Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14: This day is to be a day of remembrance for you.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26: Every time you eat this bread, you proclaim his death.
John 13:1-15: Now he showed how perfect his love was.
Anyone who has tried to render a phrase from one language into another knows that
translators must make choices. Rarely is it possible to reproduce the flavour of a
statement with its range of associations and ambiguities. A phrase that in the source
language is suggestively open may have to be nailed down in the language of translation.
A clearer, more memorable message may result, but sometimes at a cost. The liturgical
version of our Maundy Thursday gospel says of Christ at the Last Supper that, having
loved his own in the world, ‘he showed how perfect his love was’. Earlier translators
have tended to prefer, ‘he loved them to the end’.
There is much to say in favour of their
choice. It renders the Greek word for word; underneath it, we hear the spoken Aramaic.
But what does it mean to love ‘to the end’? The quality of love is at issue, yes, of course.
To love to the end is to love to the point of completion. We learn something of the
fullness of Christ’s love there and then. But the ‘end’ shows us, too, that the Saviour’s
love endures. Our Lord ‘is love’, John writes in his Epistle. That love, says his Prologue,
was ‘in the beginning’. This evening he tells us it remains ‘to the end’.
Christ is Alpha and Omega. He is the same today and yesterday and always, the
beginning and the end. Love in the beginning, love to the end. What is love? What does it
mean to love? Few questions are more urgent. A poet of our times gives an answer that
repays consideration. Only one who loves, writes Elsa Morante, can know.
Alone the lover knows. If you love not, I pity you!
The myriad lives will seem to you then but common and cheap
Like the sacred Host to unconsecrated eyes.
Only the lover has eyes to see the splendours of the Other,
With access to the house of twofold mystery:
The mystery of sorrow and the mystery of joy.
We often here it said that ‘love is blind’. It isn’t true! Infatuation is, like any passion.
Butlove is not. Love sees. It is alert to what a person might become. Indeed, it generates
becoming. It causes seeds to sprout. The lover, says Morante, traces splendour where
another sees but dirt. What is the Sacrament displayed at Benediction to unhallowed
eyes? A piece of bread, no more. Likewise, if we do not love, the world we inhabit, the
lives that touch ours, seem pointless and dull. Love alone makes us capable of mystery, a
mystery of pain sometimes, but essentially of joy. Love sets us free from our confinement
in ourselves. It brings about communion. It gives itself and knows how to receive.
Christ loved those who were his in the world. The Twelve were his friends, his
companions. He had given them all he had received from his Father. Yet he knew they
would abandon him, and soon. Peter would disown him thrice. Judas had already left his
heart’s door open to the enemy, his purse weighed down by silver coins. Faced with
imminent betrayal, on an evening made dark by the shadow of the Cross, what does
Christ do? Does he accuse his faithless brethren? Does he upbraid them? Does he take
refuge in self-pity? ‘On the night he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took bread. He thanked
God for it and broke it, and he said, “This is my body. It is for you”.’ He loved them to
the end. He saw beyond betrayal. He left them a memorial that would heal their broken
hearts when he had gone forth from this world. By it he would be present in his absence.
‘Do this in memory of me.’ Christ speaks not only of the performance of a rite. He
speaks of what it means. ‘Do this’, that is: pour out your life in love as I have done. Lest
we think that good intentions are enough, he sets a standard we must follow. He washes
our feet. The feet that turn away from him, our feet, betrayers’ feet that stray from his
commandments, are cleansed by hands our liturgy calls ‘venerable’ and ‘holy’. The Lord
claims our feet for himself, as if to say, ‘one day you will come back to me’. That is what
love is. That’s what love does. It sees the penitent in the offender. It sees contrition in a
heart of stone. It sees a shoot of tenderness in barren fields. It pardons wrong even before
it is committed. It gives itself into the hands of faithless folk, that is, into our hands.
And says, ‘Do likewise’. Is there love in our hearts? We shall know by what our eyes can see.
If the myriad lives seem unworthy of attention; if we shun those in need, keep ourselves to
ourselves, avert our gaze, bear resentments: then we do not love as Christ commands. If
in the lives that surround us we see Christ; if the pain of others moves us to compassion;
if we pardon; if we wish to help and serve; if we honour every woman, every man, and
see in them a flicker of God-given glory, then we love. Then we know. Then we shall act
on what we know. ‘I give you an example’, says the Lord, ‘that you may copy what I do.’
Love is not content to think and feel and contemplate. Love risks and does, right ‘to the
end’. May we never forget the lesson taught us today. Amen.