Saturday, 27 March 2010

Holy Thursday - Year C

Exodus 12:8. 11-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-15

Tonight I take my thoughts from Pope Benedict XVI's Apostolic Exhortation called Sacramentum Caritatis which some of you may already have read.

The institution of the Eucharist and of the priesthood took place at the Last Supper. It took place within the context of a Passover meal about which we just read in the First Reading. This meal commemorated the core experience of the people of Israel, their deliverance from slavery in Egypt.

This ritual called for the sacrifice of a lamb. It was a remembrance of what God had done in the past but over the years it became also the proclamation of a deliverance yet to come. This was because the people gradually came to realize that their liberation as slaves in Egypt was not yet true or complete liberation because their history continued to be marked by slavery and sin. So they began to look forward to a deeper, fuller, and more lasting salvation.
This is the context in which Jesus introduces the Eucharist.

The lamb of the Exodus was a male in the prime of its life, unblemished. The blood of this lamb, sprinkled on the doorposts and lintel of the house, was sufficient to save the Jews from the avenging angel of God which killed the firstborn of the Egyptians.

The blood of this lamb brought them out of slavery in Egypt into the freedom of the Promised Land. It is significant, too, that this lamb was eaten, strengthening the people for the journey ahead and binding them together as God's people.

At the Last Supper, the first Mass, Jesus reveals that he himself is the true sacrificial lamb who takes away the real slavery of the world, the slavery to sin. He is the spotless, unblemished lamb in the prime of his life and he sets the people free definitively, once and for all, and offers himself as their food of life.

By substituting himself for the paschal lamb in the context of the Jewish Passover Meal Jesus shows us the meaning of his death and resurrection - true and everlasting freedom for all.

In this way Jesus fulfills the Old Covenant and establishes the New Covenant of Love.

By his command to "do this in remembrance of me" he asks us to respond to his gift and to make it sacramentally present. Not only does he ask his Apostles to make his gift present by celebrating the Mass, but he also asks us to do what he did and give ourselves in love to one another. This will require of us a readiness to enter into his sufferings and to offer ourselves as victim in the concrete circumstances of our life.

In this way the Eucharist begins the process of our transformation as truly as the bread and wine are changed into his Body and Blood. Pope Benedict calls this radical change ... a sort of "nuclear fission," which penetrates to the heart of all being, a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all.

The Pope goes on to say: With his word and with the elements of bread and wine, the Lord himself has given us the essentials of this new worship. The Church, his Bride, is called to celebrate the Eucharistic banquet daily in his memory. She thus makes the redeeming sacrifice of her Bridegroom a part of human history and makes it sacramentally present in every culture.

Tonight we celebrate also the essential relationship between the Eucharist and the sacrament of Holy Orders. This connection originates from Jesus' own words in the Upper Room:
Do this in memory of me.

On the night before he died, Jesus instituted the Eucharist and at the same time established the priesthood. However, every priest shares in the priesthood of Christ but note that I say shares.

It is always Jesus, priest, victim and altar, who offers himself to the Father. No one can say "this is my body" and "this is the cup of my blood" except in the name and in the person of Christ, the one high priest.

Pope Benedict VI makes some interesting connections in this regard and we priests do well to take them to heart.

1. The Church teaches that priestly ordination is the indispensable condition for the valid celebration of the Eucharist. This means that without a validly ordained priest there is no Eucharist - no real presence of Christ, no offering of the Sacrifice, no Holy Communion. [In this day when many people consider other so-called 'masses' of other denominations no different from the Catholic Mass we need to remember this teaching of the Church.]

Whenever a priest offers Mass it is really Christ himself who acts. Christ stands at every altar in the person of the priest at every Mass.

The Pope then goes on to draw some conclusions from this. They are not new but they are challenging to us priests.

2. As a result, priests should be conscious of the fact that in their ministry they must never put themselves or their personal opinions in first place, but Jesus Christ. Any attempt to make themselves the centre of the liturgical action contradicts their very identity as priests. The priest is above all a servant of others, and he must continually work at being a sign pointing to Christ, a docile instrument in the Lord's hands.

This is seen particularly in his humility in leading the liturgical assembly - avoiding anything that might give the impression of an inordinate emphasis on his own personality.

Let me finish with a startling point made by the Pope. He says that the Mass is ordered to making us like Christ. This is not news to us. Every day we are called to live the Eucharist, becoming bread for others. But what I found astonishing was the matter of fact way he concluded that therefore the Eucharist ultimately will make us ready to be martyrs! I had never realised this or at least never spoken the thought. But it stands to reason that since Jesus gave his life for us to the point of shedding his blood, so we, if we allow the Eucharist to do its work in us, should find ourselves, one day, ready to shed our blood for love of God as he did.

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