Here is Archbishop Cushley's Homily from last night's Mass of the Lord's Supper at St Mary's Cathedral in Edinburgh.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Tonight, we begin our journey into the three days of the Lord’s own Passover, the Lord’s passage, on our behalf, through death to life.
The great arc that will be described by the 15 scripture readings that we will listen to over the next three days begins with the first reading we just heard this evening from the Book of Exodus.
The text is about the preparations for the very first Passover of the people of Israel before they left Egypt, and the extract we read begins by describing the choice of the animal, the lamb, that will be put to death.
We learn that the lamb may be drawn from among the people’s flocks of sheep or goats, but the lamb needs to be without blemish.
It is to be killed ritually at twilight, its flesh is eaten, and its blood is used to deliver Israel from the death of the firstborn, and ultimately to Israel’s deliverance from Pharaoh himself. God will “pass over” the houses of the people of Israel, their first born will be spared and they will all be given liberty and life.
Our second reading then builds on this picture, as it takes us to just a few years, a very few years, after Jesus’s death.
What St Paul tells us with the greatest care concerns the Last Supper, a moment that we know is very similar to the Passover just described, but not quite the same thing.
We believe that what Paul describes here goes back to as early as the 30’s AD, and it puts us practically into immediate touch with what Jesus’s very first disciples did in his memory, and from the very earliest days after his death.
These few sentences bring us within a whisker of Jesus himself, and what he said and did on the night before he died, and they are very precious to us.
As I just said, what Jesus does tonight is not quite a Jewish Passover as such.
The Passover of the Jews that year is to be celebrated in a few days’ time. Jesus’s betrayal and trial and death are about to intervene, and so he knows he is not going to be able to celebrate the actual Passover with his disciples.
Instead, he will die as lambs are being put to death in the Temple, in preparation for the Jewish Passover.
And so, this evening Jesus takes important, meaningful elements of the Passover and respectfully and meaningfully, “retasks” them or redirects them.
He does something recognisable to his disciples, but at the same time, he tells them – and us in our turn - that this is not the renewal of the old Covenant; rather it is a new Covenant in his blood.
Instead of sharing a sacrificed lamb with them, he takes the bread, and says instead, “This is my body, which is for you, do this as a memorial of me”.
He takes the cup after supper – again, an element of the Jewish Passover, but says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Whenever you drink it, do this as a memorial of me”.
These are as close to the Lord’s own words on this night as we can come. And they show us how Jesus, on this night, becomes the Lamb of God.
He is offering himself as the Lamb whose death will deliver his people from death, whose life is given up knowingly, willingly, before the events that we know so well, just before they come to pass.
As to our Gospel passage tonight, it is completely consistent with St Paul, but it adds something unknown and unlooked for to the elements of the old Passover that have been transformed by Jesus’s action this evening.
The passage starts by confirming for us that “it was before the festival of the Passover, and [that] Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to pass from this world to the Father”. John tells us that they were “at supper” - not at the Passover meal; and he confirms that Judas is getting ready to betray Jesus.
Into all of this context, we then see Jesus kneel down and wash his disciples’ feet. It is a gesture of friendship, of humility, of self-emptying, an understated indication of the supreme service he is about to render all humanity in his willing self-emptying on the Cross.
Seen as an ensemble, then, our three readings come together perfectly to let us see Jesus as the Lamb of God, who has come into the world to take away our sins.
His Supper, the Last Supper, evokes the Passover and the old Covenant, and yet Jesus transforms it into an everlasting memorial of himself and of his death.
In it, he becomes our Lamb, the one who will be sacrificed on the Cross for our liberation from sin and death.
And he does so with the greatest tenderness, meekly, willingly, and consciously, going to his death for our life, and the life of all his friends.