Holy Thursday. Fr Fergus Kerr finds sharing a meal a profoundly significant occasion.
On Holy Thursday, throughout the Catholic world, we celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper – Missa in cena Domini – literally, Mass in the Lord’s Supper, as if the supper were the setting where something else is embedded, which is of course the case: the memorial of the Passion of the Lord. But the setting is itself already deeply significant.
The Bible is full of meals: the people in the desert being fed with manna; the bread and wine brought out by Melchizedek in honour of Abraham; Adam and Eve feasting on the fruit of the tree that the serpent promised would bring wisdom and immortality, the first meal of all.
That meal ended with Adam and Eve ashamed to look at one another, with him blaming her and her blaming the serpent; neither willing to own up; communication between them broken down; conspiring to deceive God. It’s the original sin meal so to speak, that exposes the archetypal human beings in the selfishness and deceitfulness with which we are all familiar.
It’s a powerful story, a parable, and a raw parody of what life can be like. But it’s not just a story: any and every meal, you might say, can turn into a situation that reveals the same kind of moral and spiritual defects. Meals are occasions when selfish and greedy people are exposed; when people dominate with self centred and tedious monologues; when people gossip maliciously, and so on. It would take a novelist or a psychologist to tell the half of it.
Yet meals are also civilising. Dogs and cats don’t have meals together; cows munch away happily; sheep graze all at the same time – but even people sitting at the telly with trays on their knees isn’t quite the same as sheep grazing. Putting it all a bit grandly, isn’t learning to share a meal, to be a host, a guest, an essential part of becoming a mature and adult human being? Think of manners and menus, the skills and arts of cooking, and of entertaining – surely there you have one of the most basic displays of how we are human?
And think of the life of an individual: it’s a great day in a family when a child is at last able to sit at the table with the rest of us, like the rest of us, not strapped into one of these high chairs while we watch her or him being fed. It’s the passage from the isolation of infancy to being in company, eventually helping to lay the table, washing up afterwards and so on. It’s an immense moral achievement.
There are layers of moral and so human significance in meals. Jesus certainly made meals times when he could teach; times when he practised what he preached; when he ate with sinners.
This Supper of the Lord, then is an occasion for us to reflect on the moral and human significance of all our meals: the bread we share in a world where two thirds of the human race never get a proper meal at all. Meals are times of sharing and friendship; or times of selfishness and indifference. Meals are repetitions of the original meal when Adam and Eve fell, or renewals of that supper when Jesus showed the terms on which wisdom and immortality are to be found.
This Holy Thursday meal is the reversal, the undoing, of the meal that exposed Adam and Eve. The bread we bring to the altar comes back to us as the bread of life, the wine becomes the cup of salvation: first fruits of the new creation, that freedom from sin that Christ’s Passion has won for us.
And of course the time comes when we can no longer take our place at the table, when we are in another kind of isolation, in sickness or senility or death; and then we pass with Christ into that life in which we shall be transfigured, naked and unashamed in perfectly transparent communion, enjoying for ever the life that we anticipate in the Supper of the Lord.