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It is generally agreed among scholars that the discourses and words of Christ at the Last Supper, especially as recorded in the Gospel of John, might be interpreted in terms of Christ’s last will as well as leaving us a legacy. There are so many ideas and truths contained in these chapters. For the sake of clarity we will simply concentrate on Christ’s two commands, and upon one insight.
We will begin with the insight, since it gives us a deeper understanding of the nature of God’s love for us. In the course of His address to the Father, Jesus gives Him thanks for His disciples and followers. He sees them, as well as us, as gifts: “Father, they are your gifts to me” (Jn. 17, 24). In Christ’s eyes and mind, we are precious because we have been given to Him by the Father. And, as with all gifts given, we are to be treasured.
A personal experience of mine might highlight some of the ideas I wish to emphasize. Many years ago, I used to be active with the St. Colletta’s community in Braintree. After celebrating Mass with them for many years, they presented me with a gift--a ceramic chalice and paten which they had made. True it was not without a few defects. But it was precious to me because of who made it and because it was a gift. Despite its defects, I constantly used it.
I believe that in an analogous way this is how Christ feels about us. He treasures us as gifts--you and I--even with our faults and failings.
Two spiritual exercises helped me to glimpse the truth of how precious we are to the Lord. The first is to read the parable of the pearl of great price before the crucifix. We might recall that this is the parable where the merchant sold everything he had to possess the gem. In a true way, each of us is that pearl of great price for which Christ gave everything to purchase, including His very life.
The second exercise is to take time to reflect upon what we might call (paradoxically) the “infinity of littleness.” By this I mean how Christ’s human heart continues to squeeze in and contain a seemingly infinite number of people--each one known individually by the Lord. Again, looking at the heart pierced and open, I slowly realize that I was in His heart as He was crucified. Indeed, in answer to the spiritual “Were you there when they crucified my Lord,” we learn to respond in the affirmative.
At the Last Supper, Christ commanded that we love one another as He loves us. It is, of course, risky to try to list all of the characteristics of divine love which should be reflected in our own love. Yet some should be pointed out. There is a certain initiative on God’s part in establishing this love-relationship: “In this is love; not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our own sins” (l Jn. 4, 11).In other words, I must take the initiative, the first step, in reaching out to others, especially the poor and hurting. Secondly, God’s love is total in the sense that it embraces the whole person, body and soul. Such reminds us that we are called to reach out materially speaking to the less fortunate of our world. Finally God’s love is “catholic”--universal, reaching out to all His children. And again, we are reminded that in our attempt to enflesh the divine love, there can be no restrictions. I must be willing to embrace as many as possible wherever they may be. To repeat Pope John-Paul II: “Charity ... never enough.”
Finally we have Christ’s command: “Do this in memory of me.” Note that the Lord did not say: “repeat my words.” Rather the Eucharist must be conceived as a verb requiring action.
Some theologians emphasize that there are three different parts of the Liturgy in our Eucharistic celebration. The first is the Liturgy of the Word. Here we are reminded that we must be fed by God’s word: “Not by bread alone does man live, but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt. 4, 4). The second would be the Liturgy of the Sacrament. We should never forget that the Eucharist is not an abstraction. It places us in the real presence of the Person of Jesus. And finally, they maintain that there is the Liturgy of the Neighbor. They are summed up in the closing words that we should serve the Lord and one another. It is meant to be a life force compelling us to reach out to others.
Msgr. McDonnell is a senior priest of the archdiocese and is in residence at St. Mary, Dedham.