By: Fr. James Gross
Tonight’s Mass begins what amounts to a three-day celebration in the Church. There’s nothing else like this all year long. Instead of a formal ending to this Mass with a final blessing, we will form a procession to take the Blessed Sacrament to our chapel of repose, out in the alcove. Just as Christ and the Apostles left the upper room once the Passover meal had ended, so our Lord exits the church proper.
Tomorrow’s liturgy is not a celebration of Mass, but the reading of the Passion, the veneration of the cross, and the reception of Holy Communion. A final blessing and dismissal comes only at the conclusion of Mass on Easter, bringing this great liturgy to a close. But before we can arrive at the great joy of Easter morning, we first have to accompany the Lord in His suffering and death. And tonight Jesus gives us an intimate look at those last quiet moments gathered with his apostles before Judas finalizes his sad betrayal.
“Jesus loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end.” The importance of Holy Thursday night is enormous, because of two things Jesus instituted for his Church: the Eucharist and the Ministerial Priesthood. Here the sacrifices of the Old Covenant find their proper understanding. Here we have the meaning of what the shedding of a lamb’s blood could only symbolize. Here is the most tangible means by which Christ fulfills his promise to be with us always, until the end of the world.
There are other times during the year to put on our “theology caps” and study in depth the Church’s teaching of how the simple gifts of bread and wine are changed into the substance of Christ’s Body and Blood. For tonight, let’s put on our “history caps” instead. The final sign that God would show the Egyptian Pharaoh of His majesty was the plague of the firstborn.
For untold numbers of people and animals in the land of Egypt, on one fateful night, the gift of life would be snatched away. But God had Moses instruct the Hebrews as to how they would escape this tragic fate. Each household needed to select a year-old male lamb free of blemish and slaughter it to provide a sacrificial meal. Then, a portion of its blood would go on the door frame of their tents. God’s angel rescued all those who participated in the ritual meal and “passed over” the homes marked by the blood of the lamb.
Now, as wondrous as all that was, everyone acknowledges that an animal sacrifice does not take the place of a contrite heart. In one of the Psalms, God Himself chastises the people for spilling the blood of bulls and goats as though these mere beasts, and not God, would deliver them from condemnation. We no longer have that concern. John the Baptist’s words some three years earlier, “Behold the Lamb of God,” perfectly foreshadowed our Savior’s work. On the night before his trial, scourging, and crucifixion, Jesus left us a memorial of his once for all sacrifice. At every Mass, the act of our redemption is not redone, but it is represented in sacramental form. At every Mass, the altar is the cross.
Notice that Jesus institutes the Eucharist with a specific command that we do this in remembrance of him. This command supersedes a mere suggestion. In fact, we can go so far as to say the Christ depends on us to offer his sacrifice together with him to his Father. When we consider the living practice of the Church, this one thing is the most indispensable.
The Holy Sacrifice, made present in the Mass, is to endure as long as time endures. On no occasion did our Lord say anything similar about writing down his words. Thanks be to God for the witness of Sacred Scripture, but nowhere does a message of Jesus come after the order: “Quick, somebody jot this down!” However, when it comes to the sacrament of His Body and Blood, Jesus left nothing to chance. “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, do this in memory of me.”
In order to provide for this sacrifice, we have our Lord’s commission—ordination, really—of the Church’s first bishops in the apostles. Catholic Bishops today are successors to the Apostles, carrying out the fullness of that office. Priests are extensions of the Bishops, ordained to ministry in the Person of Christ, the Head and Shepherd of the Church. While everyone is endowed with a priestly identity by virtue of baptism, so as to offer God fitting worship and praise, some men among their number are called forth to exercise the ministerial priesthood so as to personify the presence of the love of Jesus Christ by many different means, not the least of which being the consecration of the Holy Eucharist.
Lastly, as a touching gesture that represents Jesus’ total gift of self, he begins to wash the feet of the Apostles. Aside from the obvious meanings of this act—a pattern of humble service and an example of servant leadership in Christ’s name—there’s an added meaning to this ritual, which helps to explain why the Church insists, if at all possible, that Bishops and priests reenact it.
I’ll ask you to look at it for a moment from the celebrant’s vantage point. A priest’s washing the feet of parishioners helps to cement a bond of love. This is not the fruit of an impersonal style of ministry, in which an itinerant preacher comes in, says what he says to say, and goes away. This is, rather, the fruit of a shepherd’s investment in his flock. At some Cathedrals, bishops arrange for seminarians to fill this role, as a representation of the Apostles. In other cases, certain groups or organizations in a parish supply the participants. Regardless of the details, the person Father serves in this way is never just a token selection or a number. Those people represent all the individuals under his care. And unless Father relates to them with humility and respect, honoring the dignity which God gave to them, his participation in the ministry of Christ becomes a fraud.
Since there’s no formal dismissal at the end of this Mass, we all are invited to linger and remain with Christ in prayer. The words he spoke that first Holy Thursday night ring in our ears; “Could you not keep watch with me for one hour?” The Lord invites us to spend some time in quiet and meditation before we need to drift away. If you still need to make a good confession before Easter, you can do that, too. The King of heaven and earth looks upon us with inestimable love and waits for us here.