Holy Thursday: Service, Priesthood, Eucharist
Thank you all for coming to our beautiful celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Priests and deacons are instructed to focus their homily this evening on three areas: the call to Christian service, the institution of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, and the institution of the Eucharist. At the same time, the liturgy should be seen as an expression of one Paschal celebration which begins this evening, extends to the Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday and concludes with the solemn Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday Masses. At the Last Supper the Lord transformed bread into His Body which would be given up for us and wine into His Blood which would be shed for us. On Good Friday the Body was crucified for us and the Blood was poured out for us. The Gift of His Death was followed by the Gift of His Resurrection and Eternal Life for we who believe in Him. Easter celebrates the Eternal Life won for us on the cross by the Savior who said, “This is my Body, This is my Blood.”
Shortly we will perform the symbolic action of washing the feet of parishioners who themselves represent the entire parish. The rite of washing feet is a reminder that the Lord was willing to empty Himself to such an extent that He would perform an action so menial and so distasteful that even a slave could not be forced to do. As we just heard, in the Gospel of John, this takes place immediately before the Last Supper. Peter complains that he would not have the Lord debase Himself this way. Jesus’ response was a call to Peter and all of us to recognize the need we have to accept a Savior who would sacrifice himself for us. If they, if we, refuse to recognize their need for a Suffering Savior, we can not be his disciples. This is all well and good and theological, but then the Lord hits them and us with the mandate: As you have seen me do, so you must also do. Today is often referred to as Maundy Thursday taken from the word mandate. To be a Eucharistic People, we must respond to the mandate, the order to debase ourselves in service to others.
The service of others is the primary way that we mediate the presence of Christ in the world. Service is the way that we exercise the priesthood of the faithful. We are all priests in this way. All of us are called to bring God to others and others to God. This is the work of the priesthood of the faithful. But there is also another priesthood that we celebrate on Holy Thursday. That is the sacrament of Holy Orders and particularly the sacrament of the ordained priesthood. St. Paul in today’s second reading and St. Luke in the section of the Gospel of Luke that presents the Last Supper quotes Jesus as saying to his disciples, “Do this in remembrance of me.” From the earliest days of the primitive Christian Church, in the years immediately following the Resurrection of the Lord, the apostles took bread and wine and transformed them into the Body and Blood of the Lord. The were empowered to do this by Jesus. They themselves called upon God to empower others to do this. That is why we believe that the ordained priesthood was instituted by Jesus at the Last Supper.
Last Tuesday, at the Chrism Mass, we priests of the Diocese re-committed ourselves to the service of Christ in his people. A week from today, I’ll celebrate my 32nd anniversary as a priest. As I am sure you know, I love being a priest. I feel very
young in the priesthood. Sometimes I feel that the oil is still wet on hands. The ordained priesthood is not a job, although we priests certainly have a lot to do. The ordained priesthood is not a way of life, although we priests are required to live a certain way, as committed, celebate Christians. The ordained priesthood is much more than that. It is not a job. It is not a way of life. It is a way of being. We ordained priests have been changed by our ordination into “alter Christi’s” so we can make Christ present in a sacramental way for you, His people. This transformation is permanent. Even if a priest leaves ministry, even if he is removed from the priesthood by the Pope, he is still interiorly a priest. Priesthood is a state of being conferred at ordination.
I am still shocked that when I say, “I absolve you,” Christ forgives sins, and when I say, “This is my Body,” Christ changes the bread into His Body. I am humbled that somehow this takes place through me. But I also am realistic enough to know that I am not doing anything: it is Christ acting through the gift of Holy Orders that allows the finite to become infinite. Throughout my life I am confronted with my shortcomings, my humanity, my own sinfulness. It is quite humbling to be a priest. I deal with the sacramental presence of the Lord everyday and still question, “Why me?” One thing I am certain of: God has a good sense of humor.
The ordained priests make the Eucharist present for the people. This evening we also celebrate the institution of the Eucharist. I am convinced that the extended periods of Eucharistic Adoration we have celebrated here at St. Ignatius in the last few years, the Forty Hours and the longer adoration periods on First Fridays, all have held us come to a deeper appreciation of the Gift of the Eucharist. It is true that we can never fully understand the Eucharist because it is a gift infinitely superior to our powers of comprehension. But we do know this: The Eucharist is Jesus, the Lord. The Eucharist is the Lord offering himself on the cross to his Father for his people. When we receive the Lord, we receive him nourishing us and saving us. When we pray before the Blessed Sacrament, process with the Blessed Sacrament, when we celebrate Benediction or Eucharistic Adoration, or Forty Hours, we celebrate Jesus living among us in His Eucharistic presence, continually saving us on the cross.
The Vatican Council's Constitution on the Liturgy succinctly stated the mystery we remember this evening: At the Last Supper our Savior instituted the Eucharistic Sacrifice of his body and blood to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross. He entrusted to the Church a memorial of His death and resurrection,
.....a sacrament of love,
.....a sign of unity,
.....a bond of charity,
.....a paschal banquet in which
.....Christ is consumed,
.....the mind is filled with grace,
.....and the pledge of future glory is given to us.
Charity, Priesthood, and Eucharist. As we continue with this solemn liturgy, please pray that all priests may recognize their commitment to act in the person of Jesus and do so not just when administering the sacraments but throughout their lives. Please pray that people come to a greater understanding of the Eucharist as a sharing in the cross. And please pray that we all may demonstrate our sharing in the Eucharist by celebrating our lives with sacrificial love, the love of Jesus, the love of Christians.