Probably one of the most celebrated depictions of the Last Supper is that painted by the great Florentine artist, Leonardo da Vinci. As a small child, I remember vividly receiving a Holy Card in the second grade from Sr. Dorothy Ann, which had this famous picture of the Lord seated at table with his apostles on the night before he died.
Art Historians tell us that from 1495 to 1497 Leonardo labored on this masterpiece that was painted as a mural to grace the wall of the refectory, or dining room, of the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Unfortunately, his experimental use of oil on dry plaster - on what was the thin outer wall of a space designed for serving food, was technically unsound, and by 1500 its deterioration had begun. Since 1726 attempts have been made, unsuccessfully, to restore this magnificent treasure of Renaissance art. A concerted restoration and conservation program, making use of the latest technology, was begun in 1977 and is reversing some of the damage. Although much of the original surface is gone, the majesty of the composition and the penetrating characterization of the figures give a fleeting vision of its vanished splendor. That restoration is now completed and those who have seen the newly restored Last Supper are astounded by it’s luminous quality with details appearing that have not been seen for centuries – details that have led to some incredible flights on fantasy on the part of the author Dan Brown in his book of some years ago, the DaVinci Code!
Leonardo was undoubtedly inspired to paint the Last Supper because of his own keen awareness of how important this central event was and is in the life of every Catholic Christian. The greatest legacy given to us by the Lord is the gift of the Holy Eucharist. Paul writing to the early Christian community at Corinth speaks of the radical unity that is ours as brothers and sisters in Christ who share this one bread and one cup. Many though we are, when we eat this bread and drink this cup an intimate union - a divine communion - is forged between the Lord and each one of us who share this sacred meal. It is this Tradition that has both anchored and shaped our identity as Catholic Christians. It is the Eucharist that makes the Church.
It is the perennial teaching of the Church that in the Holy Eucharist, the Lord Jesus is truly present, body and blood, soul and divinity under the sacramental forms of bread and wine. In the power of the Holy Spirit and through the great prayer of remembrance in which the Lord's own words on the night before he died are spoken, the great transformation takes place. The deepest reality of what may continue to look like bread and wine, has been transformed into the deepest reality of the Risen Lord himself, as food and personal communion for our journey in faith.
Recent surveys, of American Catholics however point to an alarming trend regarding Catholic belief in the Eucharist. A growing number of Catholics of all ages, no longer hold to teaching of the Church in regard to the Holy Eucharist. Many see the Lord's presence in the Eucharistic elements only in a "symbolic" or personal and spiritual way. It is as if- like the great painting of da Vinci, in the consciousness of many Catholics today, the integrity of Catholic belief in the Holy Eucharist is fading with its distinct features becoming blurred and compromised. Perhaps in a subtle way this diminished belief is reflected in the growing and unsettling trend particularly among our youth of failing to reverence this Holy Presence in Church through the venerable custom of genuflecting or bowing in humility on entering this Holy Place.
Each year, the Church sets aside one Sunday to once again call to mind the foundational and central place the Holy Eucharist has in our lives as Catholics. On this Feast of the Body and Blood of the Lord, we are reminded of the Lord's continuing desire to feed our deepest hungers - for unconditional love, forgiveness and inner healing - with the food of his life poured out in love for you and for me.
Deep and abiding understanding and love for the Holy Eucharist must begin and be fostered in our Catholic families. It is here in the most practical way that what was "handed down" to us by our ancestors in the faith, is now "handed on" to a new generation of Catholics. If the commitment and reverence to this Sacrament of the Lord's loving and abiding presence is not central to lives of those of you who are privileged to exercise the vocation of parent, it will never become the heart and center of faith for your sons and daughters.
I am the living bread from heaven, says the Lord; if anyone eats this bread will live forever. Each Eucharist provides an invitation to once again profess our belief in this wondrous gift. May the "Amen" we speak as we receive the Eucharist in communion this day, truly reflect the conviction of our heart, "So be it, I believe".
O Sacrum Convivium - Thomas Tallis
O sacred banquet,
in which Christ is received,
the memory of His Passion is renewed,
the mind is filled with grace,
and a pledge of future glory is given us.