13 April 2017
On this holy night that begins the Sacred Triduum, the sacred three days that celebrate how Christ accomplished our salvation, the Church reflects on three principal mysteries from the Last Supper. The first and second mysteries are the two Sacraments our Lord gave us on this holy night: He established the Holy Eucharist to be the New Passover in which the lamb to be shared by each faithful Jewish family is now fulfilled in the family of the Church where, always first seeking absolution from our sins, we are invited to eat the Lamb of God which is Jesus himself, his true Body and Blood offered for us and for our nourishment so that we may have true life within us. The other Sacrament we consider this evening is that in giving us his Body and Blood the Lord, at the same time, established the Priestly Order in the sacrament of Holy Orders. It is through the validly ordained priest that Jesus himself has chosen to operate in a privileged way at Holy Mass for the good of his people. The priest lends his life, his hands, his voice, his heart to the Lord who once again makes himself present to us, changing bread and wine into that same New Passover gift of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. This is a mystery and a gift, the priesthood is, that we will see take place this summer in the life of Deacon Kelly Edwards, the first son of our parish to be ordained to the priesthood. And looking at our altar boys this evening and knowing their service week after week, surely the Spirit of the Lord’s anointing is among us to provide future priests for the Church. The third mystery we commemorate this evening is that at supper with his apostles the Lord gave the command to observe fraternal charity. By washing their feet, the Lord provided the example to his first priests of how they are to serve and to love one another. This command extends to all disciples to follow what our Lord and Master has modeled for us.
To correct some misplaced emphases of the last few decades it is important to state that the central purpose of the Holy Mass, well before the supper aspect or the aspect of the anticipation of the heavenly banquet, is sacrifice. Thus, when we gather before the sacred altar we do not gather to celebrate our community or ourselves. Rather, we gather as a community that belongs to the Lord to offer and to participate in the one saving sacrifice by which, united to Jesus, the Priest and the Victim of the same sacrifice, we give to God the one perfect sacrifice that pays the debt for our sins.
Why is the notion of sacrifice so important? God, in His generous love, provides us every good thing. Adam and Eve in the Original Sin, and we in our personal sins, choose to dwell in greater or lesser degree apart from God. Living apart from God is sin and it brings separation and death. By making animal sacrifice, the people of the Old Covenant were offering life in place of the death of sin. This was symbolized in animal sacrifice acknowledging, as the Book of Leviticus does, that “the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Lev. 17:11). Thus the blood sacrifice of animals, and specifically a lamb, was a sin offering to atone for man’s separation from God and the death such sin brings. Man had separated himself from God by sin. In repentance he separated from his material goods, from his flock, a lamb whose life would be offered as something set apart and made holy to atone for sin.
As I mentioned in my Palm Sunday homily, it is not simply accepting the holy teaching of religion that saves us; it is not simply following a Christian moral code that saves us. Yes, these are important elements of our faith life. But to be clear, what saves us is the saving deed of Jesus Christ on the Cross together with his Resurrection. What we observe in particular this holy evening is that no longer does man set aside and offer imperfect sacrifice to God. Now, Jesus – God Himself – takes the place of the sacrifice, being the true Lamb of God whose Blood makes the sacrifice of the most perfect life of all in place of our sins and the death they bring to us.
Jesus intended to do something new with the Passover ritual on that first Holy Thursday night with his apostles. We can briefly consider that on the first Palm Sunday, just days before the event of the Last Supper, St. Matthew’s gospel tells us that upon entering Jerusalem to “Hosannas” and palm branches, Jesus then went and cleansed the temple (cf. Mt. 21:12-14). He drove out all those who bought and sold things in the temple. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who sold sacrificial animals. By this cleansing, Jesus disrupted the standard practices of temple sacrifice. This can be considered a clear sign that he is bringing an end to the Jewish sacrificial system (cf. Rabbi Jacob Neusner, Mutual Enrichment blog, 8 April 2017). He does this in preparation for the new sacrifice and the new covenant he will institute just days later at the Last Supper.
Sacrifice will not make sense to us if we don’t acknowledge our sins. Being unaware of our sins will begin to dull our sense of what we do here. I am convinced that in part, the idea that the Mass is primarily a meal or a communal gathering, erroneous notions that have gained popularity in the last several decades, is directly related to the decrease over the same time period in the practice of frequent confession among Catholics. When we don’t confess sin and repent of it regularly we become less aware of its reality. When we become less aware of the reality of our sins then we will also begin to fail to appreciate sacrifice. When we fail to appreciate sacrifice, we no longer see the Holy Mass for what it is. Instead of seeing that the Lord instituted a new and perfect sacrifice as a sin offering for our salvation, we begin to focus almost exclusively on the idea that we simply gather to re-enact a holy meal. But notice that not even that first Holy Thursday, not even the Last Supper, was primarily focused on the goal of a faith meal. Rather, the Last Supper was focused on the following day, the sacrifice of the Cross. For at that supper, having brought an end to the old sacrificial system, Jesus presented his sacrifice in sacramental form and promised that its value would remain for all time. And to ensure that his disciples of every time and place could access the power of this one saving sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins, Jesus commanded: Do this in memory of me. St. Paul clearly understood this emphasis on sacrifice over meal for he writes: “For as often as you [do this] you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). Sacrifice! Having this proper understanding, the understanding the Church has maintained since ancient times, profoundly shapes how we approach the Holy Mass, how we prepare for it, what we expect from it, what we give to it, and what we expect for music, decoration, and reverence.
On Palm Sunday, St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians told us that Jesus emptied himself and humbled himself (cf. Phil. 2:6-11). The gospel on this holy night tells us that, fully aware of what he was doing, Jesus humbled himself at the dinner by removing his outer garment and washing feet. Jesus fulfills his emptying and humbling of self on the Holy Cross. The constant practice of the Church makes sense then: Namely, that we first empty and humble ourselves in imitation of Jesus by confessing our sins so that we can engage with what he offers here in atonement for our sins. We must humble ourselves by confessing sin if we hope to approach the saving sacrifice with proper disposition and a heart open to God’s saving love and grace. Here we come to Calvary in sacramental form. We participate in what Jesus did to save us and we proclaim: Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!