Thursday, April 17, 2014

Living the Lord's Supper

This day we call Holy Thursday uniquely straddles the border between Lent and Easter. Earlier today our Bishop celebrated the last of our Lenten Penance services – echoing the ancient Roman practice of an end-of-Lent Thursday morning Mass at which were reconciled those who had done public penance during Lent.  The elaborate ritual for that Reconciliation of Public Penitents could still be found in our liturgical books up until the 1960s, even though by then it hadn’t been used for over 1000 years. 

A second, centuries-old Holy Thursday custom is the blessing of the holy oils, which we formally received at the beginning of Mass and which will be used to signify healing, strengthening, and consecration throughout the coming year in the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, holy orders, and anointing of the sick and for the consecration of churches and altars. 

Finally, with the setting of the sun, the Church crosses the threshold from Lent into Easter with this evening’s remembrance of the Last Supper, at which the various themes so long connected with this day all come together in the Eucharist we celebrate at this altar. For tonight we don’t just remember the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples, as some interesting thing that happened a long time ago. Rather we celebrate how Jesus’ Last Supper continues in the Church as the Lord’s Supper.

With this festive celebration this evening, the Church begins the first of three dramatic days – the first devoted to Christ crucified, the second to Christ buried, and the third to Christ risen. We will end this first day, some 24 hours from now, with Mary at the foot of the cross, but we begin by remembering the most memorable meal in all of human history.

Saint Paul’s letters are among the oldest New Testament writings; and his First Letter to the Corinthians, from which we just heard, represents the earliest written account of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples. It’s safe to suggest that none of those disciples, as they sat down to supper with on the day before the Passover holiday, understood that by time Passover began, 24 hours later, Jesus would be dead and buried, and that they would all be in hiding.
Certainly, none of them yet realized how this otherwise ordinary meal would be dramatically transformed by Jesus’ own words and actions into the Church’s central sacrament.

The New Testament tells us how, from the very beginning, Christian communities devoted themselves to the breaking of bread and prayers [Acts 2:42]. As the Church grew in size and expanded in influence, the Church’s worship, centered on the regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper as Christ’s priestly sacrifice of reconciliation, would in time transform, first, the Roman empire and, then, the ever wider world – as it must still continue to transform each one of us, caught up in the priestly embrace of Christ’s reconciling sacrifice.

For he is (in words of one early 6th-century African Bishop) “the priest through whom we have been reconciled, the sacrifice by which we have been reconciled, the temple in which we have been reconciled, the God with whom we have been reconciled. He alone is priest, sacrifice, and temple because he is all these things as God in the form of a servant.”

So it is only fitting that we begin the first day of our Easter celebration, the day on which we will commemorate Christ’s passion and death, with this supremely priestly act of reconciliation, this Eucharistic sacrifice which sums up what Christ’s death and resurrection are about and everything the Church is about.

By giving his body to be eaten and his blood to be drunk, Jesus expressed the deepest truth about what he would do on the Cross. The Eucharist we celebrate tonight makes really present that very same body once offered on the Cross, then buried in the tomb, and now risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father. The mystery of the Eucharist, which proclaims the death and resurrection of the Lord until he comes again, is at the very heart of the Church’s life. 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 a local parish church, this same Lord’s Supper has been celebrated generation after generation and treasured by every generation as its precious inheritance. It is, as the old saying goes, the sacrament that makes the Church.

But Saint Paul’s account of the Lord’s Supper is also a challenge. For that earliest written account of what happened at the Last Supper was written not just to tell us a story. Paul was complaining. He was criticizing the Corinthians’ behavior, telling them that they were missing the point of the Lord’s Supper – receiving the Lord’s Body and Blood in an unworthy manner to their great peril. The four short verses we just heard from Paul’s letter are part of a longer text (which used to be read in its entirety at this Mass), which provides the context for Paul’s account. It highlights the Corinthians’ conflicts, dissensions, and factions – their unfortunate failure to be changed by the Eucharist, to be taken to someplace new, as Peter was at the Last Supper. 

Then as now, in 1st-century Corinth among those to whom St. Paul’s account of the Last Supper was originally addressed, all was not well in the Church. The social and class distinctions and inequalities, the ordinary life of Roman society, were making themselves felt within the Corinthian Church community, such that the community’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper still seemed to mirror those social and class distinctions and inequalities. Paul wasn’t asking his hearers to pretend that the surrounding secular society no longer existed, but he did want them to understand that those distinctions, those things that matter so much in the secular world, have no significance whatever within the community of Christ’s body, in which Jesus’ sacrificial death has transformed not only our individual relationship with him but our relationship with one another. Perhaps the Corinthians couldn’t quite help bringing the world with them to Mass, any more than we can. That’s why what happens here is so important, enabling us to leave here different from how we came, enabling us to bring something new to the world, something new and different from the same old stuff we brought with us from the world.

Back at the Last Supper, in the scene that follows next in John’s Gospel, Satan is said to have entered Judas, who, then, after taking a morsel of food from Jesus, left the Supper. How many times in his merely one year as Pope has Pope Francis warned us about the Devil. “Look out because the devil is present! The devil is here,” he reminded us again in one of his recent morning homilies.

Judas could have used that reminder. Instead, we are told, he went out into the night – leaving behind Jesus and his disciples, the community that could have been his, in order to commit himself instead to Satan’s cause.

What was that morsel of food Judas received from Jesus? Was it the Eucharist? What a warning there is in that!

So too, for us now, at the Lord’s Supper, how we depart from here may matter more than how we arrive. What kind of community have we become, thanks to the Lord’s Supper? Whose cause are we committed to? How have we become new people? What are we taking with us from here to transform this tired old world?

Homily for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, Holy Thursday, April 17, 2014.

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