As many of you know, tomorrow will be my 68th birthday. But it was on a Holy Thursday night that I was actually born. I don’t believe being born on Holy Thursday predestined me to be a priest, but it may have increased my affection for this day, which has always been one of my favorites of the Church’s year.
My earliest, childhood memory of Holy Thursday is a fleeting one. The Mass was still in the morning then. I remember the church being very crowded (as churches were in those days), and I remember the schoolgirls in their white communion dresses solemnly walking past in the procession at the end of Mass.
I was seven years old when Pope Pius XII moved this Mass to evening. Once I was old enough to walk to church on my own at night, I became very fond of this Mass. I liked the very different way the church looked and felt at night. Of course, the Mass itself was very grand. The celebrant, deacon, and subdeacon all wore the finest gold vestments. The organ played and the Sanctus-Bell rang for the Gloria, then fell silent - replaced until Easter by a weird wooden clapper. Finally, came the part everyone was waiting for - the procession, still with lots of school-girls in their communion dresses, strewing flowers on the floor before the Blessed Sacrament.
A lot has changed over the years. Still, a time traveler joining our congregation here tonight would readily recognize what day this is, and what we are remembering here tonight.
Remembering is, of course what this night is all about. The church’s official liturgical books explicitly instruct us to remember “how the Lord Jesus, loving those who were his own in the world even to the end, offered his body and blood to the Father under the appearances of bread and wine, gave them to the apostles to eat and drink, then enjoined the apostles and their successors in the priesthood to offer them in turn” [Ceremonial of Bishops, 297].
These are the themes highlighted above all in Saint Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians [1 Corinthians 11:23-26], which take us back in time to the most remembered meal in human history - Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples on the day before the Passover.
But what we remember is not just some interesting thing that Jesus and his disciples did a long time ago, but rather how that otherwise ordinary meal was dramatically transformed by Jesus’ own words and actions into the Church’s central sacrament – how Jesus’ Last Supper continues as a perpetual institution in the Church as the Lord’s Supper.
For it is not back to Jesus’ Last supper, but to the Church’s Lord’s Supper that we return time and again. It is the Church’s Lord’s Supper, celebrating what God has done for us, that continues to make us who we are and transform us into who we hope to become.
So the Church celebrates this sacrament daily, and she commands us to come together on the 1st day of each week to remember Jesus’ words and actions and to celebrate their continued, ongoing, transforming power to change us.
Our life together as Christ’s Body, the Church, centered on the sacraments we celebrate here, is a great inheritance – an inheritance which we have received from the apostles, passed on to us through countless generations of people like us. Whether amid the splendor of a papal basilica or in the simplicity of a missionary outpost, whether with the Bishop in his cathedral or with friends and neighbors in our local parish church, this same Lord’s Supper has been celebrated generation after generation and treasured by every generation as its most precious inheritance – an inheritance which it is now our precious privilege to pass on to today’s world and to tomorrow’s generations to come.
But, if Lord’s Supper is one of the Risen Christ’s great gifts to his Church, it is also a challenge. The four short verses we just heard from Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians are part of a longer text [1 Corinthians 11:20-32] (which used to be read in its entirety at this Mass), which highlights the Corinthians’ conflicts, dissensions, and factions – in other words, their resistance to being changed by the very Eucharist that they were privileged to experience together.
We hear a lot in the news about the serious problem of inequality in our society, and we can certainly see and experience the consequences all around us. Well back then, among those to whom Saint Paul’s account of the Last Supper was originally addressed, all was not well either, even among themselves. It seems that the values of secular Roman society, with its social and class distinctions and inequalities, were making themselves felt even within the Church community, to the point that even the celebration of the Lord’s Supper seemed to mirror those distinctions and inequalities. Some have suggested that perhaps the rich got better food than others did at the community meal that in those days accompanied the Lord’s Supper, or that perhaps, since the rich had the leisure to arrive earlier, they ate first and left little or nothing for the others. Whatever exactly was going on, Paul’s point was that they were missing the meaning of the Lord’s Supper and the opportunity it offered for them to be transformed by it.
Perhaps the Corinthians couldn’t quite help bringing the world with them to Mass, any more than we can. It is always temptingly easy to miss the point and focus on the wrong food, as Pope Francis reminded us on Corpus Christi a couple of years ago, when he said: “If we look around, we realize that there are so many offers of food which do not come from the Lord and which appear to be more satisfying. Some nourish themselves with money, others with success and vanity, others with power and pride. But the food that truly nourishes and satiates us is only that which the Lord gives us! The food the Lord offers us is different from other food, and perhaps it doesn’t seem as flavorful to us as certain other dishes the world offers us. So we dream of other dishes, like the Hebrews in the desert, who longed for the meat and onions they ate in Egypt, but forgot that they had eaten those meals at the table of slavery.”
So, “what about me?” the Pope invites us to ask ourselves. “Where do I want to eat? At which table do I want to be nourished? At the Lord’s table? Or do I dream about eating flavorful foods? What do I recall? The Lord who saves me, or the garlic and onions of slavery?” So let us, the Pope suggests, recover the right memory and “learn to recognize the false bread that deceives and corrupts, because it comes from selfishness, from self-reliance and from sin.”
And that, I believe, is why being here together is so important, why what happens here at this altar is so important, enabling us to leave here different from how we came, enabling us to take something new with us when we go back out into the world, something very different from the same old stuff which we are so easily tempted to bring in with us from the world. As Pope Emeritus Benedict reminded us in a recent interview, “The Christian faith is not an idea, but a life.”
So it is no accident that we dedicate church buildings and set them apart (even by their external appearance) from the secular world and its activities. For the Eucharist is not some meal just like any other, and the community it creates is not some social institution like any other. What happens here is meant to make us in an important way different from who we would otherwise have been, from the world we came here from and to which we must for the time being return.
The Gospel account we just heard tells us that the Devil had already induced Judas to hand Jesus over. In the next scene that follows tonight’s account, after Judas had received a piece of bread from Jesus, Satan entered him, and Judas went out into the night. He left Jesus and the other disciples behind; he left behind the community that could have been his, in order to commit himself instead to Satan’s cause.
What was the piece of bread that Jesus gave Judas? Was it the Eucharist? What a warning is there in that for us?
So too for us tonight – and every time we come together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper - how we depart may matter much more than how we arrive. What kind of person have I become, and what kind of community have we become, because of what we have experienced and shared together in this very special place? What are we taking with us from this special place to remake ourselves and our world? What are we taking with us from this special place to proclaim to all the world – and for all the world - the death of the Lord until he comes?
Homily for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, Holy Thursday, March 24, 2016.