ‘return’ we shall make to the Lord for God’s goodness to us, as the Psalmist says in the responsorial psalm (Psalm 116). With St. Ignatius, let us pray:
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my intellect, and all my will—all that I have and possess. Thou gavest it to me: to Thee, Lord, I return it! All is Thine, dispose of it according to all Thy will. Give me Thy love and grace, for this is enough for me.