Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Gospel for Feast of Corpus Christi (7 June 2015)

Gospel for Feast of Corpus Christi (7 June 2015)

On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, “Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?”

So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.” So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.

While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. (Mark 14:12-16 & 22-26 – NRSVCE)

Introductory notes

1. We find similar accounts in Matthew 26:17–25, Luke 22:7–13 and John 13:21–30.

2. The Feast of Unleavened Bread celebrates the liberation of the people from Egypt (see Leviticus 23:6) and lasts seven days. It begins the night after the Passover. The feast of Passover also celebrates the liberation from Egypt, but in a detailed re-enactment of the meal the people had the night before they escaped (see Exodus 12:1-20; also Numbers 9.1–14, Deuteronomy 16.1–8 and Ezekiel 45.21–25).

3. Mark clearly sees Jesus in a prophetic role. In 14:13–16 Mark virtually repeats 11:1–6 (the instructions on finding the colt), but here the prophetic activity of Jesus is enhanced. The following verses stress that Jesus’ words will be fulfilled “to the letter” (v. 16), which continues the motif of Jesus as a prophet whose words will come to pass (see 1 Sam 10:1–13; 1 Kgs 17:8–16).

4. The disciples are to look for “a man carrying a jar of water”. This is odd, as a man would normally carry water in a leather bottle. Women carried water in jars. Perhaps this was the sign that he was the man they were looking for, much as a modern day spy would have some kind of verification code word?

5. Jesus is frequently addressed as “teacher” in Mark’s Gospel – see 4:38; 5:35; 9:17, 9:38; 10:35; 13:1, 10:17, 20, 12:14, 19, 32. The structure of the sentence – “‘The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?'” – suggests the man already knew Jesus.

6. Mark uses the Greek word katalyma (κατάλυμα), here translated as “guest room” but meaning more generally a temporary resting or stopping place. Luke uses the same word in referring to the place where Joseph and Mary sought refuge on the night Jesus was born (see Luke 2:7). During Passover Jerusalem residents were expected to make space available for pilgrims to celebrate the meal. Jesus says the man will then show
them “a large upstairs room” – anagaion (ἀνάγαιον). “In crowded Jerusalem the eating quarters of the family were often on the upper story above the din of the street or of a shop below. The designation “large” (mega:
literally “great”) suggests that more than the Twelve and Jesus were present, while “well furnished” (Greek estrōmenon: literally “spread over, carpeted”) describes a festive room with covered couches for the guests to recline on (see 14:18). The term also echoes the garments spread out (estrōsan) before Jesus when he first entered Jerusalem (11:8). (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, The Liturgical Press, 2002, 393.)

7. This is all arranged when “two of his disciples” are sent into the city to meet “a man” to arrange the Passover celebration at an unspecified address. It was public knowledge that the authorities were looking to arrest Jesus – see Mark 12:12 and 14:1 – so it is not surprising that this gathering with his disciples – the twelve or more – would be kept secret. “On other nights Jesus went to Bethany, but on Passover night Jewish men were required to eat the evening meal within the city of Jerusalem; and this meant that Jesus would have had to remain within the jurisdiction of the priestly authorities late into the night
(Passover usually lasted until nearly midnight).” (L W Hurtado, Mark, Baker Books, 2011, 233.)

8. It is precisely in this moment of darkness and light, joy and sadness, celebration and impending tragedy, that Jesus takes the loaf of bread and the cup of wine and makes them symbols of a new Exodus, a new Passover, a new Covenant. One scholar writes: “Already before Mark the Lord’s Supper had achieved liturgical form in the early church, although slight variations in the NT are still evident. The words of institution are shortest in Mark 14:22 and Matt 26:26, “‘This is my body.'” Paul adds “‘which is for you'” (1 Cor 11:24), and Luke, evidently in dependence on both Mark and Paul, adds “‘given'” (22:19). In contrast to Mark and Matthew,
Paul and Luke also contain a command to repeat the observance. From earliest times the Last Supper has been regarded by the church as the truest representation of its fellowship with Christ.” (J R Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, W B Eerdmans, 2002, 425.) This is why we can regard the community’s celebration of the Eucharist as both the source and summit of our lives together in Christ.


Some years ago a high school teacher told me of a research project one of her Year 12 students was doing on the eating habits of the families represented by the other students in her class. I recall one particular finding: None of the families had a regular family meal. I have heard since that this is not uncommon in Australia.

Our word “companion” comes from the Latin words panis meaning “bread” and cum meaning “with”. And it is not so much the food as the event of eating together. Sharing a meal seems to be a basic human activity of some significance.

The absence of such sharing seems strange and perhaps worrying. In the first place, it seems to ignore a natural symbol of solidarity and care in the human family. In the second place, one wonders what implications this might have for our appreciation of the Eucharist.

In the Jewish tradition, the Passover meal is of the utmost importance. Jesus uses that meal to institute a memorial ritual that seems to have been enacted from the very earliest days in the Christian community.

There is an important logic at play here: Grace builds on nature. The universal human appreciation for breaking bread together is used to remember the great act of God in the Exodus and that gives birth to our remembrance of the great act of God in the New Exodus. Like the family meal, the Eucharistic meal finds its significance in the relationships embodied in the event.

“On my fortieth birthday, my students gave me a surprise party. While I was taking a service in the college chapel, they carefully cleared the papers in my room, decorated it from floor to ceiling, and laid out a magnificent spread, with cakes and wine at the middle of it. I knew nothing about it until I walked through the door. It was a marvellous and memorable evening.

“It’s a deep human instinct—I believe a God-given one—that we mark significant moments with significant meals. Sharing a meal, especially a festive one, binds together a family, a group of friends, a collection of  colleagues. Such meals say more than we could ever put into words about who we are, how we feel about one another, and the hopes and joys that we share together. The meal not only feeds our bodies; that seems in some ways the least significant part of it. It says something; and it does something, actually changing us so that, after it, part of who we actually are is ‘the people who shared that meal together, with all that it meant’.

“The great Jewish festivals all function in this way, most of them connected to the retelling of some part of the story of how God has rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. Supreme among the festivals was Passover, when they not only told the story of how God had liberated them, but used to recline on couches at the table; in that world, free people didn’t just sit, they reclined. Celebrating Passover was and is a deeply religious act, and also, for the many centuries in which Jews have suffered oppression, a deeply political act. It says, loud and clear, ‘despite appearances, we are God’s free people.’ It sustains loyalty; it encourages faith, hope and love.

“Take all that for granted, and now come into Jerusalem with the unsuspecting disciples as they follow one of Jesus’ unnamed, secret friends in the city to an unidentified location. Jesus knows the end can’t be far off, but he is determined that this Passover meal will be uninterrupted. This meal will say what he most wants to say to his followers, and because it’s to be repeated, it will go on saying it. This meal will do what needs to be done, again and again, changing his followers, making them the people who depend on his death for their life, the people who discover that through his achievement God’s kingdom is now coming on earth as in heaven. In that sense, the meal is a surprise party for the disciples, though it turns out to be a very sad one.

“All the two know is that they’re getting ready the special elements that make up the traditional Jewish Passover. What Jesus knows is that this will be a Passover with a difference. This is the time when he will go, as a greater Moses, ahead of the Twelve, ahead of Israel, ahead of the world, into the presence of a greater slave-master than Pharaoh, into a terror greater than walking through the sea, to lead the world to freedom. This Passover-meal-with-a-difference is going to explain, more deeply than words could ever do, what his action, and passion, the next day really meant; and, more than explaining it, it will enable Jesus’ followers, from that day to this, to make it their own, to draw life and strength from it. If we want to understand, and be nourished by, what happened on Calvary, this meal is the place to start.

“Jesus has, for some time now, been trying to teach the disciples about his forthcoming death; they have been, to put it mildly, slow to catch on. He has given a few words of explanation and interpretation, in terms of biblical background (the son of man, the servant), political meaning (turning worldly notions of rulership on their heads), and theological interpretation (giving his life a ransom for many). All of that lies behind this meal, but the meal itself goes far beyond theory.

“To the annoyance of our rationalistic age, you can’t put this meaning into words. You can only put it into action. Actions like this are so powerful that sometimes people in the churches have tried to contain or control them, to surround them with more and more words, like trying to cage in a tiger. But the actions—taking, blessing, breaking and giving the bread; taking, blessing and giving the cup—cannot be caged.

“Of course, some words are necessary, otherwise the actions would degenerate into magic, perhaps unconnected with Jesus, with the historical moment of his death. The words Jesus himself used are crucial to the event. Jesus, we must assume, told the Passover story, as the head of the family always would; but this time, instead of saying words to link the bread and the wine back to the Exodus and forward to the final liberation of Israel, he said new words, which linked them directly to the death he would very shortly die, and to the coming of the kingdom of God that would be brought about by that death. This meal, with all its new-passover
associations, was Jesus’ primary means of enabling his followers not only to understand his death but to let it do its freedom-work in their lives and in the world. It drew to a head the kingdom-actions (not least the feastings) and kingdom-teaching of his whole public career. Jesus’ death, seen and known in the light of this meal, makes sense of it all. This is how the kingdom will come.

“All the more tragic, then, that on that night Jesus also spoke sorrowful words about someone who would betray him. They had come in secret to a secret destination; it would take treachery from within to put Jesus at the authorities’ mercy. Jesus, with the scriptures in his head (not least passages in the Psalms which spoke of betrayal by an intimate friend), knew it was bound to happen, but grieved for the torment that would be suffered by the traitor.

“Since this meal was and is so central, we shouldn’t be surprised that its meaning, and the way it is enacted, has often been the subject of bitter disputes and divisions within the church. Sorrow hung over the Last Supper itself, and sorrow hangs over every re-enactment of it within a divided church. But the meal itself, whether kept simply or magnificently, whether the words are whispered or sung, towers above the disputes and failures of Jesus’ followers then and now. Jesus intended it to be the central means whereby his kingdom-achieving death would be known, believed, appropriated and lived out. Each generation of Christians, and each subculture within Christianity, must find ways of enabling that to happen.” (N T Wright, Mark for Everyone, SPCK, 2004, 192-196.)