In Remembrance of Me

(Homily for Holy Thursday)

Tonight we begin what is called the Triduum: The three most sacred and important days of the year. They are Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. It's important for us to see these three as a unity. I say this because there is a tendency today to divide them. For example, there are people who seem to only want from the Church liturgy or beautiful rituals. You might say they only desire Holy Thursday; they shy away from Good Friday which implies sacrifice, the moral law. There are even churches which offer beautiful liturgies but do not teach the moral law, for example that abortion and homosexual activity are wrong. They want Holy Thursday without Good Friday.

On the other hand there are those who want Good Friday without Holy Thursday. For them the only thing that matters is being washed in the blood of Christ, the forgiveness of sins. I admit that is right at the heart of Christianity, but it leads to the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. You cannot separate Good Friday from Holy Thursday, regular participation in Sunday Mass.

The most common mistake is made by those who only want Easter Sunday. For them Christianity is the universal presence of Jesus and his affirmation, his acceptance--but they often do not want to hear about Jesus' moral law or his sacraments. This is sometimes called "New Age Christianity." All the warm feelings, but little hard responsibility. Easter without Good Friday.

For us Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday are one. Tonight as we celebrate the Last Supper, we know that the Mass is at the same time the sacrifice of Calvary and the real presence of the risen Jesus in the bread and wine.

In our Gospel reading tonight we listened to what in fact is the beginning of five chapters St. John dedicates to the Last Supper of Jesus. It is part of the final testimonial Jesus gave to his disciples. He sums up his life work and explains what he wishes to hand on to them--and how they are to live. Those finally hours are vitally important--that is why John devotes so much of his gospel to them.

I had an experience of that two and a half years ago when my own dad was dying. He had chosen not to use extraordinary means to prolong his life, so he knew his death was near. As his children and grandchildren gathered around him, he wanted us to know he was leaving us something. But what was most important were not the goods he was handing on to mom, but the words, the memory, the example.

So it was with Jesus. He knew that very night he would be arrested, subjected to a mock trial, then be led out to a horrible and humiliating death. And he had no illusions about the kind of men who reclined with him at the last supper table. He saw thru their play acting. Their motto would be like a lot of people today when things get difficult, "I'm outta here." But worse the chief apostle, Peter, would actually pretend that he didn't even know Jesus. Still Jesus did not write them off. Far from it. He wanted to be present to them in an unbreakable way. That is what a New Testament or New Covenant means.

So Jesus gave them a lasting memorial, what St. Paul describes in tonight�s second reading. "On the night on which he was betrayed, he took bread, broke it, gave thanks and said, 'This is my Body which will be given up for you.'" And he did the same with the cup, "This is my blood which will be shed for you." Do this in remembrance of me.

We can make a mistake at this point. Because Jesus described the Eucharist as a "remembrance" we can get the idea that the Mass is like acting out a play, just remembering a past event. Two things need to be said. First of all for people of Jesus' day, memory was so much more important than it is to us. They didn't have computers and books could not be mass produced, so they relied greatly on their memories--and their memories were so much more developed than ours. I saw that in my years in Peru working among the Aymara Indians--they had an oral, not a written culture and they had tremendous memories. One of my catechists, when he was a boy had learned the whole Latin Mass. He was now in his late fifties, but you could start at any point, for example: "Credo in unum Deum..." and even though I didn't hit the right notes, he could pick it up and say it all it Latin. The people of Jesus day also had magnificent memories.

For them to remember a past event was more than recall; it brings the happening out of the past and applies it to the people right here and now. We saw that in tonight�s first reading. When they recalled the Exodus, they did not just say, "This happened to our fathers." To this very day, when Jewish people celebrate the Passover, the youngest son asks the father, "Why is this night different from any other night?" The father responds, "Tonight is the night we are saved from slavery in Egypt." To remember makes present a past event.

But there is something much, much more, when we remember the Last Supper. We know that Jesus is different from any other person in history. Jesus not only died, he rose from the dead. He is not only man, he is God. We recall Abraham Lincoln as a great person of the past, but Jesus is alive and present today.

That is why the Church teaches that it is Jesus himself who celebrates the sacraments. It is he who will baptize and confirm at the Easter Vigil. It is he who forgives sins in confession. And at the Mass the celebrant is not so much Father Bloom, but Jesus. That is my great consolation as a priest. I know I am weak, but Jesus is strong. Try as I may, I am often distracted sometimes during the most solemn moment. It's amazing how during the Eucharist prayer it will hit me that I should have called someone. Or that a soft taco grande would be good later on. I know I need to fight against those distractions, but at the same time I take comfort from the fact it is not me, but Jesus who is offering the sacrifice of the Mass.

Tonight is the night Jesus instituted the priesthood. He had formed the apostles for three years so that his authority would be their authority. "He who hears you hears me." But this night he made them priests when he said those words, "Do this in memory of me." A priest is someone who offers a sacrifice on behalf of the people. This new priesthood would offer the perfect sacrifice, the one Jesus himself would offer the next day, his death on the cross. "This is my body which will be given up for you. This is my blood which will be shed for you. Do this in memory of me."

Sometimes I have this discussion with one of my priest friends. He says he wants people to appreciate him for who is, not for his office. I say the opposite. I want people to first love the priesthood. If it turns out some of them like me or agree with me, that is frosting on the cake. We haven't resolved our argument because he comes back saying we should do everything we can to be lovable to draw other people to Christ. I can hardly disagree with that. Still the point is we need to look beyond the individual priest to the person of Christ himself. It is he who matters in the long run.

If we consider the Last Supper as a kind of "ordination" of the first Christian priests, we have to admit Peter did not fare well in his initial assignment. He started off with extravagant promises. "I will stand by you, even if it means torture and death." To put it charitably his subsequent performance did not match his initial promises. But the greatness of Peter is that he repented, he picked up again and in the process learned to rely on the Lord. He did not throw in the towel. Don't you just love Peter? He is the apostle we most readily identify with.

And we can identify with his reaction to Jesus washing his feet. One of the hardest things is to get volunteers for is the Holy Thursday feet washing. People are reluctant to take off their shoes and socks in front of the congregation and have their feet washed. Sure, it is also a little humbling for me as a priest to take off my chasuble and stole, to kneel down and wash, then dry someone else�s' feet. I've also tried to follow the example of the Holy Father and to kiss the feet of those representing the apostles. But I know it is in a way even more humbling for those who have their feet washed.

Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, I will never let you wash my feet." But Jesus said, "Unless I wash your feet you can have no part with me." Once again, Peter responded extravagantly, "then not only me feet but my head, my whole body."

Jesus said, "If you have bathed, you only need wash you feet, to be completely clean." In John's Gospel, Jesus' words often have two levels of meaning: a physical level and a spiritual level. Spiritually what Jesus is saying here is that baptism cleanses us of our sins. After baptism, we can never be re-baptized. (As St.Paul says, there is one baptism.) But we can have our feet washed, that is receive a kind of "second baptism" which we know as the Sacrament of Penance. The feet washing we witness in a few minutes represents that beautiful sacrament.

Before we proceed to the foot washing, I want to mention one other thing. You noticed that at the beginning of Mass we brought up the three oils. They were blessed by Archbishop Brunett in the Chrism Mass and will be used to celebrate the sacraments. I want to thank our volunteer workers for restoring the ambry which is the niche or cupboard where the three oils will be kept. The first is the oil of catechumens which we use to anoint children on their hearts and adults as well as a preparation for baptism. The second is the oil the sick. It is employed at the other end of the life spectrum to anoint those who are seriously ill. This year we'll be having a common service for anointing of the sick this year on Trinity Sunday. And finally the sacred chrism. It is used for post-baptismal anointing. We will see it powerfully at our Easter Vigil. Over forty adults, teenagers and children will receive the Sacrament of Confirmation.

As we saw at the beginning of Lent, Jesus himself is the anointed one. In fact that is what the name Christ means in Greek: anointed. He not only washes us of our sins but anoints us to serve others. That service implies a certain humbling. In fact at times even bearing humiliation. Let's not turn away. I invite you to reflect on your own baptism, your own anointing as these representatives come forward to have their feet washed.

More Homilies

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From Archives:

2010 Homily: Foot Washing & Celibacy
2009: Join the Nearest Household
2008: Grandma, Can I Wash Your Feet?
2007: The Passover Lamb Must Be Eaten
2006: A New Friend at the Banquet
2005: Our True Companion
2004: A Girl's Heroic Holy Hour
2003: Do This!
2002: Humiliation of Priesthood
2001: Super-Abundance of Mercy
2000: Washing of Feet & Eucharist
1999: Family Struggles & Strengths
1998: In Remembrance of Me

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