TEXT: (Holy Thursday) Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, March 29, 2018
Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper
March 29, 2018
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
In Holy Week, especially as we enter into the Sacred Triduum,
Holy Mother Church calls us to remember
the events of those most Holy days 2000 years ago
when Jesus suffered, died and rose for our sins.
But She does not bring us to a play, acting out the parts,
but rather she takes the key events,
and places them in the context of the Liturgy.
Because while they are actual historic events that took place in time,
they are much, much more than that,
much that is even well beyond human understanding.
And so we don’t call them mere “events,” but “sacred mysteries.”
Mysteries revealed by God, but so wonderful in their divinity
that for 2000 years we have constantly continued
to plumb the depths of their beauty.
And so, rather than acting out a play that captures only the history,
instead, like a beautiful diamond,
placed at the center of a gold and jewel encrusted crown,
we enshrine these Sacred Mysteries in special rites, rituals and prayers.
Nowhere is this more apparent than at this Holy Mass of the Lord’s Supper.
An ordinary Mass, in many ways, yet set apart by its unique significance.
For tonight we remember the event and the mystery,
of Jesus establishing for us the Sacraments of both
the Most Holy Eucharist, and the Holy Priesthood.
The liturgical presentation of these mysteries, however,
does not keep us from going back in history, with our imaginations,
and placing ourselves in that night, at the Lord’s Supper.
Rather, the liturgy encourages us to do so,
as a starting point to discovering their inestimable meaning.
So…one wonders how it was that night,
at the Passover Supper of Jesus and His apostles,
on the night He was betrayed.
In particular, tonight I wonder what the apostles were thinking.
About Jesus saying He was going away,
and they could not follow Him, but that He would come back for them.
About how the crowd had at first greeted Jesus as King,
but now they seemed to have turned on Him,
spurred by the Pharisees who were plotting to kill Him.
Most particularly….I wonder what they thought
when He took bread and wine and said,
“this is My Body which will be given up for you,”
and “this is the chalice of My Blood… which will be poured out for you.”
Certainly they remembered how He had once told them:
“The bread I will give you is my flesh….
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life….
For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.
And they knew how time and again He’d proven His incredible power
to do amazing things:
from feeding 5,000 people with only five loaves and 2 fish,
to raising the dead.
They most certainly noted that Jesus, who always carefully observed Jewish law,
had now grossly strayed from the Passover ritual,
shifting the focus from the Lamb they ate
to this bread and wine He gave them.
Perhaps they pulled all this together to understand
that this was the new manna, the heavenly banquet,
that the prophets said the Messiah would bring,
or that this was the new sacrifice of the new passover, of the new covenant
that the prophets had also foretold.
But most probably they were mainly confused,
and didn’t know exactly what was going on.
But they knew 3 things for certain:
First, they knew, that they believed in what He said, in His word,
because, as they had responded to Jesus’ promise to give His flesh to eat:
“You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe and are convinced
that you are the Holy One of God.”
Second, they knew He had just said: “This is my body… this is my blood.”
And third, confused and uncomprehending, still, with the faith of children,
Jesus had said it, so they knew they had to believe it.
In any case, they knew this was something
singularly and uniquely important to Jesus, and so to them.
So much so, that while Jesus’ body lay in the Tomb,
the Apostles, even as they were in hiding, consumed by fear,
took the time to tell the other disciples what had happened.
So we see how on Easter, when Jesus appeared
to two of those disciples on the road to Emmaus,
they recognized Him only “in the breaking of the bread”
that the apostles had already told them about.
And it didn’t take long after the Resurrection for the apostles to
more fully understand the significance of the Eucharist.
First of all, the Resurrection assured them of Jesus power to do whatever,
and I mean whatever, He said He would do.
They understood for the first time that He was truly God in the flesh.
But more than that, most probably
Jesus Himself explained it to them after the Resurrection,
as the Gospels tell us,
“He opened their minds to understand the scriptures,”
And then after the Pentecost they would understand even better,
as Jesus promised, also at the Last Supper:
“the Holy Spirit…will teach you all things
and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”
And so the Eucharist became one of the 4 main pillars of the Church
right from the beginning,
as the scripture tells us that right after the Pentecost,
the very first Christians,
“devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship,
to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
And their understanding rapidly continued to deepen,
so that, in his 1st letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul
would identify the Eucharist with the sacrifice of the Cross:
“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup,
you proclaim the Lord’s death…”
And he would make clear his faith in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist:
“The bread which we break, is it not a communion in the body of Christ?
And then in his letter to the Hebrews
he would write about the Eucharist and the Mass saying:
“you have come to …the heavenly Jerusalem,
and to innumerable angels…
and to the assembly of the first-born enrolled in heaven,
and to Jesus….
Therefore …let us offer to God acceptable worship,
with reverence and awe…”
St. John would allude to this same theme in the Book of Revelation:
“Blessed are those who have been called
to the wedding supper of the Lamb.”
Over the centuries this understanding would continue to deepen,
as through grace, prayer and study,
theologians and saints would penetrate more and more
to the heart of this amazing mystery.
Never changing or discarding what came before,
but receiving all that with faith, and discovering new beauty in it.
Again, like an exquisite diamond:
when first you see it, you recognize its beauty,
but then over time you as you examine and turn it you see different facets,
and discover new colors, new refractions of light, new brilliance.
Same diamond, same beauty, but now deeper appreciation of it’s that beauty.
So for example, around the year 400, the great St. Augustine
would teach at length about the Eucharist,
including the necessity to adore It, saying:
“It was in His flesh that Christ walked among us
and it is His flesh that He has given us to eat for our salvation….
No one, however, eats of this flesh without having first adored it …
and …we would sin if we did not do so.”
And in 12th and 13th centuries,
men like St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas
would build on this and give a new emphasis to devotion and reverence,
both in the form of Eucharistic Adoration and the celebration of Mass.
Sadly, not all Eucharistic theology has been so fruitful
—especially when it ignored what was handed down.
We see some of this taking hold after the Second Vatican Council.
Now, let me be clear: the Council itself spoke explicitly in defense of the Tradition
handed to us from the Apostles
through men like Ignatius, Augustine and Aquinas,
and called for a deepening of the understanding of this Tradition
by both priests and lay people alike.
Unfortunately, what we often saw in parishes
directly contradicted the writings of the Council,
and rather appealed to the supposed “Spirit of Vatican II”,
especially as many tried to downplay or disregard
the teaching on the real presence and sacrifice.
And so we see, even today, some Masses celebrated as if the Eucharist
is just a nice communal meal to make us feel welcomed, or entertained,
rather than, as Vatican II actually taught,
“first and foremost the sacrifice of the Cross.”
Some today teach that almost anyone can receive the Eucharist
—even though the early church was very clear that was not at all the case.
As St. Justin Martyr wrote from Rome in 150AD:
“no one is allowed to partake but the man
who believes that the things which we teach are true,
and who has been washed …for the remission of sins [baptism]…
and who is living as Christ has commanded….”
But thanks be to God the truth prevails.
and the Church continues to hand on the ancient truths.
So that tonight Its wonderous meaning is clearly before us:
that simple child-like faith of the apostles at the Last Supper
has grown into a profound and rich tapestry of understanding.
Yes, still a divine mystery of unfathomable depth,
but oh so beautiful in what we have come to appreciate.
It is…the new sacrifice of the New Passover,
the entrance to the New Covenant with Christ.
It is the Sacrifice of the Cross made truly present here in our midst
—the same sacrifice made once for all 2000 years ago,
but by God’s mercy, plucked out of time into eternity
and placed here at this time for us.
It is the Real Presence of Jesus, truly, body, blood soul and divinity,
hiding under the outward signs of bread and wine.
It is truly the Word made flesh, dwelling among us;
the bread of heaven, the bread of eternal life, the bread of angels.
And it is the heavenly wedding banquet
as Christ gives Himself entirely to His Bride, the Church.
It is heaven come down to earth, and earth lifted up to heaven,
as we are surrounded in this place by all the saints and angels.
It is Christ crucified, risen and ascended to heaven.
All because it is really and truly Jesus.
And we should not think that penetrating this mystery
is just the work of theologians and saints.
Each of us should, in a sense, do the same thing,
learning about the great treasure that has been handed on by the Church,
and letting it shape our own approach to the Eucharist.
Letting our minds and heart penetrate these amazing truths,
and letting them penetrate our minds and hearts.
And so be filled with absolute awe, reverence and wonder.
Most especially, we priests should always live in this awe,
as the reason the Sacrament of Holy Orders was give to us,
was primarily for this purpose: to “confect” or “make” the Eucharist.
Without the Eucharist there is no Church,
but without the priest there is no Eucharist.
when we celebrate both Christ’s institution of the Eucharist,
AND the Priesthood,
as Christ commanded his apostles, the first priests:
you “do this in memory of me.”
So that through the Priesthood, the great and sublime mystery of the Eucharist
could then be made present to each and every generation of the Church.
Now, the priest must not take a false pride in this,
as if he himself, made this happen.
As a man, he is a sinner like anyone else: Judas was one of the first 12,
and even Peter denied Jesus three times.
But as a priest, by God’s grace acting through him,
he can stand in persona Christi, “in the person of Christ,” at the altar.
As St. John Vianney, patron of priests, once wrote:
“Were we to fully realize what a priest is on earth, we would die:
not of fright, but of love…”
“Without the priest, the passion and death of our Lord would be of no avail….
But then he adds, “The priest is not a priest for himself, he is a priest for you”.
Tonight we image the very first priests, the apostles,
and remember that night 2000 years ago when Christ gave them, and us,
both the Eucharist and the Priesthood.
But we don’t only imagine and remember:
tonight they become present to us: they are here with us.
Because tonight we all stand at the foot of the Cross,
the Cross which stands in time but also in eternity,
an act of a dying man, but also of the eternal God.
And so we stand also in eternity,
with Jesus on His throne beside His heavenly father,
surrounded by His Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, the faithful Apostles,
and all the saints and angels of heaven.
Heaven comes down to earth, and earth is lifted up to heaven.
As we continue more deeply into this Holy Mass tonight,
may the Lord Jesus grant us the childlike faith of the Apostles,
and the grace to allow the rich treasury of truth to penetrate our hearts,
so that we may love and worship Him in awe and wonder
as they once did on Earth, and now do in heaven.
May we believe because He has the words of eternal life.
Especially the words He spoke 2000 years ago,
and still speaks at every Mass:
“This is my body….This is… my blood.”