When I was studying Spanish in Cochabamba, Bolivia, I lived with a group of priests and seminarians. We decided “just to practice our Spanish” to watch a local soap opera (telenovela) called Maria de Nadie (Maria of No One). At first it was a bit a of joke, we made fun of the sentimentality, but little by little we became more involved in the story. Pretty soon we had to plan our evenings in order to be home for the soap opera.
As the title suggests, Maria de Nadie was a girl who apparently had no family, no one to care for her, so she had to make her own way in the world. As the story progresses, she discovers her true identity, that she indeed has a father. By the end she goes from being Maria de Nadie to Maria who belongs to someone.
Holy Thursday is about belonging – in the deepest sense. Jesus gives us his own Body – and in doing so, makes us members of his Body, the Church.
Here at Holy Family we have been through some rough times, but we have come here tonite because we belong to Jesus – and to each other. This past couple of years, we have cared for members who have much less. (The collection this evening goes to our St. Vincent de Paul and Madre Teresa groups.) Our school has felt the pinch with a number of families out of work or with reduced hours.
Last month our parish council sponsored a novena in honor of the Child Jesus to pray for economic needs. We are beginning to see some results. One mom told me that she said the novena with her family – and on the ninth day got a job!
If we place our trust in Jesus, he will care for us. We see a beautiful gesture of care in Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. It was a menial task which a servant did for his master, but sometimes also a loving wife for her husband or a husband for his wife. I remember when my mom was in the last year of her life, my niece Tonya said, “Grandma, can I wash you feet?” She brought out a basin and gave a soothing foot wash. You could see my mom’s whole body relax.
Jesus desires to take care of us – in every aspect of our lives. Tonite we acknowledge that we belong to him and to each other. And we worship his Body and Body – the sign and source of our unity.
A priest friend of Archbishop Dolan suffered from multiple sclerosis. The effects of the disease were beginning to ravage his body. Once, the priest was assigned as homilist at a community Mass. He stood up to walk across the sanctuary, but stumbled. He would have hit the floor if he had grabbed the altar. He told the congregation, "I had better give the homily holding on to the altar or I might fall." Then pausing, he said, "You know, maybe that is enough in itself for a homily." We all need to hold on to the altar, receive from it the strength which only Christ can give us.
Tonight we hear how Jesus both participated in an ancient ritual and instituted a new one.* To explain what ritual accomplishes, Catholic evangelist Mark Shea gives an evocative comparison:
Fumbling for the phone she tried desperately to call somebody for help. However, try as she might, she could not even remember the phone number of her best friend. At this point something remarkable happened: Lifting the handset on the phone she found that her hand knew which numbers to press though her brain was at a loss to verbalize them. So she got through to her friend and was able to get help.
No command of Jesus has been more observed than the one Paul "received from the Lord" and handed on to the Corinthians: Do this in remembrance of me. Who could calculate the number of Masses celebrated since Jesus gathered his disciples for that Last Supper? The New Testament makes several references to the early Christians meeting for the “breaking of the bread.” The Church Fathers devoted volumes to explaining Jesus' true presence in the Eucharistic Bread. Almost two thousand years later, the Church has a half a million priests who on a daily basis carry out Jesus’ command – Do this in memory of me.
You who have come to the Mass of the Last Supper value the Eucharist. Almost all of you come to Mass each Sunday, many of you daily. Perhaps people question you about the benefit of such repetition. After telling about the girl who “hand knew which numbers to press,” Mark Shea makes this comment:
I think of this story sometimes when people speak of ritual or liturgy as a meaningless "going through the motions." For many people in our culture tend to equate "understanding" (particularly of religious things) simply and solely with an ability to articulate verbally some set of ideas or feelings. The notion is that unless one can earnestly give a point-by-point description of one's relationship with the Lord, that relationship is suspect. Thus, Catholics (who are often not very verbal about their faith and who notoriously do the same thing day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year) are often prime suspects for being members of the "frozen chosen": spiritually dead ritualists who have a form of the gospel while remaining utterly immune to its reality. All those signs of the cross. All that standing and kneeling. All those "stock phrases." Where is the true knowledge of the Lord in such ritual?
The orthodox Catholic answer: In our bodies, not just our heads, just as the woman above had the knowledge of her friend's phone number in her hand as well as her head.
Tonight let us joyfully – and with as much awareness as possible – observe Jesus’ command: Do this!
*The Passover (Ex 12:1-8, 11-14) and the Eucharist (1 Cor 11:23-26)
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