Have you ever been to a circus? It’s very exciting – a large tent is suddenly put up in the middle of town, and everyone goes to enjoy the entertainment!
Last year, Pope Francis invited me to a circus in Rome – but I’ll tell you more about that in a minute. First there’s another big tent I’d like to tell you about.
Hundreds and hundreds of years ago, Moses was the leader of the Jewish people. God was guiding them through the desert so they had to live in tents as they moved from one place to another. They made one very big special tent which they called the tabernacle. This was where they went to say their prayers. In fact it was more than a place for prayer; they believed it was the place where God lived. They knew that, because God gave them the amazing sign of a pillar of cloud standing there in the daytime, and a pillar of fire every night. You might know a famous hymn which talks about being led by a “fiery, cloudy pillar” – that was where Moses went to hear the voice of God. Then he would come out to give the people God’s instructions.
In the first reading we heard today, God offers the people a deal! “I will look after you”, he said; and the people said “Yes, we’ll do everything you ask us to do”! Now then parents, would you believe that? Would you believe it if anyone in your family said “Yes Mam, yes Dad, I will always do as I’m told”?
Well, we’re not very good at doing what we’re told and the children of Israel weren’t very good either… but in that moment when they said yes, Moses said: “To show this is a really important bargain you’re making with God, I’m going to do something rather gruesome! I’m going to throw blood all over you!” He took a bowl of blood and threw it over the people! You wouldn’t forget a day like that, would you? Moses also said, every year, you have to have a big festival and remember that God rescued you by his power – this was called the feast of Passover. A lamb would be sacrificed and everyone in the family would have to eat part of the lamb.
This helps us make sense of what Jesus did when he celebrated the Last Supper. His friends were used to keeping the festival each year eating lamb and flatbread, but Jesus said “this is my body – eat me!” I am the new lamb you have to eat. Then he said something really gruesome: “I want you to drink my blood!” Jewish people never drank blood. It was forbidden! They had to drain all the blood out of meat before they were allowed to eat it! But Jesus meant the cup of wine in front of him. He meant: “This is going to become my blood, you can drink this and then you’ll have God’s life in you.” The very next day Jesus was killed on the cross and His actual blood did flow out.
We know the good news: Jesus rose from the dead and his friends want to tell the whole world about it. But his friends went scratching their heads and saying “What just happened? Why did Jesus want us to drink his blood?” One of his friends had a long time to think about it, and wrote what we call the “letter to the Hebrews”. It went like this: “Remember the sacrifices Moses gave us in the old days? We had to sacrifice animals to show that we were sorry to God. Moses had a tent where God met him, a tent that just reminded us of heaven. But now Jesus has gone to God’s real tent, that’s heaven itself! He took the best possible sacrifice with him – not an animal’s blood but his own blood, when he gave himself for us. Now we can drink his blood when we come to Holy Mass, so that God’s everlasting life will be in us!”
The other word for “tent” is “tabernacle” and we have our own tent in this church: the tabernacle where the Body of Jesus lives. We don’t see a great pillar of fire coming down from heaven but we do have this lamp showing that God is living here.
Now I promised earlier to tell you how Pope Francis invited me to the circus. It was called the Circus Maximus – which is a stadium in Rome. In Latin, a “circus” was a round space where people went for entertainment – not clowns and trapeze artists but chariot races and gladiators; and that’s where they took Christians to be killed in those early days when the Romans didn’t like Christians. Last summer, Pope Francis invited lots of Catholics and other Christian leaders to meet him there, to honour the martyrs who died in that place.
It reminded me that when our patron Saint, Philip Evans, was killed, that would have been a bit like a circus. A big open field on the edges of Cardiff, lots of people came to see two of those horrible Catholic priests being executed; they would have made a big show out of it.
So for you children making First Communion today, I have a question for you to think about. Would you rather visit the circus or join the circus? Today’s First Holy Communion Mass is a bit like visiting the circus. It’s a big event that creates a lot of excitement. It doesn’t come to town very often; we turn up, have a good time with our families, and go home. But Jesus isn’t just inviting you to enjoy the show. He wants you to become a member of his circus! Going to circus is fun. Joining the circus is glamorous but hard work. What you don’t see in the ring is the hours every trapeze artist spends practising their act, the time the clowns take thinking of funny gags, the time it takes to train the performing animals. But if nobody did that, there would be no circus!
Children, church won’t always give you the special attention you’ve had this year. Sometimes Mass might feel boring. But Communion is so special that St Philip Evans risked being killed so families in Cardiff could go to Mass every Sunday, and the Christians who died in Circus Maximus might have been caught going to Mass too.
Today, Jesus is inviting you to join his circle of friends who meet every week, to be fed by his body and blood. When you receive your First Communion, each of you will become a little tabernacle, with Jesus remaining present in you for a few minutes. So it’s time to join me on the altar and light your own pillar of fire, your baptism candle. Come!