Thursday, March 17, 2016

Maundy Thursday: Homily 2016

Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

There are two feasts of the Blessed Sacrament in the liturgical year both of which fall on a Thursday.Corpus Christi, even if it is now usually celebrated on the following Sunday, is formally on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. Corpus Christi with Benediction and procession is primarily a celebration of the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament: This is my Body.  But Maundy Thursday, ‘on the night before he was betrayed’ is primarily a celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice: given for you. One would not want to exaggerate of course. Both Corpus Christi and Maundy Thursday put before the whole of the great mystery of the Eucharist: This is my Body given for you. But the readings for Maundy Thursday make it clear that we cannot understand the least bit of this unfathomable mystery, ‘the source and summit of the Church’s life,’ unless we see it as a Sacrifice, the same Sacrifice of Good Friday, something which on the whole is more difficult for us than Real Presence.

The first reading describes the Old Testament prefiguration of the Lord's Supper, the eating of the Passover lamb, while the second reading, taken from Paul's letters, describes the New Testament fulfillment of that prefiguration. The Gospel of the foot-washing, not obviously related to the Eucharist, reveals to us Jesus' inner attitude at his self-giving to Church and world. This dramatic action opened the disciples' eyes to perceive what really did happen in the institution of the Eucharist and what really happens in each Eucharist celebrated since.

Every detail of this mysterious report of the Passover meal was to be revealed by the Christian celebration with a view toward the fulfillment of the Passover meal. First, an "unblemished, male, young (year-old) lamb" was required as a sacrifice: only the best is good enough, it can carry no blemish. Then, the meal must be eaten "hastily" while dressed for the road. In a Christian sense this can only mean eating while prepared to depart from the mortal world to God, eating while prepared to pass through the wilderness of death into the promised land with God, rather than eating in comfort and carefree expectation of continuing the status quo into an earthly future. The Christian Lamb is, after all, the Risen One who takes us up into a "life hidden with Christ in God" into a sharing of his Resurrection. 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, for he has passed through the judging of sins and as Savior has become our Judge.

Paul reports what "was delivered" to him: Jesus' prayer of thanksgiving over the bread: "This is my body given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." Likewise with the cup, which "is the New Covenant in my blood". To this Paul adds: each Eucharistic meal is a "proclamation of the death of the Lord". The Old Testament ceremony now receives its final profound meaning: "This is my Body given for you, a covenant in blood" speaks of a sacrifice of extreme love, extreme to the point that the One sacrificing himself becomes food and drink for those to whom he gives himself. Not only that, but it also means transferring authority over this sacrifice to the recipient: "Do this", not merely "receive this". The same thing will recur on Easter when the Risen One will say: "Those whose sins you forgive", instead of simply saying: "Receive forgiveness from me and my Father." What already pushes our imagination to the limit-that the God-man gives himself as food for eternal life to us, his murderers-is now to be surpassed: we are to carry out ourselves what has been done for us, we are to present the Son's sacrifice to the Father.

The Gospel may seem far removed from all this but in one of the modern Eucharistic Prayers a portion of this Gospel is added to the words of institution: for when the hour had come for him to be glorified by you, Father most holy, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The foot-washing is an act of love that Peter understandably perceives as completely unacceptable, as turning the world upside down. So it does because this inversion is the most upright thing possible. One must first let it happen to himself, precisely as the Lord did it in his incomparable love's humbling-before he can take it as "an example"  for himself and practice this self-abasement with the brethren. This is the Gospel's tangible demonstration of the subsequent passage's description of the mystery of the Eucharist: Christians should, like Christ himself, become edible food and potable drink for each other.

Every time a priest and people gather to “do this” all of this happens. The Church, the Body of Christ is formed by the Body and Blood of Christ; the one perfect sufficient sacrifice of the Son is presented again to the Father; the world is turned upside down by Love; we are loved until the end and are compelled again to love by the Love which feeds us and washes us.

Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

I am indebted as always to Fr. von Balthasar. 

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