TEXT: Holy Thursday, March 24, 2016

Holy Thursday

March 24, 2016

Homily by Fr. John De Celles

St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church

Springfield, VA

 

There is a line in the ancient Roman Canon,

–the long Eucharist Prayer I always use at Mass–

a line that has always struck me,

both for its apparent incongruity, and its graphic profundity.

It comes after the consecration, as the priest prays to God the Father:

“Be pleased to look upon these offerings

with a serene and kindly countenance.”

Now, “countenance” means “facial expression”,

and “serene” means a sense of profound calm, peace, and tranquility

and, even implies a kind of interior joy.

And of course, “kindly” denotes warmth, affection, and tenderness.

 

Now, to some this can be rather perplexing,

especially since the words right before this speak of:

“this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim.”

The “victim” is the animal that is killed in the sacrifice,

so that “the offering” God the Father is looking at in the Eucharist,

is Jesus suffering and dying on the Cross.

 

How can the Father “be pleased” and look “kindly”, much less “serenely” on that?

 

_____

Tomorrow we will gather together here,

–and I hope filling this church to overflowing–

to try to place ourselves at the foot of the Cross

with the Blessed Mother, John, the Magdalene, and the other holy women,

to experience what they did as they looked on their suffering beloved Jesus.

Now, this can have amazing and intense spiritual effect on us.

But even so, this happens through our imagination,

and while imagination is a great thing,

it is not the same as being there physically, historically.

 

…But what if we could actually really be there,

standing at the foot of the Cross?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could somehow really be transported back

to the year 33 and be there with our suffering Lord.

What would that do to draw us closer to Him,

to understand his love and to love him in return?

That would be so amazingly wonderful.

 

Or would it?

Think about.

Could you really bear to see the terrible wounds piercing our beautiful savior?

Could you endure the horror of His pain, and the sorrow of His Blessed Mother?

I don’t know that I could.

 

So, in his mercy, Jesus spares us this.

Still he wants us to understand and participate in it in some real way.

And so he allows us to do that, to some extent,

through human imagination and divine grace,

by using art, written and spoken word, and drama,

and especially through prayer and meditation,

and most especially the liturgy of good Friday.

 

But he wants even more than this:

he wants us to be there with Him,

not just to see and feel, but to participate in it,

and to share in the fruits and come to know the depth

of its meaning and effects in our lives.

 

And to do that, as St. Paul tells in tonight’s second reading,

“Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and…said, “This is my body that is for you”…

In the same way also the cup, …saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”
In this the Lord, using his divine power,

which knows no limits of time or space,

reached forward, if you will, into the next day on Calvary,

and made present to his apostles

in the upper room on Holy Thursday

the real and true presence of his body crucified,

his blood poured out on Good Friday.

And he does the same thing at every single Mass, as he will tonight,

reaching back in time to Calvary,

and placing the Cross and His Body on this altar.

 

But at Mass we are not overwhelmed by the horror

of the terrible sights and sounds and feelings of Calvary.

And he allows us to see with a certain calmness

so we can understand more clearly the full meaning and fruits of the Cross,

We are there, but not paralyzed by the pain.

We can see, but not blinded by sorrow.

 

And so, in the light of faith and by His grace,

kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament on the Altar,

we can begin to see the Cross for what it truly is, in its fullness.

 

We can see it as the fulfillment of man’s desire to offer fitting sacrifice to God.

In particular, we see the fulfillment of all the Old Testament sacrifices,

from the first sacrifice of Adam’s son, Able,

to the Sacrifice of Abraham marking the beginning of the Old Covenant,

to the mysterious sacrifice of Melkizedech.

Most especially we understand that the Cross replaces and fulfills

the Passover sacrifice of Moses, that we read about in today’s 1st reading,

saving God’s people not merely from worldly enemies and oppression,

but from all evil and sin, and even death itself.

In this we see the Cross as not merely renewing the Old Covenant with Israel,

as Moses’ sacrifice did,

but beginning a New Covenant,

in which the mutual self-giving love of God and his people

is made complete and real

as Christ, both God and man, gives himself

totally and completely, through his body on the Cross

to his heavenly Father and to us.

 

…We also see the Cross

as the perfect sacrifice for giving thanks and praise to God

for “the gifts that” he has “given us,”

—what greater thanks and praise can a Son give to His Father

than absolutely obediently doing his will,

even to giving his whole life.

And we see it as the perfect sacrifice of atonement or expiation

not just of the sins of man or nation, or one time or place,

but for the sins of all mankind from the Adam and Eve until the end of time.

Who else but the eternal and omnipotent God who became man

could pay for all those sins of men:

who else could love so boundlessly and perfectly

so as to make up for all the love we have failed to give.

 

And we see the Cross as the perfect sacrifice of redemption, or ransom,

as God the Son, Jesus, gives his life for the ransom of mankind,

freeing us from slavery to sin, death and Satan.

 

And we see it as even more.

For beyond the suffering and sorrow of Calvary,

we see that from his suffering and death

comes the new life and glory of the resurrection.

 

And so we see the Cross as the font of our salvation,

our redemption

and our reconciliation with God.

We see it as the defeat of the ancient serpent,

our enemy and oppressor, the devil.

And we see it as outpouring of his mercy and grace

on all who will simply accept it.

And we see it as the opening of the gates of heaven.

We see it as the promise, pledge and gift

of perfect, complete and eternal

joy, glory and love in heaven.

 

______

That is the Cross, and that is the Eucharist.

 

Perhaps the Blessed Mother understood all this,

at least on some level,

as she looked at her little boy’s bloody body hanging on the Cross.

Perhaps.

But did St. John, or St. Mary Magdalene?

Could we, if we were actually standing there?

No… we’d be too overwhelmed by the moment,

to see the ineffable beauty of what was unfolding before our very eyes.

 

But this is the way Jesus saw it.

Even hanging there in indescribable torment,

Jesus understood what it was all about, and so willingly endured it.

 

And this is how His heavenly Father saw it.

Which is why when we offer Him Eucharistic sacrifice,

we speak not only of

“this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim,”

but also of

“the holy Bread of eternal life

and the Chalice of everlasting salvation.”

And that is why God the Father,

with a full understanding of all things

can look at the Eucharist, see the Cross, and indeed,

“Be pleased to look upon these offerings

with a serene and kindly countenance.”

 

 

And he, and Jesus, want us to do the same thing.

 

So, “on the day before he was to suffer…that is today,”

he gave us the Eucharist.

 

______

But it is not just for us to see and understand the Cross

that he gives us the Eucharist.

No, he also wants us to truly share in its substance,

to be made one with His sacrifice

so that we may be made one with Him and His Father.

And so to make this clear he does what he once told Moses to do:

he tells us to eat of the flesh of the sacrificed victim:

“Take This, all of you, and eat of it…

[take this all of you and drink from it.”]

 

And so he does something else he couldn’t do

if we were actually standing on Calvary 2000 years ago.

Through the Holy Communion between His Body and our bodies,

he enters into us and we are nailed with Him to the Cross

…and rise with him in glory.

 

____

Now, don’t misunderstand me.

If I could somehow be physically taken back in time to Calvary in 33AD,

I would do it in a heartbeat.

What I wouldn’t give to do that.

And what a profound effect I know it would have on me.

 

Which is why I love tomorrow’s Liturgy,

so filled with sorrow for our Lord’s suffering,

especially in the Veneration of the Cross.

And I encourage you all to come.

 

And then by that experience,

meditating on the excruciating agony of your beloved Jesus,

endured for love of us,

bring that with you to every Mass

and better appreciate the gift of the Eucharist.

But in the same way, at every Mass,

meditate on all that the Eucharist means to us,

and better understand the Cross.

 

_____

What a great gift the Lord gave us on that night before he was to suffer:

the Eucharist.

And to ensure that great gift could be experienced not just by the apostles

but by all generations of Christians, he gave us another gift that night,

as he commanded his apostles: “do this in memory of me.”

In this, he gave them a special power to share in his own priesthood,

to act in his person, in persona Christi,

in order to offer His sacrifice of the Cross on altars

from then until the end of time.

 

But he made it clear to them that this magnificent power was not for them,

but for the people he would commend to their care.

So, although this is an awesome power,

it can never be understood as a personal glory of the priest,

but only in the humbling context of personal servanthood.

And to drive this home,

Jesus humbly washed the feet of his apostles,

saying to them: “as I have done for you, you should also do.”

And then a few moments later he would say,

“No greater love has a man than this, to lay down his life for his friends,” pointing to his fulfillment of priestly servanthood on the Cross.

And in between washing the feet and going to the Cross

he would give them the Eucharist, and make them priest.

 

So the mysteries of the Cross, the Eucharist and the priesthood

are inextricably united to each other,

so that the priest must live his life, in persona Christi,

understood in the light of the Eucharist and the Cross,

as one of sacrificial self-gift,

in order to bring atonement, redemption, and reconciliation,

as well as grace, mercy and love,

to God’s people,

and so lead them in Christ to the defeat of sin and Satan.

And all of this in order to bring them to share life with Christ in this world,

and to the glory of the resurrection and heaven in the world to come.

 

This is the priesthood—this magnificent gift, from Christ Crucified—to all of you.

 

____

The Cross, the Eucharist and the Priesthood:

these are the mysteries we celebrate on this night.

Tomorrow, Good Friday,

we remember the death of the Lord in a profound and meaningful way,

through the unique, stark and dramatic Liturgy of the Passion.

But tonight we remember that what the Lord did on Good Friday

was not meant to end on Good Friday.

And as we offer our heavenly Father,

“this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim….”

we pray to constantly grow in our devotion to and understanding of

the Cross and its Blessed Sacrament,

and join our Father as he is truly,

“pleased to look upon these offerings

with a serene and kindly countenance.”

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