Holy Thursday, Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper
Preached at Assumption Parish in Bellingham, WA
We Catholics, along with the Orthodox and some Anglicans and Lutherans, continue to refer to our spiritual leaders as “priests,” while most other Christians use the title “Pastor” or “Minister.” “Pastor,” of course, comes from the Latin word for shepherd, and a minister is one who serves, so both can and do apply to our spiritual leaders. Why, then, are we so insistent on keeping “priest” as the primary title for those who are ordained?
Priesthood is a concept that predates Christianity by millennia. Every ancient culture appears to have had some form of priesthood, always with three common elements: first, the priest who offers sacrifice to the gods; second, the sacrifice which is offered; and third, the ritual in which the sacrifice is offered. If the sacrifice is an animal, it is called a victim and is sacrificed on an altar. Whether we are talking about witch doctors or Roman temples, ritual offerings made by priests are a universal human experience.
The concept of priesthood is especially important in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Jewish Religion. Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam, were to first to offer grain and livestock offerings to the Lord. Later, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all erect altars at important moments of their lives so that they can offer sacrifice in thanksgiving. In this pre-Mosaic era, the head of the household always served as the priest. However, after the Exodus, God established a special societal class of priest, called the Levits, who carry out carefully prescribed rituals according to the Law given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. This Levitical priesthood inspires David and his son Solomon to build a grand temple in Jerusalem so that these sacrifices can be made with great solemnity, and the destruction of this temple by the Babylonians and its later rebuilding provide the central drama which defines Judaism right up until the time of Jesus.
One of the greatest Jewish ritual sacrifices, of course, was the Passover. Unlike Yom Kippur, another exceptionally holy day when the high priest enters the Holy of Holies, the annual Passover required that every Jewish family offer sacrifice in the Temple, a call-back to the pre-Mosaic days of household priests. Passover was also special because, unlike the other annual sacrifices, this sacrifice was intimately connected to an event – the event of the Passover in Egypt described in our first reading, when the children of Israel were saved from slavery and set free. More than just offering sacrifice to God, Passover relived the saving actions of God in Egypt and made them present to new generations. The Greek word for this is “anamnesis” – often translated as “remembrance”, but a remembrance that makes the event present again in a real way.
Understanding all of this is essential to understanding the Last Supper and the Christian celebration of Holy Thursday. Even though priesthood is universally present in every ancient culture, it never succeeds. The gods are never completely satisfied. The sacrifices never feel like enough. The priests never appear to be as holy as they ought to be. Even the Israelites lose the Promised Land and have to be delivered from their enemies again and again.
In response, Jesus becomes the perfect priest and the perfect victim, so that humanity can finally offer a perfect sacrifice to God, once for all. Note that, even though multiple Gospels refer to the Last Supper as a Passover meal, none of them mention a lamb being present, even though that would have been required by the law. This is because Jesus himself is the sacrificial lamb, the Lamb of God. It is Jesus who is the perfect priest, offering the perfect victim – himself – on the altar of the Cross.
The analogy is perfect and astonishing. The Passover lamb, through its death, saved the Israelites from slavery to Pharaoh. The Lamb of God, through his death, saves us from slavery to sin and death. The Passover meal makes present, once again, the saving actions of God in Egypt. The Eucharistic meal makes present, once again, the saving actions of Jesus on the Cross. When Jesus says, “Do this in remembrance of me,” he is using the word “anamnesis” – a remembrance that makes the reality present. The Mass makes present once again the Last Supper, the Cross, and the Resurrection. But unlike the Passover, which is necessarily imperfect, the presence of Jesus in the Mass is perfect. He is actually here, body, blood, soul and divinity, every day on every altar.
Now the reason why Protestant communities stopped referring to their leaders as priests is because they believed – rightly – the Jesus’ perfect sacrifice on the Cross meant an end to all priesthood. After all, if a perfect sacrifice has already been offered, everything following it will always be imperfect.
But we Catholics see things slightly differently. The sacrifice of Jesus is not an important event, left behind in history. It is, instead, an ongoing and eternal event. The eternal Son of the Father offers himself to the Father forever.
And this is why Catholics insist on maintaining a priesthood. Even though our priests are not offering a new sacrifice, which would be vain and futile, they are still offering a sacrifice. They are offering the sacrifice of Jesus as Jesus. It is the priest who stands at the head of the Body, the Church, in the person of Christ, at the altar of God, to offer bread and wine. As Christ the priest says the words of the Last Supper once again, the bread and wine become his body and blood, which he then offers up to his Father in Heaven. The priest is Jesus. The sacrifice is Jesus. Every day, on every altar.
It is this incredible mystery that we celebrate on Holy Thursday – the institution of the Christian priesthood through the Apostles and their successors and the institution of the Christian sacrifice through the Mass and the Most Blessed Sacrament.
Please pray for your priests. We are profoundly unworthy to stand in the place of Jesus the priest and offer his body and blood as a saving sacrifice, and yet that is what we are called to do, every day. Please pray for us, that as we carry out this most august duty, we may do so with a spirit of servitude, in the image of our Master.
En nuestra segunda lectura, escuchamos la versión más antigua de las palabras de Jesús en la Última Cena, escritas por San Pablo solo veinte años después de que fueron pronunciadas. “Esto es mi cuerpo, que se entrega por ustedes.”
¿Crees a Jesús?
Primero, ¿crees que la Eucaristía es su cuerpo? ¿Crees que cada vez que entras a esta iglesia, él está físicamente presente aquí? ¿Intentas visitarlo los miércoles durante la exposición, como visitarías a un padre o pariente amado? ¿Se arrodillas ante el tabernáculo por respeto? Cuando lo recibes, ¿lo recibes con miedo y temblor, dándote cuenta de que tienes al mismo Dios en tus manos? Aún cuando todavía tenemos prohibido recibirlo en la lengua, algo que sé que ha sido difícil para nosotros, ¿aún lo tratas con increíble ternura y cuidado, manteniendo tus manos limpias, teniendo mucho cuidado de no dejarlo caer? ¿Tratarlo como una joya preciosa y no como un aperitivo para llevarse a la boca?
En segundo lugar, ¿crees que su cuerpo es para ti? Muchos en nuestra comunidad no reciben a Jesús cuando se ofrece a sí mismo. ¿Por qué? ¿No crees que su cuerpo es para ti? ¿Crees que tienes que ser perfecto para recibirlo? Jesús no vino por los perfectos, vino por los pecadores. Su cuerpo es para ti. Él lo dijo.
Por supuesto, si vamos a tratar la Eucaristía con respeto, con el respeto absoluto que le debemos a Dios mismo, debemos vivir nuestras vidas correctamente, para no profanar la Eucaristía. No podemos vivir juntos fuera del matrimonio. No podemos ser sexualmente promiscuos. No podemos guardar rencor ni actuar con odio. Nuestros cuerpos y nuestras almas son templos del Señor; cuando lo recibimos, nos convertimos en tabernáculos. ¿Somos tabernáculos de oro, bellamente decorados? ¿O somos cajas asquerosas y sucias llenas de basura?
Sin embargo, Jesús nos dice que su cuerpo es para nosotros. Quiere que lo recibamos. Por eso nos ha dado la Iglesia y el sacramento de la confesión. Incluso si no somos perfectos, podemos confesar y recibir a Jesús. Qué horrible si Jesús fue hasta la Cruz y nosotros respondemos no aceptando su regalo, rechazando la Eucaristía.
A veces dudamos de Dios y creemos que nos ha abandonado. Pero no lo ha hecho. La Eucaristía es prueba de ello. “Esto es mi cuerpo, que se entrega por ustedes.” “Por ustedes.” Dios nunca nos ha abandonado. Quizás, en cambio, nos sintamos abandonados porque no le creemos, no creemos que él quiera estar con nosotros. Pero dijo que quiere estar con nosotros. “Esto es mi cuerpo, que se entrega por ustedes.”
English Original of the Spanish Homily
In our second reading, we hear the oldest version of the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, written down by Saint Paul only twenty or so years after they were spoken. “This is my body that is for you.”
Do you believe Jesus?
First, do you believe that the Eucharist is his body? Do you believe that every time you walk into this church he is physically present here? Do you try to visit him on Wednesdays during exposition, like you would visit a beloved parent or relative? Do you genuflect to the tabernacle out of respect? When you receive him, do you receive him with fear and trembling, realizing that you are holding God himself in your hands? Even while we are still prohibited from receiving him on the tongue, something I know that has been hard for us, do you still treat him with incredible tenderness and care, keeping your hands clean, being very careful not to drop him? Treating him like a precious jewel and not like an appetizer to be popped into your mouth?
Second, do you believe that his body is for you? So many in our community do not receive Jesus when he offers himself. Why? Do you not believe that his body is for you? Do you believe you have to be perfect to receive him? Jesus did not come for the perfect, he came for sinners. His body is for you. He said so.
Of course, if we are going to treat the Eucharist with respect – with the absolute respect that we owe to God himself – we must live our lives right, so that we do not profane the Eucharist. We cannot be living together outside of marriage. We cannot be sexually promiscuous. We cannot be holding grudges or acting with hatred. Our bodies and our souls are temples of the Lord – when we receive him, we become tabernacles. Are we tabernacles of gold, beautifully decorated? Or are we gross and dirty boxes filled with garbage?
Nevertheless, Jesus tells us that his body is for us. He wants us to receive him. This is why he has given us the Church, and the sacrament of confession. Even if we are not perfect, we can confess and we can receive Jesus. How horrible if Jesus went all the way to the Cross and we respond by not accepting his gift, by rejecting the Eucharist.
Sometimes we doubt God and believe that he has abandoned us. But he has not. The Eucharist is proof of that. “This is my body which is for you.” God has never abandoned us. Maybe, instead, we feel abandoned because we do not believe him, we do not believe that he wants to be with us. But he said he does want to be with us. “This is my body which is for you.”