Thursday, April 5, 2012
Thoughts on Holy Thursday
Today we begin the Sacred Triduum, those three days when we focus upon the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It begins with the celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper this evening. This Mass celebrates the two sacraments founded on that night of the Lord’s Supper: Holy Orders and Eucharist, thus tying them intimately together. Both flow from the same base: agape, that is, self-giving and self-sacrificing love. Both are bound in the person of Jesus Christ Himself.
Holy Orders are founded at the last supper in both the command to the Apostles ‘to do this memory of me’ and in washing their feet and its attendant command to ‘as I have done for you, you should do for others.’ Both of these lead to the same point about the ordained priesthood in that it is to be a life of selfless service by which that first Eucharist is both made present and forcefully lived to the purpose for which it is given. I shall back to Holy Orders in a moment, for to understand the reason for Holy Orders is to understand the Eucharist first.
In the Gospels of Mathew, Mark, and Luke, the Last Supper is the Passover meal. In the Gospel of John, the Bread of Life discourse (John 6) is placed deliberately in proximity to the Passover. Why? If we go back to the Passover, what happens? Moses and the people of Israel are commanded to sacrifice a spotless lamb, mark their doorposts and lintels with its blood, eat the lamb with proscribed dishes, and to do this on the night when God would strike the House of Egypt for its enslavement and cruelty to the people of Israel. The blood redeemed the first born in that household. That very day (remember, Jews measure days from sunset to sunset, not midnight to midnight) Israel would be freed from its enslavement and start its long journey to the promised land. In the instructions for the meal, God tells Moses that the people of Israel are to do this as a perpetual remembrance (zachar) so that every age of Jews throughout time might perpetually receive the same freedom and direct help from God as did those Jews around their tables in Egypt as long ago. To this day when Jews celebrate the Passover, they do not view what they do as a re-enactment of the first Passover, but as a direct participation in the only Passover. If we do not understand this very basic understanding the Passover, then we will not understand the Eucharist.
Recall what John the Baptist refers to Jesus as: the Lamb of God. Fully human and fully divine, He is the spotless lamb to be sacrificed as a redemption for humanity. No more than the lamb in the Passover sacrifice had done anything meriting death had Jesus done anything meriting death or punishment. Yet, just as the Passover lamb takes upon itself the sins of the firstborn deserving death, so the sacrifice of Jesus takes upon Himself the sins of humanity and suffers the death we have merited. In both cases, eternal justice is served. But as in the Passover sacrifice the lamb wasn’t merely slaughtered then chucked to the side, but was consumed instead, so the Lamb of God is not merely chucked aside but is consumed as well. Why? The sacrifice was not finished until the sacrifice and the one for whom it was sacrificed were literally one and thus the one for who the sacrifice had been sacrificed could attain the benefits of the sacrifice. Without the consumption of the sacrificial victim, the purpose of the sacrifice was in vain. This is why in John 6, Jesus says, ‘Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life within you! Why say something so bold and then give us no way of fulfilling this teaching?
We turn to Mathew, Mark, and Luke for that answer. In their passages, we see how Jesus intends for the bold proclamation in John to be fulfilled. He takes two very common elements in both the Passover meal and in Jewish life: unleavened bread and wine. He then proclaims the bread to be His Body and the wine to be His Blood. These are rather dramatic statements. He takes the bread of a people in flight (unleavened) and proclaims it His Body. Why? Unless those who follow Christ could partake of His Body they would have no benefit from the sacrifice of the Cross and hence no life. He then takes wine and proclaims it as it Blood, for the same reason. His Blood would seal this new covenant relationship which gives us access to eternal life. Had Jesus meant that the bread and wine were symbols or representative of His Body and Blood, then would He have not said as much? He doesn’t though. This IS my Body, this IS my Blood. Later that day he would be sacrificed on the Cross. Now we have the ability, through Christ, to participate directly in the one sacrifice of the Cross for as many times as we would need it. If we are honest, we need that grace as many times as we can get it, certainly at least once a week! How sad it is that anyone would see participation in the Eucharist as an uninteresting chore and infringement on their time! Our participation in the Eucharist is our thankful response that Christ poured Himself out for us so that we might both have the grace necessary to trudge through this life and have access to eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven! The Eucharist is part of that firm foundation on which our hope and peace lay. The Eucharist is the power source for the life of a Catholic!
We have the elements for this to happen, but the person is necessary as well. There has to be a person who can act in the Person of Christ so that the bread and wine we have can also become the Body and Blood of Christ. The Scriptures always had men set apart who were selected to be the mediator between God and His people. Hebrews reminds us that Christ Himself becomes that mediator. Yet He charges his Apostles at the Last Supper to ’do this in memory of me.’ This charge was given to a very specific group. The New Testament lest us know that this group of apostles and their successors, bishops, would be charged with the responsibility of making present to every age the Eucharist and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name. This is the basis of Holy Orders, the fullness of which is in the Bishop, and then to a lesser extent to his priests. They are set apart , even changed on the most base level of their being (soul) so that they can be the spiritual conduit by which the Body and Blood become really present. Hence, the less priests there are, the less access to the Eucharist there is. But the priest is more than a sacramental dispensing machine. He is to be a witness…a profound witness. That witness is to be not towards power…but towards service.
In John, Jesus washes the feet of His apostles. In the time of Jesus, this was a bit scandalous. Feet, in his time, were seen as the dirtiest part of the body and more often than not were. Not only was the task of the foot washing of guest considered the chore of a servant and not a master, it was the job of the lowliest of servants. In washing the feet of His Apostles, Jesus shows them the depths of service; a service which will be given even more powerfully upon the cross. Jesus did not want His apostles to be the greatest and most powerful of overlords, but the most profound of servants. They were to follow His example (“As I have done for you, so you should do for others”) and thus give example to all followers of the life of selfless service every baptized person is called to be! At ordination, we are not ordained and changed so that we might be overlords, petty monarchs, or despots. We are to be of service as Christ was. This is the foundation of Holy Orders, seeking to serve instead of being served.
But this life of service is not restricted to clergy. It is to be embraced by all and anyone who calls themselves a Catholic. In our society, living a selfless life in wholly contrary to this culture and is, in fact, counter-cultural. Each of us is to model our life on Christ. Could you imagine just how different life would be?!
This the big question is this: “How do I mimic the selflessness of Jesus Christ that we celebrate this Holy Thursday? Does it get me out of my living room and to the Church this evening? Does it help me prioritize? How can I say I selflessly serve? There are always new chances if one has failed to this point…which is why we celebrate what we celebrate over and over again. As long as we draw breath, we can change more and more to what we are called to be. May God bless us all on this Holy Thursday.