Have you ever thought about the words of the Hymn we sang at the beginning of Mass? “Praise to the Holiest in the Height” is actually a poem written by Blessed John Henry Newman, and it is full of things worth thinking about and yet easily misunderstood. I am sure you will have noticed, for example, the way he calls Jesus the second Adam. “A second Adam to the fight, and to the rescue came” Well we all think we know the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden – how these are the names given to the first pair of human beings, and how they disobey God and lose the right to live in peace and joy in God’s garden – but what has this ancient story got to do with Jesus? Well, we’ll see in a minute or two, I hope!
The story of the first Adam is a story created by the ancient writers to explain why things are so wrong in the world. We know they are wrong in two ways. First of all our own individual failure to do everything we know God would like us to do ; and secondly our part in humanity worldwide – hurting and killing each other and the beauty of the world in so many ways. It is easy to forget this second problem, to think that provided we try to be good and kind then what happens to other people doesn’t matter. But it does, as is shown nowadays in the way we are all interconnected to one another. Thus we have to face two problems, two kinds of sin, what the hymn calls “the double agony in man” The first Adam and the first Eve, doing what they want to do whatever the consequences, are actually us. They represent humanity as it might have been, and humanity as it actually is, stuck with so many problems, so much evil and sin, that we cannot really solve, despite all our best efforts.
St Paul expresses this well when he says :- “Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me …. making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?”
That then is us, the first Adam, desperate to be rescued from what we call our “fallen” condition. And what we need is to be set free from our link to the first Adam by becoming one with the second Adam.
“O loving wisdom of our God
when all was sin and shame,
a second Adam to the fight,
and to the rescue came.”
But then the hymn reminds us that the power to do this is more than the normal “grace” of God.
“And that a higher gift than grace, should flesh and blood refine.”
Hearing this might puzzle us. What on earth does a great theologian like Bl. John Henry meant by a “higher gift than grace”? “Grace” means God giving himself to us, so how can there be anything higher? He puts it like this, poetically, I think, to stress the most amazing gift of all – God coming to us as Jesus –“God’s presence and his very self, and essence all divine.” This then is the second Adam, this is the way God rescues us from the “double agony” in which we are trapped whether we like it or not.
But how do we link ourselves to the new Adam in order to be part of the New Creation? The answer is quite simple. We do so by accepting the ways Jesus the new Adam has given us of becoming one with him, and these ways are vividly displayed for us on this night above all nights.
First Jesus shows us how we must accept his sacrificial love symbolized tonight when he washes our feet. Peter, maybe a bit like us, wants something much more dramatic, he wants to be washed all over! He has to be told, like us, that he must accept the simple signs that God offers and no more. And then Jesus gives the greatest and yet simplest sign of all. He takes a small part of the whole meal – the unleavened Passover bread, and the ceremonial sip of wine from the shared cup, and you know what he says – this is the way to be one with me… I am the Vine, you are the branches – accept me as your friend not your master – accept my way of love not yours!
The Hymn then reminds us of one more event of this night – the agony in the garden – that we will re-enact at the end of Mass and then in the Watch that follows.
“And in the garden secretly,
And on the cross on high.
Should teach his brethren and inspire
To suffer and to die”
Although you might not think it, this is a reference back to the first Adam isn’t it? The first Adam, that is us, chose his own way in the garden, and so was thrown out of the garden, and so the second Adam chooses God’s way in a garden, “Not my will but thine, be done” The garden of Gethsemane is , of course, a real place, but it represents for us heaven itself. For the garden we are thrown out of is the place where God is, so when Jesus chooses God’s way in a garden, when he dies and then is buried in a garden, and when finally he rises to new life in a garden, he is opening for us the gate back into the garden of God. We accept his way, we become one with him, are drawn into communion with him, in the way he has shown us, and thus are led through death to the glory of eternal life with God for ever.
“Praise to the holiest in the height
And in the depth be praise
In all his words most wonderful
Most sure in all his ways.”