He still loved those who were His own, whom He was leaving in the world.
In the first letter of St. John, we read, “God is love. This might have been said of Jesus Himself, and it would still be the same: Jesus is love.
Love proceeded from Him everywhere. We encounter love all around Him. But we want to seek it out in the flaming, radiant center. Love is what He shows toward the delicate blossoming of His Father’s creation, when He speaks of the lilies of the field, and how God has clothed them more magnificently than Solomon in all his glory. He shows love toward all things living and breathing when He speaks of the birds of the air — light, free of worry, who toil not, and yet the Father in Heaven feeds them.
This kind of love is indeed beautiful. But love of this same sort may be found among others, even better expressed, more highly colored, and more from the heart. Consider St. Francis of Assisi who called everything in this world brother and sister.
Love is what seizes our Lord when He sees the obscure, abandoned masses of the people, and takes pity on them because they are like sheep that have no shepherd. There is something heroic, strong, in this love for people forsaken and in distress.
It is love again when He receives the sick; when He lets that great sea of misery wash up to Him; when He lifts up, strengthens, and heals. It is love when He says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavily burdened, and I will give you rest.” Oh, this tremendous Lover and the might and majesty of His heart taking up arms against the massive world-force of sorrow, magnificently sure of His inexhaustible power to comfort, to strengthen, and to bless! Love is indeed all these things. But still we do not see the uniqueness about these several instances that bring us to say, “Love is He and He alone.”
We must go deeper in our search.
That last evening before His death, those hours when what was coming hovered dark and terrible, and at the same time every happening of the past was brought sharply to the foreground of His soul’s memory, Jesus was with His disciples, in a state of mind more withdrawn and interior than ever before, waiting completely on His Father’s will, aware in His deepest self, of His mission and the purpose of His presence. Just before his account of that last evening, John says, “Before the paschal feast began, Jesus already knew that the time had come for His passage from this world to the Father. He still loved those who were His own, whom He was leaving in the world, and He would give them the supreme proof of His love.” He washed their feet; then, while they ate the Passover together, He bequeathed the mystery of His Testament.
Matthew reports it so: “And while they were still at table, Jesus took bread, and blessed and broke it, and gave it to His disciples, saying, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ Then He took a cup, and offered thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink, all of you, of this; for this is my blood, of the new testament, shed for many, to the remission of sins.’
Two words in these sentences must be understood at least to some extent if we are to follow what went on: the little words for you. The mystery that Jesus was bequeathing is embedded in the Passover meal, in memory of the covenant God made with His people, in those days when He sent the Angel of Destruction against Pharaoh’s obduracy with the most dreadful of all plagues, the death of every firstborn. At that time, Moses was instructed that every family was to kill a lamb and paint their doorposts with its blood, and all should eat of it standing and dressed and ready for a journey. The blood was to be a sign of safety from the avenger on his way; the meal celebrated the covenant of alliance between the people and their rescuing God. That was the lamb eaten in the paschal meal of the old testament; that was the blood shed as seal of confirmation to the covenant. And now Jesus speaks of love, bestowed anew in death and a communal meal — blood shed to seal the new testament.
The victim, in the death that is to take place, is He.
“For you” — for us. These words are as if covered with ashes, gray, impotent; custom has made them so. We have heard them countless times, and their edge has gone blunt. Do we still grasp what they mean?
Any man alive stands in himself and feels himself at the natural center of things, as if the world would stop existing for him if he should cease to be. Does such a being ever give his life for another? Certainly he does. A mother does as much for her child. A man does as much for his work or his ideas. This happens now and then, one has to say; or more accurately, seldom, very seldom. More often than not, what passes as sacrifice for work or an idea is nothing but camouflaged assertion of status. Or a man may give his life for his nation, carried off by the dreadful events of war. Or he might do the same for his neighbor in peril, if he is driven by a great heart. But what about giving one’s life for mankind — for all the strangers afar off, for all those he encounters who have no sympathy or understanding or love for him, who accept nothing, and who even defend themselves against the salvation being offered them?
We can have no understanding of the words for you until we cleanse ourselves of every trace of sentimentality. We must clarify in our minds the degree of isolation in which our Lord stood, abandoned by all who might have helped, without the stimulating atmosphere pervading great affairs, with no enthusiasm of any kind about Him, and without the support or élan of natural drives or creative compulsion. He knows that men are lost. He knows they can breathe in the freedom of salvation only when satisfaction has been made for their sins. Life may come to them only through a death which He alone can die. He takes this for granted, starts from this premise. That is what is meant by the words for you.
We can understand them — and it is our entire Christian duty to understand them — only if in the deepest stillness of our hearts, and the readiness of our hearts, we strive for this understanding, and God furnishes us with the necessary graces. But what Jesus achieved for you: that is His love.
And herein lies the mystery of the Eucharist.
When He was announcing this at Capernaum, He said, “I myself am the living bread that has come down from Heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he shall live forever. And now, what is this bread which I am to give? It is my flesh, given for the life of the world.” Then the Jews fell to disputing with one another, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” Whereupon Jesus said to them, “Believe me when I tell you this; you can have no life in yourselves unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His blood. The man who eats my flesh and drinks my blood enjoys eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. My flesh is real food; my blood is real drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives continually in me and Iin him. As I live because of the Father, the living Father who has sent me, so he who eats me will live, in his turn, because of me.”
The Gospel goes on to say that “the Jews murmured.” We cannot help finding this very understandable. Someone standing in their midst, very much alive, tells them in the fullness of His vigor that they must eat His flesh and drink His blood; and this audience has no confidence in Him to begin with — how could they be other than indignant and antagonistic? And when He says, “Only the spirit gives you life; the flesh is of no avail,” and, “The words I have been speaking to you are spirit and life,” His words can reach only those who are ready to follow along in blind confidence through the darkness.
The Eucharist is rooted in Jesus’ death. It will always remain a mystery. But we can feel how we are bound to it with deeper and closer bonds by virtue of Christ’s death and Resurrection. He even said so Himself: “Does this try your faith? What will you make of it if you see the Son of Man ascending to the place where He was before? By His death and Resurrection, Jesus underwent a transfiguration, into His spiritual mode of being. He lives as one glorified in the Eucharist. The Eucharist proceeds from His death. Not for nothing does St. Paul write in his first letter to the Corinthians: “It is the Lord’s death that you are heralding, whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, until He comes.”
The gift of the Eucharist and our Lord’s death are, in the deepest sense, one and the same mystery. The love that drove Him to die for us was the same love that made Him give us Himself as nourishment. It was not enough to give us gifts, words, and instructions; He gave us Himself as well.
Perhaps we must seek out woman, the loving mother, to find someone who understands this kind of longing: to give not some thing, but rather oneself — to give oneself, with all one’s being; not only the spirit, not only one’s fidelity, but body and soul, flesh and blood, everything. This is indeed the ultimate love: to want to feed others with the very substance of one’s own self. And for that, our Lord went to His death, so that He might rise again in the Resurrection, in that condition wherein He desired to give Himself to all mankind for evermore.
And now He who died for us lives again, within us. In His farewell we read, “I am the true vine, and it is my Father who tends it. The branch that yields no fruit in me He cuts away; the branch that does yield fruit He trims clean, so that it may yield more fruit. You, through the message I have preached to you, are clean already; you have only to live on in me, and I will live on in you. The branch that does not live on in the vine can yield no fruit of itself; no more can you, if you do not live on in me. I am the vine; you are its branches. If a man lives on in me, and I in him, he will yield abundant fruit; separated from me, you have no power to do anything.”
He has gone into us, and works within us, and we live in Him and by Him, just as the vine’s branch bears the leaf and fruit from out of the living interdependency of its entire growth.
St. Paul placed this mystery at the foundation of all Christian being. He says, “You know well enough that we who were taken up into Christ by Baptism have been taken up, all of us, into His death. In our Baptism, we have been buried with Him, died like Him, so, just as Christ was raised up from the dead by His Father’s power, we, too, might live and move in a new kind of existence. We have to be closely fitted into the pattern of His Resurrection, as we have been into the pattern of His death; we have to be sure of this, that our former nature has been crucified with Him, and the living power of our guilt annihilated, so that we are the slaves of guilt no longer. Guilt makes no more claim on a man who is dead. And if we have died with Christ, we have faith to believe that we shall share His life.
“We know that Christ, now that He has risen from the dead, cannot die anymore; death has no more power over Him; the death He died was a death, once for all, to sin; the life He now lives is a life that looks toward God. And you, too, must think of yourselves as dead to sin, and alive with a life that looks toward God, through Christ Jesus our Lord.”
“And yet I am alive! Or rather, not I; it is Christ who lives in me.” The whole life of Christ recapitulates itself ever anew in man. To live as a Christian means to participate in the re-enactment of Christ’s life. This happens every time a believer takes a step closer to the Lord, whenever he conquers himself in the course of following Christ. When he carries out within himself the Lord’s commandment, something dies within him: the old man. And something rises up: the new man, “made after the fashion of Christ.” Christ rises within him. And so on, ever the same. Until such time as there slowly grows up within him “the glory of a child of God,” “made after the image and likeness of Christ,” at first invisible, concealed, covered over with ashes and debris, frustrated, imperiled; but then gradually growing stronger until finally it is revealed, after this death, and the old man drops away forever.
That is Christ’s love: that He lives in us in this way, and we in Him, and what is His and what is ours becomes one. That is what Christ’s love is: the love of the Redeemer who dies for us; the love which bestows itself, which gives its all, body and soul, for us to feed upon; the love of being within us, so that His life becomes our life, and ours His.
That is what Christ’s love is. And it is only in the light that shines hence that all else that had to do with love in His life takes on clarity in the plan or design of Christ’s love: how He called to Himself the weary and oppressed that He might comfort them; how He took unto Himself all the sufferings of mankind, bringing relief; how He cast His mercy over the dark distress of nations; how He showed tenderness for all living things, plants, and animals: the first kind of love we spoke of shows in all these instances. That is the love that is revealed in them.