Homily preached by Fr Oswald McBride OSB at the Conventual Mass on Sunday 5th May, the Sixth Sunday of Easter. Fr Oswald serves the community as Vocations Director.
I hope you will forgive me, but I am going to break one of my own rules and start this homily with a personal story. On the 9th October 2000, my dad went shopping. Nothing extraordinary there, you might think. But he’d been quite ill for a little time, and wasn’t really supposed to do much; nonetheless, he went to town, and bought all the things he knew my Mum most liked. That evening, he cooked my Mum’s favourite supper, and he, Mum and my youngest brother ate together, joking and chatting away as normal. After a while, they all went off to bed, happy and content. About 1am, though, Dad had a massive heart attack and shortly afterwards died in my mother’s arms. Despite all my brother’s valiant attempts at resuscitation, he had gone. He was 58. No famous last words, no real chance for emotional goodbyes. Instead, there was just his own “Last Supper” – a supper which was his last gift to them, a supper which – in many ways – summed up the whole of his life: a life of kindness, of service of his family, of doing his best to give us what he knew we really enjoyed or really needed.
I mention this little episode because I find in it so many echoes of today’s Gospel. We see Jesus speaking to his friends at his own “Last Supper”, that meal he shared with them the night before he too was to die. We see him very aware that he stands on the brink of something terrible – his journey through betrayal and torture towards the cruellest death imaginable, death by crucifixion. And yet we see so much more. Earlier in John’s account, before supper, we see him washing the Apostles’ feet, an act of kindness and service which he gives them as an example. Then, during supper itself, he gives them the bread and wine which will act as sacraments of the sacrifice he is to make for them – the bread his broken body, the wine his blood outpoured for the forgiveness of sins. And then we come to the passage we have just heard, after supper has ended. As if he had not already given enough, he has two more gifts to offer: the pledge of his peace and the promise of the Holy Spirit – gifts he knew they would really need in the coming days: a peace deeper than the world can give, to help them face their fears in the coming terror and destruction, and the promise of the Holy Spirit, to remind them of his teaching, and to give them the courage to put that teaching into action.
And then three days later, against all expectation, Jesus returns as he said he would. On that first Easter Sunday evening, in that same room in which they had eaten, Jesus stands amongst his friends again and makes the gifts he had promised real. In the full power of his Resurrection, in his new and transformed life, he says no longer “my own peace I give you” but “Peace be with you”; he says no longer that “the Father will send the Spirit”, but breathes on them and says: “Receive the Holy Spirit”. Jesus makes his gifts to his friends real – no longer words, but reality, no longer just promises, but actual.
For many of you, the next few weeks will be a time of change and a time of “goodbyes”. Some from each year group will leave the College, the 1st year will start new studies for GCSE and the Remove enter the 6th form, and the Upper VIth will leave for the last time to go on to an entirely new phase of their lives. In these few weeks, then, you too – all of you – stand alongside the Jesus we see in today’s gospel, and that very fact makes a demand on you. For during this time of transition, during this time of change and “goodbyes”, the Lord is asking you too to consider what gifts you are going to leave to your friends. He is asking you too how you are going to make those gifts real for them, just as he did in that upper room that first Easter Sunday. He is asking you too to reflect on what you will give to those you love, as your lives are – little by little and just like his – transformed by the power of the Spirit.
I do not think this is anything for you – any of you – to be afraid of. I suspect what you can give is much simpler than you think, and the effect of that giving will be much greater than you expect. My dad was no saint – just as his eldest son is no saint – but in his little “Last Supper” when he knew he was going to die, he did the simple and the ordinary – cooking, eating, chatting with those he loved – and he left us a sign of just how much he cared for us, a last gift I cannot forget. Similarly, I was very struck when, at a recent House Punch, I watched a little slideshow by the top year, showing their memories of their time here. It was all very simple, very ordinary stuff – a bit silly, funny, nothing extraordinary – but it all revealed just how much they had learned to love each other, to support each other, to be there for each other in the good times and the bad. It was all very simple, but deeply moving. It will be just the same for you. If you give the ordinary things day after day – the kind word, the helping hand, the generous sharing of your time or your talent, and if you make those gifts to each other real, given wholeheartedly – then you too will be doing Christ’s work. For I think that is what Jesus means when he says today: If anyone loves me, he will keep my word – for he sums up what “his word” is not in complex rules or laws, but in one simple phrase, his new commandment: Love one another, just as I have loved you.
At the beginning of this Mass we prayed that “what we relive in remembrance, we may always hold on to in what we do”. Well, what we relive this morning in remembrance, both in his word and in the Eucharist we celebrate, is Christ’s complete giving of himself to us in love, a love which was stronger than the power of death, a love which he shares with us again, as we participate in communion. It is that same generous love he asks of each one of us, in every word and action. We do not need to wait, indeed we must not wait until our own death is approaching to start that work of love. No. It is the work of every day, every hour, every breath. For it is that generous love which – as Jesus himself says – will invite God to make his home in us throughout our lives on earth. And it is that same love which is the mark of our citizenship of the new Jerusalem, that heavenly city which has the glory of God as its true light and which – one day, through his grace – will be our own true and everlasting home.