Monday, April 14, 2014

Homily: Maundy Thursday: 2014

I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.

Tensions always run high backstage this time of the year. The challenge is to keep them backstage. One year when I lived in England I spent Holy Week in London, visiting the great Anglo-Catholic parishes of that city. On Maundy Thursday in one of those parishes I witnessed the MC knock a server half way across the sanctuary because he mistakenly rang the bell after the Gloria. I thought smugly at the time that is one thing I would never do. But many Holy Week liturgies later I am not so sure. There should be a priest appointed during Holy Week whose only job is to hear the confessions of the clergy and servers.

The solution for modern enlightened folks of course is to do away with all those arcane and complicated rules which used to govern the liturgy of the Church. And yet the very first reading of the Triduum is nothing but a set of detailed instructions of how properly to conduct the Passover meal, every bit as detailed and complicated as anything in Ritual Notes. That, you might say, is just the Old Testament, from which Jesus has set us free. In fact every single detail of the Passover meal is fulfilled in and explains the new rite which Jesus gave his Church on the night in which he was betrayed.

First of all, what is described in the reading from Exodus is a sacrifice. There are two Eucharistic feasts in the liturgical year, Maundy Thursday and Corpus Christi. Each feast directs our attention to two different but mutually dependent aspects of the Blessed Sacrament: Corpus Christi to the Real Presence and Maundy Thursday to the Sacrifice of the Mass. St. Paul in the Epistle simply reports what he has received from the tradition: “that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread . . .” but he adds an important comment of his own: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.”  

Then, we are told that the sacrifice of the Passover Meal must be a “lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male”. Only the best, the one, without blemish, without sin, is good enough, that is, Jesus the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world. The meal must be eaten in haste, while dressed for the road, the road which leads the Israelites through the desert, the road that leads Jesus to Calvary, the road which leads ultimately to Easter. The Lord’s Supper can only be eaten in preparation for the journey through the wilderness of death into the promised land of the Resurrection, rather than in the comfort and carefree expectation of maintaining the status quo of sin and death.

Finally the Lamb’s blood is to be smeared on our doorposts so that God’s judgment might pass over us. Only Christ’s blood, if it is discovered on us, can save us from the just judgment. All this is why Christians have obeyed the command to “do this”. All this is what drives what priest and people have done as the one thing that they must do.

But what about the feet?  What about the Gospel? This too is about sacrifice because it is about love, ‘the love that loves to the end.’ Peter understandably does not want to accept this, just as when he confesses Jesus as the Son Of God, he did not want to accept the Cross. It turns the world upside down. The Son of God goes down to the ground just as three times he will fall on the way of the Cross.

Peter’s aversion is perfectly understandable; it comes not from misunderstanding what Jesus is saying and doing but from understanding it all too well. It should frighten all of us away from the altar. It is the only conclusion to be reached from every Mass, a mystery as big as that the sacrifice of Christ should be on our altars: “I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.” The mystery in the startling words of Fr. von Balthasar: "Christians should become, like the Jesus they receive, edible food and potable drink for each other". But no more startling than the words of St. Augustine: "you are on the paten; you are in the chalice".  My sacrifice and yours. It should cause us to tremble, tremble, tremble.

I have set you an example,  that you also should do as I have done to you.

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