When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, ‘Surely not I, Lord?’ He answered, ‘The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.’ Judas, who betrayed him, said, ‘Surely not I, Rabbi?’ He replied, ‘You have said so.’ (Matthew 26.20-25)
Eventually the waiting was over and Jesus and the other disciples arrived. They came in and settled down. It is a most familiar scene for us. The fresco of the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci has given us an image of the meal in the Upper Room that is almost impossible to remove from our heads. Of course, it is painted as a director of a programme on TV would have to film it. Da Vinci has everyone seated unnaturally, on one side of the table. All we are told in the gospel is that ‘Jesus took his place’. He though, as ‘the head of the household’ would have taken the place reserved for the head, for the host of this meal and the others would be gathered round him.
One of the many changes that occurred in the last century to the way in which we celebrate the Eucharist was that the president moved to the other side of the altar. Instead of only seeing the back of the priest, the priest now faced us across the table and we faced the priest. It is a much more natural, human way of presiding. In the Cathedral, because of the altars that we have, some of the Eucharists are ‘back to the people’ and others in this ‘face to face’ mode. Each has value of course, but as one who presides the experience is so different when you are, as it were, gathering the people of God around the altar as opposed to standing with them behind you.
For the Eucharist is the supreme act of encounter with God and with one another as family, as community, because a meal always is. Learning to value the Eucharist as the family meal, as much as anything else, is something that we have to work at. It is the most sublime spiritual experience but it is also the experience of simply sharing food and drink and as they gather at the table with Jesus that is what the disciples do.
This is a grace I often use as I sit down to eat
Bless, O Lord,
this food for our use,
ourselves to your service
and make us ever mindful
of the needs of others.