Holy Thursday, April 17, 2014

April 17, 2014 Father De Celles Homily

Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
Springfield, VA

On the night before he suffered and died for our sins,
the Lord Jesus sat down at table with his 12 apostles telling them:
“I have longed to eat this passover with you before I suffer.”
What did Jesus mean?
What was so special about this Passover that He would long for it?
And what was so special about His apostles that he longed to eat it with them?

Very simply put: it was so special because he had planned from all eternity
to use this holy ritual supper to give 2 wonderful gifts to his Church,
that would allow all generations of his disciples
to transcend the limits of time and space
and be present, with him,
in his suffering, death and resurrection.
The amazing gifts of the Holy Eucharist and the ordained priesthood.

Scripture tells us that Passover was the most important feast of the Jewish year, commemorating the night that Yahweh
set his people free from slavery in Egypt,
and renewed and deepened the Old Covenant with Abraham.
But notice, the Passover was not just a meal:
it was first and foremost a sacrifice.
As we read in the first reading, God commanded Moses:
“every one of your families must procure for itself a lamb,
…and then…., it shall be slaughtered”—or sacrificed—
“during the evening twilight.”

Now, sacrifice has many purposes and meanings in the Old Testament.
But at the heart of all the sacrifices was the meaning of self-gift,
which in turn as at the heart of the Covenant between God and Israel:
God gives himself completely to Israel,
and Israel is supposed to give itself back to God just as completely:
to love God with all their hearts, minds, souls and strength.
But when they fail to do that,
no dead animal could begin to pay God back for the love he’s denied.
So the psalms tell us in one place:
“Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?”
and in another:
“The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”

At their core, the sacrifices of the Old Testament
were symbols of the person sacrificing themselves to God:
giving the life of one of your own lambs
symbolized giving yourself to God.
And this symbolism was deepened when the victim sacrificed was eaten:
by eating the Passover lamb the person showed that they were one
with the sacrifice, as the lamb literally became part of the person..

Because of all this, God and Israel used sacrifices
especially the annual Passover sacrifice and meal,
to symbolize they were renewing their Covenant,
and to allow every new generation of Israel to participate
in that same self-gift of the Covenant.

This is the context in which Jesus begins his sacrifice of the Cross
on the night before he was to suffer:
he took the old Passover with all it’s rich symbols,
and changed it into his own new Passover:
which frees not the Hebrews from Pharaoh,
but all mankind but from slavery to sin and death;
and gives us not life in the promise land,
but a sharing in his Divine life in this world and eternity.

So he gives us the New Passover meal for the very same reasons
He had given the Jews their old Passover:
so that we can constantly renew our mutual self-gift with him,
and to make the covenant available
to all generations of Christians,
even 2000 years after he died on the Cross.

And so, as the Gospels record, and as St. Paul recounted in today’s 2nd reading,
on the night he was betrayed,
he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and said:
“this is my body which will be given up for you.”
And then he took the cup and said:
“this is the cup of my blood,
the blood of the new and everlasting covenant.
it will be shed for you and for all, so that sins may be forgiven.”
There is no more bread and wine, just “my body” and “my blood.”
And that body and blood will be “given up” and “shed”
—in other words sacrificed—
for us and for our sins.

And notice how he does not say “this is my body and blood”:
but rather he separates the 2
in time, action and the radically different signs
of bread versus wine.
This is no accident:
remember, the Passover lambs sacrificed in the Temple were sacrificed by
cutting their carotid arteries and allowing the blood
to separate from their body:
the sacrifice complete when the body and blood
were separated from each other
In the same way, Christ, the Lamb of God,
offers his new Passover sacrifice on the Cross,
as his blood pours out of his scourged and pierced body,
until he is dead.
And so on the table of the Last Supper, as at every single Mass,
the body and blood of Christ
were also distinctly separated from each other.
So that, as St. Paul reminds us tonight:
“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup,
you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.”
In all this we see that Christ gave us the Eucharist
not merely as the meal following the sacrifice,
but at one and the same time both
the meal and the re-presentation of the sacrifice of the Cross.

So that the Church has always understood that at every Mass
we present the unconsecrated bread and wine as our own offerings
—symbolic of us offering ourselves—to God.
This is what we mean when we say “we lift our hearts up to the Lord”:
it doesn’t mean we’re “joyful”, it means we sacrifice ourselves to God.
And then Jesus takes that bread and wine, just as he takes our hearts,
and lifts them up on the Cross,
uniting them to his one sacrifice,
changing them into the sacrifice
of his body and blood on the altar.

What an amazing gift, the Eucharist, instituted this Holy Thursday evening, at the last moment before he was to suffer on the Cross.

But there’s still one more thing Jesus gave us at the last supper:
for there to be a sacrifice there has to be a priest.
Clearly Jesus himself is the only priest of the new sacrifice,
as he alone offers himself on the Cross,
and he alone makes that sacrifice present to his Apostles on Holy Thursday.

But who is the priest 2000 years later
—how do we, today have access to this gift?
While Christ alone is the savior of the world,
he chose 12 men to spread that salvation to the whole world,
giving them unique power to speak and act for him, telling them
“whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.”
In the same way, on Holy Thursday he gave these same 12 apostles
the unique power to speak and act for him
in offering the New Passover sacrifice,
commanding these 12, “do this in remembrance of me.”

So today, a man who shares in the ministry of the apostles,
can stand in the power of Christ,
sharing in the one priesthood of the one and only great high priest, offering both our sacrifices and the very sacrifice of the Cross.

And so, on Holy Thursday,
the sacrament of the priesthood was instituted by Christ
to bring the Eucharist to all generations,
and to bring all generations into the mystery of the Cross.

Now, all this being said, tonight’s ritual
is not all that different from any other Mass—except for 2 things.
One of these is that the procession at the end of the Mass
as we take the Eucharistic Body of Christ to the hall below us
where we will pray with Him until midnight,
just as apostles went with Jesus from the room of the Last Supper
to go to the Garden of Gethsemane, to watch and pray.
The symbolism here clearly continues to emphasize
the great gift of the Eucharist this Mass celebrates.

But the other unique ritual is less clearly related to what I’ve been talking about.
What does the ritual of the washing of the feet have to do with the Eucharist,
much less the priesthood?

Now, of course this ritual is a beautiful sign of mutual service
that all Christians owe one another in imitation of Christ.
This is true.

But there’s something more here.

Now, of all the Gospels,
St. John’s is the only one that tells this story of the washing of the feet.
But in St. Luke’s Gospel it says
that right after Jesus gave them the Eucharist and priesthood,
the apostles started to argue about
“which of them was …the greatest”;
and in response Jesus said:
“which is the greater,
one who sits at table, or one who serves?
… I am among you as one who serves.”
If you take these two passages together you see the parallel,
and it seems very likely that one event follows the other:
Jesus gives the 12 this great gift
to be priests of the New Passover Sacrifice,
but then has to admonish them for their pride,
and then get on his knees to teach them about service.
But remember what Jesus had told them earlier:
“the Son of man came not to be served but to serve,
and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
In other words the perfection of his service to us is the Cross.
So that in the washing of feet,
Christ reveals that the awesome power he gave to the apostles
for them to worthily share in his priesthood and the Eucharist
they must also enter fully into his sacrifice
by giving up everything to serve his people, even unto death.

And this becomes a little clearer, if we look a little closer at the symbolism.
Before offering sacrifices in the Temple the Old Testament priests
were required to undergo a ritual purification, to bathe their whole bodies
before beginning the sacrifices.
The problem was after they sacrificed the lambs, they had to bring them out
to the families to take home for the Passover meal:
so they had keep walking in and out of the sanctuary,
so that their feet became ritually impure,
and they had to wash their feet—and only their feet—
every time they reentered the sanctuary.

Now, look what happens at the Last Supper.
Peter says to Jesus, “You will never wash my feet.”
And Jesus answers, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.”
So Peter says, “then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.”
And Jesus replies,
“Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed,
for he is clean all over; so you are clean, but not all.”

Jesus clearly seems to tie the washing of the feet
to the Old Testament temple priesthood and sacrifices,
and so not only emphasizing that he has established
a new Passover sacrifice and a new priesthood
but also that neither can be rightly understood
except in the light of the total self-sacrifice of the Cross.
The apostles—the new priests—must be “clean all over”
striving to imitate the purity of the lamb of the New sacrifice
—as pure and humble as Christ himself.

Now, did Christ really intended all this:
to institute all these symbols and sacraments?
Yes, absolutely: as St. John tells us several times: “he knew everything.”

Did the apostles understand all this on that night?
Not really.
As Jesus tells Peter:
“What I am doing, you do not understand now,
but you will understand later.”

And they did come to understand, and passed that understanding on to us.
So, tonight here we are celebrating these great mysteries,
and stand in awe of what they are,
as they allow us to stand in the middle of the mystery of
love poured out for us in the Passion and Death of Jesus.

Open your minds and hearts to him now.
As you see your sinful servants, whom you call “Father” and “priest”,
give thanks to your one true Father in heaven
for allowing a mere man to serve you
by sharing in the power of His Son, our one true Priest.
And as the bread and wine are lifted up
becoming the Body and Blood of Christ crucified,
lift up your own hearts to Him in sacrifice
and beg him to unite your hearts to his own pierced heart.
See on this altar the body and the blood of the Lamb of God
who was slain for your sins,
and recognize the all powerful God
who loves us so much he served us by dying for our sins.

Let us mourn, and let us rejoice.
Let us confess our sins,
and let us give him thanks for freeing us from our sins.
Let us imitate and let us adore
the God who is our servant.
And let us enter into the time transcending mystery
of the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, our eternal high priest.