Here is tonight’s Holy Thursday Homily. Photos will follow in the morning.
“Do you realize what I have done for you?”
On this holy night, the Church universal returns to the upper room. Truth be known, it returns to a place and time even more distant, to Egypt, during the first Passover of the Lord when he set his people Israel free from slavery and bondage. This night recalls the closeness of God, the fidelity of God, the enduring love of God for all of his people. The God who for centuries had entered into a variety of covenants with his people tonight reaches the culmination of those covenants in the establishment of the new and eternal covenant in his very flesh as God in the person of Jesus.
Tonight, Jesus, the Son of God and source of Life prepares to hand over his own life as a ransom for the salvation of the world. We recall this evening the nearness of God in the person of Jesus who bestows his eternal priesthood upon his apostles and their priest successors. During the Lord’s Supper, the ancient covenants sealed with the blood of animals are now fulfilled in their eternal form in the new covenant of the body and blood of Jesus. Through our celebration and participation in this Banquet this evening, we pray “that we may draw from so great a mystery the fullness of charity and of life.” (Opening Prayer)
In this Holy Meal we celebrate and recall the moment in which Jesus not only institutes the two great sacraments of Priesthood and Eucharist, but in washing the feet of his apostles, Jesus teaches us that charity is to be the fruit that stems from these great gifts of the Church.
As a preparation for the Passover, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them: “Go into the city and a man will meet you, carrying a jar of water. Follow him.” (Mark 14:13) How fitting and symbolic it is that water leads the two disciples to the Upper Room where they make the preparations for the Passover meal. It is as if Jesus is already saying that Baptism is the first sacrament through which we enter into our life in him. Baptism is THE Sacrament of Initiation into the life of grace and holiness which flows from our intimate union with Christ.
Indeed, the ‘preparations’ for this Passover meal had been long in coming for the Apostles, as well as for Jesus. The entire public life and ministry of Jesus is where his relationship with the Apostles is formed and forged. His personal entry into each of their lives and his invitation to follow him were just the beginning of their formation and preparation to celebrate this meal and to receive the gift of the Priesthood. These were the men who listened to Jesus preach God’s word with a new authority. They watched in astonishment as he demonstrated in his own life that he was the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, the transition from the old to the new covenant.
These first priests of the new covenant were witnesses to the compassion and mercy of Jesus as he received and forgave sinners, as he touched the lepers and healed them, restoring them to the community, as he cast out demons, raised the dead, restored sight to the blind. They watched with exhaustion and exhilaration his tireless compassion for the vast crowds that surrounded him.
But the qualifying moment of their Priestly ministry would be what still lies ahead, being witnesses to his resurrection from the dead. The defining characteristic of their Priestly ministry would be this moment, of Jesus washing their feet, with a clear instruction that if he, the Christ, were humble enough to wash their feet, their own lives and ministries must be marked by the same service, charity and humility.
This very act of self-sacrifice is recalled in our vocation prayer: “Jesus, as you gave us your life you said, ‘Do this in memory of me.’ May all your disciples fulfill your command of love.”
“the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”
These words of Jesus must have taken his disciples quite by surprise. Even though Jesus had already prepared his disciples that he was to suffer and die and rise again, these words must have been difficult to receive.
But, then again, perhaps in the context of the Passover meal, recalling the flesh of the “lamb without blemish” that was to be prepared and eaten, and its blood sprinkled on the door post where the meal was shared as a remembrance of that Passover night when God saved his people from slavery… Could they have imagined the amazing love of God that would be on display in the coming night and following day? Could anything have truly prepared them for the utter newness of the covenant God was sealing with them, with the world, in this sacred meal? Does anything ever truly prepare us for the amazing ways of God who still does wondrous things for us? “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son.” (John 3:16)
This is what we profess and believe every time we celebrate the Eucharist, the amazing love of God on display for the world to see; for us to receive in the Body and Blood of Christ. “Our blessing cup is a communion with the blood of Christ.” (1 Cor 10:16) Indeed, our God is near, closer to us than we are to ourselves.
Just as Jesus was present with the Apostles when he instituted the Eucharist, he is with us, and through the grace of the Sacrament, he remains with us and in us – always. Jesus promised to remain with us, and he is true to his word. So that we could continue to keep his instruction to “do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus this same night gave us the gift of the Priesthood.
It is interesting that on this Holy night when the Church recalls that First Eucharist, the Gospel that is chosen recalls only that moment during the supper when Jesus rises from the table to wash his disciples’ feet. The clear instruction here is that Eucharist is about charity, service, love, in short, becoming another Christ. Thus, Jesus asks his disciples tonight: “Do you realize what I have done for you?” What a great question for us to prayerfully ponder tonight and often. Do we realize what Jesus has done for us?
At the beginning of Pope Francis’ Lenten message, he reminds us of the nearness of God. This is the starting point of our reflection upon what Jesus has done for us. Our Holy Father wrote:
God does not ask of us anything that he himself has not first given us. “We love because he first has loved us” (1Jn 4:19). He is not aloof from us. Each one of us has a place in his heart. He knows us by name, he cares for us and he seeks us out whenever we turn away from him. He is interested in each of us; his love does not allow him to be indifferent to what happens to us.
Our experience in the world can make us doubt this nearness of God. Our experience of violence and division can make us feel we are incapable of making any difference in the world. But Jesus tells us the truth. God is near. God loves us. And we can make a difference in the world by allowing the love of God to change our hearts.
Once we allow God’s love to pierce our hearts, then we are capable of seeing our neighbor as a brother, as a sister, as another Christ. Once we have discovered the amazing love of God in the person of Jesus, who poured himself out for our sake, then we are capable of making the same gift of our life to another. This is our calling, to love God and our neighbor as our self.
Just as the priest is transformed sacramentally into another Christ, so, similarly, is every person who faithfully receives the Body and Blood of Christ. Just as Christ came to serve and not to be served, so is the life-changing mission of every Christian. Through the Eucharist, we share in the love of Christ, and thus we are to share the love of Christ with others. This is precisely what makes it possible, indeed our mission, to change the world, one person at a time, beginning with myself.
If God can become man, (and he did) if God desires to make each of us participants in his divinity, (and he does) then truly, nothing is impossible.
The new covenant began with Jesus. Jesus entrusted this mission to twelve ordinary men. Over a billion women and men world-wide now share this mission. God is near. God is still at work, creating something new upon the face of the earth.
Come Holy Spirit, and enflame our hearts, renew us in the Body and Blood of Christ. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.