As many of you may know, I had a birthday last week. The only reason that that is of any relevance tonight is that 67 years ago when I first entered this world, it was on Holy Thursday night. I’m not going to claim that being born on Holy Thursday predestined me to be a priest, but it may have increased my affection and affinity for this day, which has long been one of my favorite observances of the Church’s year.
My earliest memory of this Holy Thursday Mass is a fleeting one. The Mass was still in the morning. So I was, at most, only seven years old. I remember the church being very crowded – as churches still were in those days. I was in a side aisle, and the only picture I have retained is of the schoolgirls in their white communion dresses solemnly walking past me in the procession at the end of Mass.
I was seven years old in 1955 when Pope Pius XII reformed the Order of Holy Week, and the Mass of the Lord’s Supper (the Missa in Coena Domini, as it was then called) was moved to evening. In the years that followed, once I was old enough to walk to church on my own at night, I became very fond of this Mass. I was always struck by how our Gothic, 1200-seat parish church looked and felt at night. For some reason, what especially impressed me was how different the stained glass windows looked at night. Actually, they were just dark. That was what was different, but for some reason that struck me as memorable. Perhaps it was the contrast with how bright the stone structure within was, with all the lights on. The altar was dressed as for a feast. The celebrant, deacon, and subdeacon all wore the finest gold vestments. The organ played and the Sanctus-Bell rang for the Gloria, then fell silent, the bell replaced for the next two days by a weird wooden clapper. (In the absence of an authentic clapper, we’ll be using a gavel here tonight.) Then, after Mass, came the part everyone was waiting for - the procession, still with lots of school-girls in their communion dresses, strewing flowers on the floor before the Blessed Sacrament.
The Church’s liturgy, like the rest of the world, experienced radical disruption in the 60s and 70s. Change came even to this special Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Even so, a time traveler joining our congregation here tonight would readily recognize what day this is, and what we are remembering here tonight.
Remembering is, of course what this is all about. One Holy Thursday in the mid-1980s the celebrant of this Mass at our seminary where I was then a student began his homily by playing a recording of the song Memory, from the Broadway musical Cats. (One student mistakenly called it an aria. It’s funny sometimes the things we remember most!)
Even so, for all the changes you and I have lived through (some of us longer than others) and for all that has happened these 2000 or so years, memory – remembering – is what this night and this Mass are so pointedly and noticeably all about.
The church’s official liturgical books explicitly instruct us to remember tonight – to remember “how the Lord Jesus, loving those who were his own in the world even to the end, offered his body and blood to the Father under the appearances of bread and wine, gave them to the apostles to eat and drink, then enjoined the apostles and their successors in the priesthood to offer them in turn” [Ceremonial of Bishops, 297].
These are the themes highlighted in the Gospel [John 13:1-15] we just heard and the reading from Saint Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians [1 Corinthians 11:23-16], which take us back in time to the most remembered meal in human history - Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples on the day before the Passover.
Unlike the Gospel and the reading from Saint Paul, tonight’s 1st Reading – from the Book of Exodus [Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14] – was not, until recently, part of the Holy Thursday tradition. Instead it was for many centuries read on Good Friday. Read on Good Friday, its focus is on the Lamb sacrificed on Passover Eve – at the very hour Jesus was crucified. But, relocated to tonight, the story’s emphasis shifts to the Passover as a primordial ritual of remembering. This day shall be a memorial feast for you, which all your generations shall celebrate with pilgrimage to the Lord, as a perpetual institution.
And so we come together tonight to remember. On this, our memorial feast, we remember and celebrate the most sacred day on which our Lord Jesus Christ was handed over for our sake, and we observe the day on which our Lord Jesus Christ handed on the mysteries of his body and Blood for his disciples to celebrate – Jesus handed over for us, Jesus handing on to us.
As I said earlier, both the Gospel and the reading from Saint Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians take us directly back to that most remembered meal in human history - Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples on the day before the Passover. But what we remember is not just some interesting things that Jesus and his disciples did a long time ago, but rather how that otherwise ordinary meal was dramatically transformed by Jesus’ own words and actions into the Church’s central sacrament - Jesus’ Last Supper continuing as a perpetual institution in the Church as the Lord’s Supper.
It is not back to Jesus’ Last supper, but to the Church’s Lord’s Supper that we return time and again, day-in and day-out, in the here and now. It is the Church’s Lord’s Supper, celebrating what God has done for us, that continues to make us who we are and transform us into who we hope to become.
So, for example, the great North African Doctor of the Church, Saint Augustine, could imagine the Lord saying to him: “Grow, and you shall feed upon me. You will not change me into yourself, as you change food into your flesh, but you will be changed into me” [Confessions, VII, x, 16].
So the Church remembers and celebrates this sacrament daily and commands us – as part of what it means to be Christ’s Church – to come together on the first day of each week to remember Jesus’ words and actions and to celebrate their continued, ongoing, transforming power to change us.
The Lord’s Supper is the Risen Christ’s gift to his Church, but it is also a challenge. The four short verses we just heard from Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians are part of a longer text (which used to be read in its entirety at this Mass), which highlights the Corinthians’ conflicts, dissensions, and factions – in other words, their resistance to being changed by the Eucharist, to being taken to someplace new, as Peter was at the Last Supper.
Then as now, among those to whom Saint Paul’s account of the Last Supper was originally addressed, all was not well. The ordinary life of Roman society, with its social and class distinctions and inequalities, was making itself felt even within the Church community, to the point that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper still seemed to mirror those social and class distinctions and inequalities. Well, that was then, when the Church was such a small and seemingly feeble presence in a very pagan world. But what about us now? We too, today, as Pope Francis has reminded us, “Sometimes we prove hard of heart and mind; we are forgetful, distracted and carried away by the limitless possibilities for consumption and distraction offered by contemporary society” [EG, 196]. Perhaps the Corinthians couldn’t quite help bringing the world with them to Mass, any more than we can. That’s why being here together is so important, why what happens here is so important, enabling us to leave here different from how we came, enabling us to take something new out into the world, something different from the same old stuff we bring in with us from the world.
In the vestibule is a photograph taken in 2011 at the end of the Mass celebrating this building’s 125th anniversary. Whenever I look at that picture, side-by-side with the one taken 125 years previously in September 1886, I think of all that has happened in this beautiful building and all the wonderful church life that, like the crowd in that picture, has spilled outward from here, beginning at this altar, but not stopping there, but flowing out, building something special in our world.
Our life together as Christ’s Body, the Church, centered on the sacraments we celebrate here is a great inheritance – an inheritance which we have received from the apostles, passed on to us through countless generations of people like the ones in those photos, people like us. Whether amid the splendor of a papal basilica or in the simplicity of a missionary outpost, whether with the Bishop in his cathedral or with friends and neighbors in our local parish church, this same Lord’s Supper has been celebrated generation after generation and treasured by every generation as its most precious inheritance – an inheritance which it is now our precious privilege to pass on to today’s world and to tomorrow’s generations to come.
Homily, Holy Thursday, Mass of the Lord's Supper, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 2, 2015.