The followers of Jesus had come to realize his irreplaceable uniqueness; upon his death they cried out with that immortal lament, “To whom shall we turn now, Lord? You alone have the words of eternal life.” Even though they were somehow convinced that he was alive and living among them, they must have felt his physical absence terribly.
His presence had brought them courage, inspiration, wisdom, hope and the joy of life. But with his death they were on their own — or so they thought — like persons who had briefly lived in a dream world and had now awakened to find themselves as weak and frightened and human as ever before.
Without him around to turn to, there were some serious difficulties. We can picture them saying, “What did he mean when he said so & so?” ‘“Does anyone remember what his response was when we asked him…?” Among the apostles — the bishops of the infant church — there were disagreements. The head of them all, Peter, had, for example, not quite understood that the old law of their beloved Jewish religion had been supplanted by a new law and that many of its age-old requirements could no longer be in force.
There was a baptism now and the whole law was summed up in the person of Jesus. Paul emphasized that the followers of Jesus are children of the promise, not of the law, and the promise is fulfilled, it is personified, in the Risen Jesus. Paul had some misconceptions of his own too and, like the others, he wasn’t always ready to give in to the majority opinion.
But Jesus wasn’t there to be consulted. So the leaders of this unprecedented religious venture had next to learn that it was henceforth in Eucharist that they would find strength and wisdom and truth that would make them and keep them one. Admission to that fellowship had one basic requirement: care for one’s fellow human beings. The invitation to belong was extended to men and women, not to angels. One accepted the invitation with one’s own sinfulness and weaknesses — and entered the faith community in an atmosphere of intellectual honesty and, most important of all, a sincere concern for the welfare of others.
At the parting meal he shared with them, that Last Supper, he gave a new meaning to bread and wine. The bread, he said, was himself, who loved them beyond their comprehension; the wine, he said, was himself poured out in the fullest gesture of friendship and love. From now on, he said, you do this in memory of me. And know that when you do I am with you, just as I am now, to renew with you the eternal covenant sealed in my blood.
In many respects, things haven’t changed much over the past 20 centuries. The same Jesus who loved his first followers just as they were loves us just as we are. He demands of us no more or less than he did of them. We don’t have the comfort of his abiding physical presence anymore than they did. We don’t always respond to others with generous concern, and neither did they. Often we find each other’s points of view threatening and disturbing and just like our ancestors in the faith we too fail to distinguish between the mind and the heart of our sisters and brothers.
To the likes of us is given the Eucharist, the celebration and the assurance of the presence of Jesus among us. What that means is simply that in the person of Jesus we are embraced by the unconditional love that is God. The Eucharist, the Mass, commands only what it presupposes: that we care for one another without exception.