The love of Holy Thursday and the gifts of the Eucharist and the priesthood

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Holy Thursday: April 21, 2011
Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper

Exod 12:1-8, 11-14; Ps 116; 1 Cor 11:23-26; John 13:1-15

He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end.

Brothers and sisters, this evening we celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. And so we begin the Easter Triduum—the three days of the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord. This is the culmination of the liturgical year: the very highest point of our entering, week by week, into every facet of our Lord’s life and of the mystery of our redemption.

We know what is coming—just as surely as our Lord Jesus knew what was coming, that Thursday evening, nearly 2000 years ago. We know the tremendous suffering and darkness and death that are coming, within hours!—as he did. But first comes something else. First comes love.

He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end.

It was the time of Passover: that eight-day celebration every year when the People of Israel remembered how the Lord had made them a people; how, by powerful, supernatural actions, he rescued them out of Egypt, where they were enslaved, and brought them out into freedom in himself. As Moses would tell them:

“It was not because you are the largest of all nations that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you, for you are really the smallest… It was because the Lord loved you… that he brought you out… and ransomed you from the hand of Pharaoh.” [Deut 7:7-8]

This rescue, this great Exodus, had come through the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, a lamb without blemish. Every person shared in this lamb; and every family marked the doorframe to their house with its blood.

And this first Passover therefore carried within it its own ceremonial commemoration: an eight-day celebration, with a central meal, that not only called the past events to mind, but also made them present to the children of Israel born centuries later. Though they were not physically present in Egypt on that night long ago, by sharing in the Passover lamb, they too were rescued; they too were re-constituted as the Lord’s own People. The blood of the lamb marked them as loved by the Lord.

And so it was no accident that, as Christ, the Lamb of God, prepared to offer himself on the cross to complete his one perfect sacrifice to the Father, to ransom us from sin and death, through the true blood of the Lamb—it was no accident that he also established a sacramental meal by which we too could truly share in his one sacrifice. And so, in the Lord’s Supper before his Passion, our Lord Jesus Christ “instituted the Eucharist as the memorial of his death and Resurrection.” [CCC 1337] As one of my professors put it, in the Lord’s Supper he “pre-enacted” the sacrifice he would complete upon the cross of Calvary, to give us the sacramental means by which it could be “re-enacted” later. He made his one sacrifice present before its completion, to give us the means by which it would be made present to us after. On this evening, in this place.

Happy are those who are called to his supper!
Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb!

In the other six sacraments, our Lord Jesus truly acts: he is present to us by his power, as he accomplishes a real change in us—using the form and matter of the sacrament as his instrument. But in this sacrament, the Eucharist, the sacrament of sacraments, Christ makes himself “truly, really, substantially” present. Under these comfortable, familiar appearances of bread and wine, our Lord Jesus gives us himself completely—“body and blood, soul and divinity.” [CCC 1374] All that he is, all that he has, he gives to you tonight.

Panis angelicus fit panis hominum…
The bread of angels made the bread of men;
The heavenly bread brings to an end all foreshadowings.
O wondrous thing: the poor and humble servant
feeds upon the Lord.

And so, on this night, Christ instituted the Eucharist. But he did not stop there: for he also instituted the ministerial priesthood. When he gave his body and blood to the apostles to receive and commanded them to “Do this in memory of me,” he made them the first priests of the New Covenant. [Council of Trent] To these ordinary men, so often so very weak, he gave the sacred power to celebrate the Eucharist and make him truly present—for you, on this evening, in this place.

And, if that were not enough, he also washed their feet. He, their master and teacher, lowered himself to the role of a servant and carefully washed all the dirt of the road from their bare feet.

Have you ever had your feet washed by a stranger? It is an unforgettable experience the first time. To have aspects of your feet, normally hidden away from view, seen up close by a stranger; and not just seen, but touched, handled: it’s embarrassing. And yet to have those intimate, sensitive, even embarrassing things so carefully and lovingly washed and dried: it’s love.

And isn’t that just like—confession? Jesus said, “Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed, for he is clean all over.” And it is true: in baptism, we are bathed and made clean all over, and marked with an indelible impression on the soul, so that baptism need not by repeated and indeed cannot be. But how very often we need to be washed again from the sin that covers our feet in filthiness. And in sacramental confession, “week after week Christ washes [our] dirty feet, handles [our] very toes, and repeats,” [Annie Dillard] “Has no one condemned you? Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” [John 8:10-11]

In the celebration of Passover, there is a traditional song called “Dayenu”—which means, “it would have been enough.” They sing:

If He had brought us out from Egypt, and had not carried out judgments against them—
Dayenu, it would have been enough!

If He had carried out judgments against them, and not against their idols—
Dayenu, it would have been enough!

And on it goes, for 14 verses, blessing after blessing, until it comes to a conclusion of overflowing gratitude: a conclusion we can sing tonight: For how much more should we be grateful to our precious Lord Jesus for the doubled and redoubled goodness that He has bestowed upon us;

  • for He has taken on our human nature,
  • and suffered and died for our salvation,
  • and called each one of us to himself,
  • and given us new life through the washing of baptism,
  • and sent his priests to minister to us,
  • and forgiven our sins in confession,
  • and fed us with his own body and blood in the Eucharist,

on this evening, in this place.

How shall I make a return to the Lord for all the good he has done for me?  The cup of salvation I will take up, and I will call upon the name of the Lord.

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