Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
The image of the cup is used in two strikingly different ways in the Book of Psalms.
In Psalm 75, the psalmist writes: “For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup, and the wine is red : it is full mixed, and he poureth out of the same. As for the dregs thereof : all the ungodly of the earth shall drink them, and suck them out.”
And in Psalm 116 which we have heard this evening, the psalmist writes: “I will receive the cup of salvation : and call upon the Name of the Lord.”
The cup of God’s wrath, and the cup of salvation: for Jesus, these become one and the same.
Jesus puts Himself in the place of sinners, He humbles Himself and identifies with fallen humanity in all our weaknesses, “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the punishment that made us whole, and by His bruises we are healed”. Jesus uses the same cup imagery in His reproach to James and John: “Can you drink the cup I will drink?” And He draws on this imagery in His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me”.
The cup of God’s wrath, the cup of suffering – this is the cup from which Jesus will drink, and in the place of the ungodly will “suck out the dregs thereof”, He who as St Paul writes in his Second letter to the Corinthians has “become sin on our behalf, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”.
But the cup which Jesus drinks is not only the cup of wrath and suffering, it is also the cup of salvation. It is the cup of salvation for Jesus Himself: all the prayers for vindication and deliverance that we find in the Book of Psalms are fulfilled in Jesus on the Cross, who throws Himself completely on the Father’s mercy, and is vindicated and raised up by the Father. And it is the cup of salvation for us: because Jesus drinks of this cup, because He takes the place of sinners, because He shares our weakness, because He shares even our mortality, our sin and our weakness and our mortality are redeemed and transformed.
It is a difficult time to be talking about the cup of salvation, because in the Eucharist we are not at this time able to share the cup. And in this context it is worth taking a moment to note that although the faithful cannot share the cup, the wine is still poured out and the chalice of Christ’s precious blood is still offered up at the Eucharist, and it is a part of the representative function of the priest to consume it on behalf of the gathered faithful. It is also worth noting that it has been the consistent teaching of the Church that Christ is fully present in the Sacrament under both the form of the bread and the form of the wine; at the deepest level, you are not losing anything by not receiving the chalice. But nevertheless we must acknowledge that with the loss of the sharing of the chalice there is a loss of some important symbolism, and it is natural also that people should miss that aspect of the Communion and wish to have it restored to us when the time is right.
The Eucharist is above all a sacrifice of thanksgiving.
The psalmist writes:
What reward shall I give unto the Lord : for all the benefits that he hath done unto me?
I will receive the cup of salvation : and call upon the Name of the Lord…
Behold, O Lord, how that I am thy servant : I am thy servant, and the son of thine handmaid; thou hast broken my bonds in sunder.
I will offer to thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving : and will call upon the Name of the Lord.
The Eucharist is a sacrifice of thanksgiving: thanksgiving is the meaning of the word “Eucharist”, the Eucharistic prayers of the Church begin with the words: “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God : it is right to give thanks and praise”, or something very similar, and continue with an assertion of the obligation we are under to give thanks and praise to God for God’s saving acts.
The Eucharist is a sacrifice of thanksgiving: thanksgiving that Jesus has drunk the cup of God’s wrath down to the very dregs; and thanksgiving that it has become for Him and, through Him, for us, the cup of salvation. And we rejoice in that salvation, even and especially on this solemn night when we remember His offering of Himself, and how dearly that offering cost Him.
But the psalmist also asserts that he is God’s servant. The liturgical sacrifice of thanksgiving and the service of God and neighbour are intimately connected, and in this service we find freedom, as the psalmist writes: “thou hast broken my bonds in sunder”.
And here we are drawn to the words of Jesus in today’s gospel, when at the Last Supper in St John’s account He reveals Himself as the servant, who in His love for His disciples takes on the lowest task, and commands us to do the same for one another. His taking the lowest place as the servant who washes the feet of the guests is of a piece with His taking the lowest place in dying the death of a criminal. The love that motivates the one motivates the other.
And so too our acts of service and our worship should also be of a piece, motivated by the same love, bringing us the same freedom; we cannot have one without the other. We receive the Cup of Salvation, we offer the Sacrifice of Thanksgiving, we call upon the Name of the Lord, and we offer ourselves to the Father as His servants, trusting that in this we will find freedom. In the Eucharist, our offering of ourselves in service to God and neighbour is united with Jesus’ full, perfect and sufficient offering of Himself for us, to whom with the +Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory, now and for ever.