The following post is my homily from the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. It will be the one post I put up during the Paschal Triduum. It serves as a good introduction to the whole Triduum and in a way is a reflection on all three days.
For I have given you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.
These words of Our Lord at the Last Supper express the central truth of the sacred mysteries we celebrate during this holiest of times in the liturgical year. Our Lord gives us an example that we are to replicate in ourselves.
He gets down on His hands and knees and He does the dirty work of a slave by washing the feet of His disciples. He does this in the context of the first Mass in which He brings to fulfillment all that the Old Testament sacrifices represent, particularly the Passover sacrifice, which we hear about in the first reading. He is the Lamb that was slain. Yet He lives and He feeds us with His own flesh that death may have no more power over us.
Christ our Passover has been sacrificed (1 Cor. 5:7). This is the Easter mystery, or the paschal mystery, meaning the Passover mystery. And it begins not on Easter Sunday, but today with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.
We call what begins with this Mass the Easter or Paschal Triduum—three days on which we celebrate the same mystery in three acts, or three liturgical rites: the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the Celebration of Our Lord’s Passion and the Easter Vigil. We follow Our Lord from the Upper Room to the Cross and then to the Garden of the Resurrection, where he offers Himself in the upper room sacramentally in tonight’s liturgy, on the Cross in a bloody sacrifice on Good Friday, and where in the Garden of the Resurrection in the Easter Vigil He brings His sacrifice to fulfillment and perfection by triumphing definitively over sin and death as He escapes under His own power from the bonds of death.
This is the true Passover. And the doors of our homes, that is, our very souls are marked with the blood of the Lamb. We are baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, and thus our souls are permanently marked with the blood of Christ, and the life we have received can only be sustained by eating of the sacrificial Lamb in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Thus, at the Easter Vigil the catechumens are brought into full communion with the Church, being baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, receiving his Spirit in the Sacrament of Confirmation, and for the first time fully participating in the paschal sacrifice through reception of Holy Communion.
And this is why the words of Our Lord,
For I have given you an example that you also should do as I have done to you,
directly correspond to the command He gave the Apostles also at the Last Supper:
Do this in memory of me.
In the very words of institution—in Our Lord’s very words—recorded by St. Paul in tonight’s second reading, repeated at the end of double consecration of the bread and wine in every Mass, Our Lord expresses His intention—His command—that the Church preserve this memory so that we might be able to do as He has done. In saying these words on the night before He died, Our Lord instituted the sacraments of Holy Orders and the Eucharist. He commanded the Apostles to celebrate in perpetuity this Passover. He did it before He died on the Cross and, thus, before He rose from the dead, because His sacrifice, consummated on Good Friday, has a divine and eternal reality and power, and He wanted us to live this eternal mystery in the concrete moments of history.
So when Our Lord says do this in memory of me, when he says that He is leaving us an example so that we might do as He has done, it is not a matter of simply recalling a past event. His example is not just a static memory that we retrieve from the written page of the gospel or from the Church’s recollection. It is a living memory because Christ is the Word of the Father and He has come to live with us. Through the sacramental celebration of this sacrifice, through the words of the Word, repeated by the priest, “this is my body . . . this is my blood,” the bread and wine are transformed into the very body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus.
Remember that it is also in the context of the First Mass, the Last Supper, that Our Lord delivers the parable of the vine and the branches:
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me (Jn 15:4).
And then, just a few verses later in the Gospel of St. John, He says that His commandment is that we love one another as He has loved us (v. 12). He loves us from the Cross. That is His example. That is the living memory. That is why He gets down on His hands and knees and serves His servants like He was their slave. And this is what the priest does, when he fulfills Our Lord’s command to offer in His name the great sacrifice and sacrament of our salvation. And this is why in order to follow His example we must consume the sacrifice, we must eat of the Lamb, we must receive worthily and fruitfully the Sacrament of the Eucharist in Holy Communion. Because Jesus’ example is not just in the past, nor is it something merely outside of us.
By participating in this sacrifice, which we are enabled to do by virtue of being baptized into the death and resurrection of Our Lord, and which we accomplish by our worthy and fruitful reception of Holy Communion, we become ever more fruitful branches on the vine, which is Christ. He comes to live and act through us. Our worship through the sacred liturgy, especially in these Paschal celebrations, is not something we do simply out of obedience to Christ. It is not something we merely do with Him or for Him. It is something we do in and through Him, or better, that He does in and through us.
He is the High priest and He offers Himself to His heavenly Father. He is the both Priest and Victim and by consuming the sacrifice, by eating of His Body and Blood, we are being transformed into Him and being prepared in both body and soul for our own resurrection on the last day.
In the sacred liturgy heaven invades earth, eternity intersects with the concrete moment in which we are living now. Christ rides into each moment of history on His white horse, His eyes blazing and the two-edged sword coming from His mouth, and he says:
Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades (Rev 1:17-18).
So we celebrate these Easter mysteries today, at this moment, with all the prayers, works, joys and sorrows that are particular to each of us. And the grace of our baptism to live in and through the death and resurrection of Our Lord is worked out in the very real and practical sacrifices peculiar to our personal vocations, to our strengths and weaknesses, to our family situations, to the circumstances present right now in the Church and in the world.
Perhaps the thing that we can remember this Holy Thursday, from the example of Our Lord, who washed the feet of his disciples, is that we are not called to imitate a far off example, but to live the life of One who has shared everything with us, including His own flesh and blood. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass continues to be celebrated at each moment of the day, everyday throughout the world, because Christ is the Lord of history, and He wants nothing, not even the apocalypse, to prevent us from living our faith in Him.
This is something that we must remember. We are not called merely to live like Him or to work for Him. If that is what we are doing, then we have every reason to lose hope, because we would be like branches cut from the vine and replanted next to it. That is not the Christian life.
It is not really true, or at least not precise, to say that if we do our part God will do His part. Protestants wouldn’t like this statement because they generally say that God does everything, and we do nothing. But Catholics shouldn’t like it either, for different reasons. The reality of our incorporation into Christ through the paschal mystery means we do everything, because we are truly free, but only as long as Christ does everything in us, for without Him we can do nothing, as Our Lord tells us in the parable of the vine and the branches (cf. Jn 15:5). Or as St. Paul says in the letter to the Galatians:
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal 2:20).
If all we are doing is working for Christ, and He is not working in and through us, then we are not really working for Christ at all. If we are not inspired by His Spirit in how we live, and in what we say and do—if our actions do not flow from the divine life within us, if they do not conform to His teachings—then no matter how much we imagine ourselves to be His followers, we are rather subject to His fearful words:
He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters (Mat 12:30).
At the end of this very special celebration of the Holy Sacrifice, we will proceed, so to speak, from the upper room to the Garden of Gethsemane. The tabernacle at the altar of sacrifice is, as you can see, now empty, signifying the institution of the Eucharist. After Holy Communion, we will process with Jesus in the Most Blessed Sacrament from the sanctuary to the altar of repose, where we have an opportunity to remain in sleepless vigil with Jesus in His agony. Unfortunately, the Apostles slept after their first Holy Communion.
Tradition tells us that Our Lord’s most worthy disciple, His own Mother, was not present in the upper room for the Last Supper, but was nearby and was given Holy Communion there. Some mystics say She was communicated through the ministry of angels. We don’t really know. What we do know is that Her communion with Jesus, Her sacramental reception of Holy Communion, strengthened Her immaculate solidarity with the Suffering Servant, Her Son. Our Lady did not sleep after Her first Holy Communion.
One mystic says that Jesus remained with Her sacramentally all through the sacred Triduum. (There have been saints, like St. Anthony Marie Claret, who were living tabernacles and would have Jesus sacramentally present in their bodies from one Holy Communion to the next.) And when Jesus died he remained in Her breast as in the sepulcher. And when He rose from the tomb, He rose also from Her as the sacramental species was finally dissolved.
Of course, this is not Church teaching. It is not part of divine revelation, but it is theologically plausible. And it illustrates something that is factual. Our Lady, who is the image, perfection and Mother of the Church, and the hope of every follower of Jesus, lived this mystery, and did as Jesus had done, because He lived and acted through Her. Above all those who cooperate with Jesus, Our Lady is Coredemptrix of the human race, the one who offers with Jesus the one sacrifice that is universally efficacious for the salvation of souls. Her reception of Holy Communion is important for the whole Church, because her active and exemplary presence in the Church teaches us from within—because She is Mediatrix of All Grace—what it really means to “do as the Lord has done to us.”
Pope Francis would want us to remember, this evening, that the paschal mystery is about the mercy of God, and He would not want us to forget that when we offer this sacrifice and partake of the sacred banquet, we are called to put ourselves in the service of those whom He served, that is, the poor. Without Christ we have nothing. Without Him we can do nothing. And all of us, the whole of humanity, are in need of God’s mercy.
This morning at the Chrism Mass in Rome the Holy Father reminded the priests of his diocese that they are the poor serving the poor, who have nothing of their own to give, and nothing at all to give unless they themselves are full of the presence of Christ. Even a priest that is far from God by His sins still celebrates the Mass validly as long as he intends to do what Christ intends, so essential is our access to the Mass and the Holy Communion. But even then, that power wholly comes from Christ and not from the mere men who receive it. Pope Francis said:
I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that priest is very little indeed: the incomparable grandeur of the gift granted us for the ministry sets us among the least of men. The priest is the poorest of men unless Jesus enriches him by his poverty, the most useless of servants unless Jesus calls him his friend, the most ignorant of men unless Jesus patiently teaches him as he did Peter, the frailest of Christians unless the Good Shepherd strengthens him in the midst of the flock. No one is more “little” than a priest left to his own devices; and so our prayer of protection against every snare of the Evil One is the prayer of our Mother: I am a priest because he has regarded my littleness (cf. Lk 1:48). And in that littleness we find our joy.
So please don’t forget to pray for your poor priests that they might have this joy in order that they become ever more capable of bringing Jesus to souls.
Christ our Passover has been sacrificed. Let us not sleep after our Holy Communion but remain in solidarity with Jesus who dwells within us and offers himself for the salvation of all in this awesome paschal mystery.