Homily by Father Gary Coulter
Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord's Supper
April 2, 2015 in the Cathedral of the Risen Christ, Lincoln
In 2002, Pope St. John Paul II shocked the world by introducing five new mysteries of the rosary. Well truthfully, most of the world probably didn’t even notice, but for Catholics, the rosary hadn’t changed for over 500 years, the traditional 15 mysteries dated back to the 13th century. I was little skeptical: should the pope change such a beloved devotion and time honored tradition?
Well after praying these five new mysteries of light for over a dozen years, including today on the 10th anniversary of his death, I have to say St. John Paul the Great knew what he was doing. The Luminous mysteries add five key events in the public ministry of Our Lord, to ponder the time after the incarnation and the hidden life of Christ before focusing on his Passion and Resurrection. I have found great value in meditating on the: The Baptism in the Jordan, The Wedding at Cana, The Proclamation of the Kingdom, The Transfiguration, and the Institution of the Eucharist.
It is the last of these mysteries we celebrate this evening, the institution of the holy Eucharist and the Priesthood at the Last Supper. The final mystery of light recalls this wondrous sacrament, “in which Christ offers his body and blood as food under the signs of bread and wine, and testifies 'to the end' his love for humanity, for whose salvation he will offer himself in sacrifice.” (Rosarium Virginis Mariae 21)
Praying this luminous mystery every Thursday allows us to unpack the three themes contained into today’s Holy Thursday liturgy: the washing of the feet, the institution of the priesthood, and the institution of the Eucharist.
First, we reenact Jesus washing the feet of His apostles, which we heard in the Gospel. It is an illustration of Jesus’ humility: he humbled himself to become one of us, and will empty himself even more to die on the cross. Jesus wants to teach his disciples a lesson in service, and thus he gives them a new commandment: “that you love one another; even as I have loved you, you also ought to love one another.” (John 13:34) He tells them and us, that to bear the name of Christian is to live a life of sacrificial love for the world.
I learned this lesson first hand some years ago visiting the Sharing and Caring Hands homeless shelter and outreach center in Minneapolis, a place where hundreds of desperately needy people come for lunch every day. Ever since she founded Sharing and Caring Hands in 1985, Mary Jo Copeland would choose a few of these people, wash their feet, and give them a new pair of socks and shoes. Well as I’m visiting, thinking I might be put to work dishing up soup or pouring coffee, Mary Jo tells me, ‘Father, when priests are here, they always share in the foot washing.’ And before I knew it, there I was on my knees besides the courageous and humble 70 year-year-old lady, washing the knarred feet of a homeless man who obviously hadn’t had a shower in some time. Suddenly Jesus action and call had new meaning when it’s up close and personal: to be a servant to others.
Second, immersed in the Mystery of the self-emptying of Jesus Christ, we celebrate the gift of the ministerial priesthood which continues to make present His Priesthood. At the Last Supper, Jesus sacramentally anticipated the altar of the Cross at which He would willingly pour out the very last drop of His Blood to set free. So Christ is the High Priest offering the perfect sacrifice, this holy oblation of himself as the victim for our sins. And when a priest stands at the altar, he stands in the place of Christ, priest and victim, celebrating the same sacrifice at the same altar of the Cross.
Yet Third, Jesus not only gave Himself to those apostles one time, on that holy night. He also instituted the sacrament that will always share in that great meal, which we participate in at every Mass. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the Holy Oblation of Incarnate Love and we are the beneficiaries, receiving the very life of God. He said, “This is my body”, “This is the cup of my blood”, “Do this in memory of me.” And so at each Mass, with the priest standing in the person of Christ, the bread truly becomes his body, and the wine truly his blood.
St. Josemaria Escriva says it well: “Jesus has remained within the Eucharist for love... of you… He has remained so that you could eat him, so that you could visit him … and so that you could talk to him as you pray before the Tabernacle and as you receive the Sacrament; and so that you could fall in love more and more each day, and make other souls, many souls, follow the same path” (The Forge, no. 887.)
Beside celebrating these three themes, at the end of today’s liturgy, we have two other traditions.
The first is a Eucharistic procession, in which our Lord in the Eucharist walks among us as he is carried to the altar of repose. There we are invited to visit our Lord, and spend some time praying with him just as he prayed in the garden. After midnight, the altar of repose can also symbolize the Lord’s tomb – he is no longer present here but has been buried.
A poignant reminder of this is the final tradition: after the Eucharist is celebrated tonight, all of the altar cloths and decorations are removed. Since the altar symbolizes Christ, the "stripping of the altar" recalls the abandonment of Jesus by his disciples and the stripping of Jesus by the soldiers. The bareness of the church and absence of Christ represent the humiliation of Jesus and the consequence of the darkness of sin – a world in need of a savior, awaiting with hope the resurrection.
The Holy Thursday liturgy is especially tied to the theme of remembering. Remembering Christ’s new commandment of love, the apostles are commissioned to pass on all that Jesus said and did; and in particular as priests, to celebrate this Eucharist, making present Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for us to receive.
May our memory of Holy Thursday continue whenever we celebrate the Mass or pray the Fifth Luminous Mystery, the institution of the Eucharist. May it lead us to adore him who is present here, to experience the love he shows in going to the cross, and to participate in his love by lives of service. To Jesus Christ, who offers his life in love, we give all adoration, praise and glory forever. Amen.