Once again, our faith has brought us here to mark what Jesus did on that first Holy Thursday. We solemnly remember that night in the upper room when Christ instituted the Eucharist and the sacramental priesthood, and commanded us to love one another in humble acts of service. Tonight, I would like to reflect with you on each of these aspects of our faith which have their origin in the the Last Supper. And I start with the Blessed Sacrament.
Saint Mark, the evangelist to whom we have been listening on Sundays since we began this liturgical year, describes an incident in the public ministry of Jesus in which the disciples are picking the heads of grain in a field on the Sabbath (Mk 2:23-28). The Pharisees object to this action on the grounds that it constitutes a profanation of the Lord’s Day (Mk 2:24). It is necessary however for Jesus to correct the Pharisees, declaring to them: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. That is why the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27-28).
The truth be told, Jesus is not just Lord of the Sabbath—for that would only be one day of the week. No, He is Lord of all time. And that which gives Him such universal rule is the Holy Eucharist.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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In tonight’s second reading, Saint Paul offers us an account of what occurred at the Last Supper. The apostle shows us that the Eucharist figures in all three tenses of time: the past, the present and the future. In the past did Jesus take bread into his own hands, blessed it and broke it (1 Cor. 11:24). Likewise did he take the cup filled with wine, blessed it and shared it with the apostles (1 Cor. 11:25). And with the words he spoke over the bread and wine, the Lord gave us his Body and his Blood. So much for the past. Yet our faith tells us and we believe that the Presence of the Lord is not just a thing of the past. He is with us now, in the present. It’s what we call a real, true and substantial Presence (CCC, 1374). And it’s the reason why we have tabernacles. We don’t ever want to be without the Lord’s Presence in the present moment! As for the future, Saint Paul indicates that every time the Eucharist is offered we proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes (cf. 1 Cor. 11:26). As the Creed assures us, the Lord is coming back to judge the living and the dead. The Eucharist is that act on earth which helps us to anticipate an arrival at our heavenly home.
For decades now, we have lived under the yoke of a powerful combination of secularism and relativism. They are alike in that both deny that an event in time can affect past, present and future simultaneously. Secularism leaves us without a way to value things eternally (there is only this world and this time), and relativism robs us of a norm to gauge the truth and falsity of things (the truth is only what I say it is in any given moment).
And that presents us with a terrific challenge, doesn’t it? The Christ event—that is, the Incarnate Lord’s dying and rising—is renewed over and over by the Eucharist. What is eternal and what is true then are not banished from our consciousness because word and sacrament continue to be celebrated.
But just barely. Our churches are emptying out much faster than we can baptize new Catholics. Moreover, those who have been baptized in the last fifty years—the majority of them anyway—have not heard the Gospel proclaimed because they have stopped coming to Mass, usually by the time they are adolescents or young adults.
The new evangelization bids each one of us—whether we are grandparents, parents or simply concerned Catholics who cherish the eternal and the true—to witness to the Holy Eucharist in word and in deed. The time for going through the motions is over. We must show ourselves convinced in every respect that the act offered in time—the Eucharist—brings an eternal good, namely, our salvation. It was once thought that the highest good is our eternal salvation—you have to wonder though do people really believe that anymore? We do and we should show that we do! We must show ourselves convinced in every respect that truth is real and not illusory. There are in our midst today a great many equivalents of Pilate who ask cynically, “What is truth?” (Jn 18:38). To celebrate the Eucharist is to be deeply immersed in the truth. And it is only by living truthfully that we can be free (Jn 8:32). So, to all who tell us that they want to live freely, let us introduce them to the Eucharist or help to bring them back to it. The new evangelization rises or falls on a commitment to the Holy Eucharist!
Holy Thursday this year happens to be the 10th anniversary of the death of Pope Saint John Paul II. A Successor of Saint Peter for more than 26 years, he was a priest for nearly 60 years. It was the pontiff’s custom to write a letter to priests for Holy Thursday, and tonight I cite a small part of his last Holy Thursday Letter (2005). It is in the form of a question: “How can we [priests] be convincing heralds?”
As we reflect on the ministerial priesthood tonight, this question is most appropriate. The priest’s chief duty after all is to proclaim the Gospel (Presbyterorum Ordinis, 4) and offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the highest fulfillment of that duty. The Gospel is proclaimed well when it convicts those who hear it and that, we know, is primarily a matter of God’s grace. But there is always a human element at work too.
To be a convincing herald, the priest himself needs to be convinced. Put another way, you can only give to the degree you possess something. The priest cannot make anyone believe. Faith is a free and voluntary act. But the priest, often more than others, is a catalyst for faith. By his overall attitude, the priest gives indication or not that he has personally appropriated what he teaches others. If others see no personal appropriation of the faith in the priest, they are less inclined to make what the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) called “the existential leap of faith.” Personal example does indeed count.
Seldom are priests in line for commendation these days. They are much more likely now to be criticized for anything from their personality to their personal acceptance of and full-throated witness to the hard truths of faith. When a compliment does come a priest’s way, there is none more satisfying than this one: “Father, when you celebrate Mass, you act like you believe it’s all true.” A good priest will be fortunate to be told something like that a few times in the course of his ministry. For if and when an observation like that is shared with a priest, it is going to arise from a judgment that his heralding is convincing. And that, I say, is predicated on the fact that the priest himself is convinced of the heralding before ever setting out to convince others of the same.
In tonight’s gospel, Jesus instructs the apostles on the importance of service with these words: “[A]s I have done for you, you should also do” (Jn 13:15). These words are spoken at the end of the passage, after Jesus had washed the feet of the apostles. But what if Jesus only spoke these words and never washed the feet of the apostles? We would think that his words and actions lacked correspondence or congruence, and thus we could claim a basis for disregarding the model he gave to the Church.
While Jesus never had a problem convincing anyone, the Church he founded surely does. We fail at harmonizing our words and actions because we are sinners. Thus, do we need to be washed clean or else we will not have an inheritance with the Lord (cf. Jn 13:8). Having an inheritance with the Lord, we now find ourselves in the company of countless saintly men and women who bid us by their example to serve humbly too.
Our good works build up the Body of Christ and they inspire the doubtful and the unconvinced. This too is a kind of heralding, a heralding through direct service. Some announce the Gospel with their voices, others with their hands. Some will not be convinced until, like the apostle Thomas, they can put their fingers in the wounds on Christ’s body (Jn 20:24-29). They are unmoved by words but when they are shown faith in action, they too acclaim, “My Lord and my God” (Jn 20:28).
We enter upon these holy days with the faith described for us in the Letter to the Hebrews: confident assurance about the things we hope for, and conviction about the things we do not see (cf. Heb 11:1), Strengthen our conviction, O Lord, that when we do see, we will rejoice at seeing the loveliness of your face.
Praised be Jesus Christ!
Editor’s note: The image above is “The Last Supper” painted by Bartolomeo Carducci (1560-1608).