For those of us who live in Edinburgh, we have the enormous privilege of (normally) being able to visit Nicolas Poussin’s Seven Sacraments in the National Gallery. I’ve always been intrigued by the similarities and dissimilarities between the images for Penance and Eucharist. Both are in a darkened dining room, both are centred on a table where guests are reclining, both have bronze vessels for the washing of feet. And the theological connections are equally clear – both have at their heart two of the central tenets of Christian faith: love and forgiveness. The love in the Eucharist picture comes in many ways; in the New Commandment of Jesus to love one another, in the loving gift of himself to all. In the Penance picture, the love is shown lavishly by the woman who washes and anoints Jesus’ feet. The forgiveness in the Eucharist is pronounced in the Dominical Words.
The dissimilarities are also vital. In the Eucharist, the table is completely enclosed. There is no need for the open end of the triclinium because there is no need for access by servants. The servants are at the table. There is also a striking simplicity about the Eucharist image, unlike the more lavish setting for Penance. The festal character of the Mystical Supper is hidden, not ostentatious, for this bridegroom comes in humility and suffering even as he feasts in the New Kingdom. There is also, the Eucharist, much more of a focus on Jesus. Almost all eyes are fixed on him, save those of one disciple who watches Judas as he departs. This further creates a sense that this group gathered fully around the table are united in one Body, despite the rupture in that Body caused by betrayal. For even such a betrayal does not undo the overwhelming love and forgiveness embodied at that table.
Even more than ever this year, our unity in the One Body is mystical – it belongs to the realm of what is beyond plain sight. We are not less united because we are unable to encircle the one physical table; we are no less loved and no less forgiven because we cannot share from the same chalice. Indeed, this year more than ever, we are invited to discover how the command to love one another is ‘new’. What new ways of loving are we being called to as we all share mystically in the one bread?