HOLY THURSDAY HOMILY
Readings: Ex. 12:1-8.11-14; Ps. 116:12-13.15-16bc. 17-18.; 1Cor. 11:23-26; John 13:1-15.
This evening’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper officially opens the Easter Triduum. On this evening we commemorate “Our Lord’s Last Supper” in which three significant events were carried out by Our Lord Jesus Christ: the joint institution of the Holy Eucharist and the Ministerial Priesthood and the washing of the disciples’ feet. The liturgy that begins now continues until we reach Easter. We are at the start of a three-day celebration of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. We journey from the Last Supper to Gethsemane tonight, from there to Calvary tomorrow, and from the tomb to resurrection and new life at the Vigil of Easter Sunday.
The Holy Eucharist and the Ministerial priesthood were instituted by Jesus Christ for three special reasons – to remember daily the wonderful deeds of God (our redemption), to make God made flesh (And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us – John 1:14) present for us daily “Once upon a time there was a rabbi who, whenever he wanted God’s presence, went to a special place in the woods, lit a fire, said some prayers, and did a dance. Then God would appear to him. When he died, his disciple did the same. If he wanted God’s presence, he went to the same spot in the woods, lit the fire, and said the same prayers, but nobody taught him the dance. It still worked. God appeared. When the disciple died, his own disciple carried on the tradition. If he wanted God’s presence, he went to the same spot in the woods and lit the fire. He didn’t know the prayer or the dance, but it still worked. God came. Then that disciple died. He also had a disciple. Whenever he wanted God’s presence, he, too, went to the same place in the woods, but nobody had taught him how to light the fire or say the prayers or do the dance, but it still worked, God appeared. That disciple, too, eventually died, but he also had a pupil. One day this pupil wanted God’s presence. So he searched for the place in the woods, but couldn’t find it. And he didn’t know how to light the fire or say the prayers or do the dance. All he knew was how to tell the story. But it worked. He discovered that whenever he told the story of how the others had found God, God would appear.”
And for our nourishment and sanctification.
The First Reading from the Book of Exodus speaks about the first Hebrew Passover meal. This was usually a feast for the nomads at spring season but became transformed as a commemorative feast for Israelites to celebrate the greatest wonders of God – the mighty liberation from slavery in Egypt through the power of God. Israel must not forget this wonders of God. Therefore she must annually recall this wonderful deeds of God from generation to generation.
Notice that this meal is full of symbols but the symbols of the lamb, the blood of the lamb painted on the door posts, and the unleavened bread sounds more distinct and speaks directly to us through Jesus Christ. Thus, it was no coincidence that Jesus during His private Passover meal with his disciples that He became the lamb and had to upgrade the Passover meal into a special and permanent sign to help us relive and recall daily the wonders of God in our lives. This time the aspect of liberation that God has done for us is our redemption from the powers of sin, Satan and death. For us not to forget such wonders of God, Jesus had to institute the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist and the Sacrament of the Ministerial Priesthood.
So, in the Second Reading, St. Paul recalls what Jesus did during that Passover meal, that Last Supper. Jesus transformed his Last Supper into the first Eucharistic celebration – the first Mass where Jesus Himself was the Chief Celebrant. St. Paul says, “While they were eating Jesus took the Bread, said the blessing, broke it and giving it to his disciples saying, ‘Take and eat, this is my Body.’ Then he took the chalice, gave thanks and gave it to them saying, ‘Drink from it all of you for this is the blood of the covenant which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.’ ” Jesus thus instituted the Holy Eucharist as the sign and reality of God’s perpetual presence with His people as their living, heavenly food, in the forms of bread and wine. This was followed by the institution of the Ministerial Priesthood with the command, “Do this in memory of me.” So, today let us all appreciate our priests for first accepting the call and secondly making themselves available to serve us through the Mass, other sacraments, and many other functions they carry out for the good of our souls, the Church and the world at large.
The link between the Hebrew and the Christian Covenants reflects in the second reading. In the second reading there is no mention of a lamb because there is a new lamb, Jesus himself is the Pascal Lamb. He served as both the Host and the Victim of a sacrifice and became the Lamb of God, who would take away the sins of the world (John 1:29). He is the sacrificial victim of the New Covenant whose blood will adorn the wood of the cross. In this meal, the emphasis is on the unleavened bread and Body, on wine and Blood. This meal becomes now the sacrament of a new liberation, not just from physical slavery, but from every kind of slavery, especially that of sin, evil, and death through the broken Body of Jesus and his poured out Blood on the cross. This becomes the basis for the celebration of the Eucharist, which is at the heart of all our Christian living.
From our celebration, we also have a story to tell about how to make God present in our midst. It is the story of the Holy Eucharist, it is the story of the priesthood of Christ that Jesus uses to make Himself present in our midst. That every time at Mass that the priest through the power of the Holy Spirit pronounces the words of institution of the Holy Eucharist, the bread and wine on the altar of sacrifice are transformed into the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ.
Our Lord Jesus Christ came from God and had to give us the means to make God ever present until He returns. Hence He says in Matthew 28:20 “I will be with you until the end of time.” So, the Eucharist we celebrate daily among other things is best understood as a ritual reenactment of Christ sacrifice of himself for us. It is a memorial of Christ passion, death and resurrection as stated in the second reading by St. Paul.
Why are feet washed on Holy Thursday?
The biblical basis for the washing of the feet occurs in the Last Supper narrative, and is only found in the Gospel according to John. At the moment when we expect Jesus to take bread and wine and transform them, as he does in the Gospel accounts of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, Jesus in John’s Gospel account gets up and begins to wash feet. Peter first refuses to allow Jesus to wash his feet; it should be, as Peter reasoned it, Peter washing Jesus’s feet. Jesus rebukes Peter: “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:12-15). Jesus serves his disciples, and then instructs them to imitate his practice of washing feet. There is a sense of humility. There is a sense of Love. There is a sense of service. There is a link between the Holy Eucharist, the Priesthood and humankind. The Eucharist is related to our everyday living. There is this brief story to illustrate this connection; it is drawn from a book titled:
“The Stole and the Towel’, which sums up the message of the Italian bishop, Tony Bello. On Holy Thursday of 1993, while on his deathbed, he dictated a pastoral letter to the priests of his diocese. He called upon them to be bound by ‘the stole and the towel.’ The stole symbolizes union with Christ in the Eucharist, and the towel symbolizes union with humanity by service. The priest thus is called upon to be united with the Lord in the Eucharist and with the people as their servant.”
A priest is a disciple of Christ and as such he should serve others according to the examples of Christ the Master. It also applies to us the followers of Christ. We receive the Eucharist from the Priests in order to be empowered to serve one another according to the various positions and roles we perform in the Church, families and society. As disciples, our model, par excellence, is Jesus Christ. His practices in scripture provide a model for our practices as disciples. Jesus knew he was going to be crucified, and gave this practice as a sign for disciples to serve one another. Pope Francis has been receiving a lot of press in his pontificate, and part of this is his profound sense of humble service to all people. He models service in his daily actions. During one of his Homily on Holy Thursday evening, Pope Francis remarked that this rite is “a caress of Jesus.” Feet stink, feet were callused and blistered from long walks. In Jesus’s day proper hospitality required the servants to wash the guests’ feet. Jesus, as the host, turns this practice upside down. He bends low and washes the feet of the lowly. He caresses, an act of love. True service wells up from a profound love and faith that seeks to help others daily. The rite of washing feet is called the mandatum, Latin for “commandment.” Jesus summed up the law by saying there are two fundamental commandments: Love of God and love of one’s neighbour. Loving the neighbour is acting humbly and in service. Jesus, in John’s Gospel account, offers a meaning of the Eucharist: The encounter with Christ Jesus has implications in one’s life. What Jesus did and does for us, we are to do for one another. As Pope Francis remarked: “because this is the real reason why Jesus came: to serve, to help us.”
Holy Thursday is not only the day of the institution of the Most Holy Eucharist and the ministerial priesthood, it also belongs the dark night of the Mount of Olives, to which Jesus goes with his disciples; in solitude and abandonment, in prayer as He encounters the darkness of death; the betrayal of Judas, His arrest and his denial by Peter; his indictment before the Sanhedrin and his being handed over to the Gentiles, to Pilate. Let us try at this hour to understand more deeply something of these events, for in them the mystery of our redemption takes place. Therefore, after the post communion prayer, we shall process with Jesus Christ in the Eucharist to an altar of repose and there we shall recall the Agony in the Garden, and the arrest and imprisonment of Jesus. The altar will be stripped bare, and crucifixes will be removed or covered and the Eucharist will be placed on an altar of repose, open for us for the opportunity for silent adoration, to answer Christ’s invitation “Could you not, then, watch one hour with me?” (Matt 26:40).