Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
Holy Thursday--The Solemn Mass of the Lord’s Supper:
The New and Eternal Covenant
Throughout Lent, the first readings have largely focused on the concept of covenant. In the Masses I had, I attempted to develop each covenant in its own right, but at the same time, I did this with an eye to tonight’s celebration, as well as the heart of every Mass, the celebration of the New and Eternal Covenant.
There was a visible sign for each of the ancient covenants we heard about the first three weeks of Lent. The first covenant was the one made with Noah. In this covenant God said that he would never again destroy mankind with a flood. More than a flood, God would never give up on his people. He will not give up on us as individuals either. The visible sign of the first covenant was the rainbow. When we look at the rainbow, we need to remember that God will never give up on us. We do not have the right to give up on ourselves.
The visible sign for the second covenant, the covenant of faith, the covenant made with Abraham, is quite a bit harder for us to understand. This visible sign is circumcision. Now, that is not something that we talk about readily or something that Christians practice anymore for religious reasons. In American Christian society male babies are circumcised for health reasons as recommended by the American Pediatric Association. But why did the Jews and why do the Jews practice circumcision as a sign of the covenant of faith made with Abraham? To understand this we should remember that the ancients believed that life was generated by the man. They didn’t understand the female role in conception other than the womb being the place the man’s seed grew. Circumcision was an earthy reminder for the Jews in the very part of the man’s body that transferred life, that their lives belong to God. It was the sign of commitment to the covenant God made with Abraham. Circumcision was so important that the Jews who were adamant that no work should take place on the Sabbath, still would perform circumcisions on that day as well as the high holy days. In modern times, during the Second World War, Jews in Germany circumcised their babies even though this could mean a death sentence for the child if they were caught by the Nazis. Their adherence to the faith of Abraham was infinitely more important that their physical lives. Circumcision is a visible sign by which the Jewish people say, “We are the people of Abraham. We are the people of God’s covenant.”
The third covenant is the covenant of the law made with Moses. The visible sign of this covenant was the tablets of the Ten Commandments. This visible sign was treated with reverence. An ark or carrying vessel was built to house the tablets, the Ark of the Covenant. When the Temple was built, the tablets were solemn installed in the Holy of Holies. These tablets were never seen as being God, but as representing God’s presence in the law.
On Holy Thursday, Jesus Christ instituted the New and Eternal Covenant. The covenant itself was that God would deliver his people from the ravages of sin. The people would no longer be condemned to eternal death. Death would be defeated by death itself. Jesus would sacrifice himself to the will of the Father, offer himself as a reparation for the sins of mankind. This sacrifice would restore eternal life to mankind. This would be the new covenant, a covenant infinitely greater than those made with Noah, Abraham and Moses. It is the eternal covenant, the covenant of eternal life. It is the covenant of Blood. Life is restored through the Blood of Christ.
Like the first three covenants, there is a visible sign of the New and Eternal Covenant. That visible sign is the Eucharist. At the Last Supper the Eucharist was given to us as the sign that there is a new and eternal relationship to God through the Blood of Christ. The first three covenants were made once. The covenant of the Eucharist is renewed every time Mass is celebrated. The fathers of the ancient Church wrote that every Mass is another victory in the battle of the Kingdom of God against evil. Every one of us has a share in the New and Eternal Covenant of the Blood of Christ every time we receive communion.
What is this covenant really about, this covenant of the Blood of Christ? It is about evil, and slavery to sin. It is about darkness, and the desire for light. It is about life, and the desire for more than physical life. It is about heaven and the triumph of the spiritual.
During these last five years, Pope Francis has asked us to look first to those on the fringes of society. He tells us to look to the poor, to the homeless, to those disenfranchised in any way. He directs us to consider the life of Christ, consider who the people were to whom Jesus directed his energy: the poor, the sick, sinners like the tax collectors and prostitutes. He has said that it is better for the Church to be messy than for it to ignore the least of the Lord’s people. A good analogy of this is seen in the Pope’s inviting the homeless of Rome to view the Sistine Chapel. Perhaps some or even all of these people carried with them the dirt and smells of the streets and of not being able to bathe regularly or perhaps at all. “Well,” Pope Francis would say, “It is better that the Sistine Chapel be messy after their visit then they should be excluded from seeing it.” It is better that the Church should be messy and totally inclusive than any of God’s people should be excluded from the heart of the faith.
Pope Francis reminds us that when we bring God’s kindness and love to others, we liberate them from darkness. And their light liberates us. You know, we may think that we are enlightened, but when we reach out to others, we realize that we are the ones who are benefitting the most from our ministry. The very light of Christ we bring them glows through them and enlightens us. You would be hard pressed to meet Christian missionaries who will not agree that they have received more than they have given. Recently, I was speaking to a young doctor who spends a week every year caring for people in a clinic high in the mountains of Haiti. She goes for the people, and she goes because she needs to experience Christ in these people.
This is the work of the Christian We are in the business of eliminating the darkness, in others and in ourselves. How are we to do this? We are to do this by serving others. The people whose feet we wash tonight represent all people, not just of the parish but of the world. It is a symbolic act, this washing of feet, but there is nothing symbolic about the mandate of Holy Thursday: “What you have seen me do, you are to do.” Mandatum. There is nothing symbolic about the actions of Christians which bring light to the world. When we do this, when we reach out to others, particularly the least of His people, we are participating in the New and Eternal Covenant, the covenant of life, the covenant of love, the covenant sealed with the Blood of Christ.