MASS OF THE LAST SUPPER
Ex 12:1-8, 11-14; 1Cor 11: 23-26; Jn 13: 1-15
With this Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, we begin the Easter Triduum, which includes Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion and Holy Saturday, centres upon the Easter Vigil, and concludes with Vespers on Easter Sunday of the Lord’s Resurrection. By the celebration of the Easter Triduum, that is, of the Death, Burial and Resurrection of Christ, the Church means to make present and to fulfill the mystery of the Passover, the passing over of the Lord from this world to the Father.
Today the Church celebrates three principal mysteries: 1) Institution of the Most Holy Eucharist, 2) Institution of the Sacred Priesthood, 3) Christ gives the New Commandment of brotherly love to his disciples. Let us look closely at the third mystery.
1. THE INSTITUTION OF THE MOST HOLY EUCHARIST
With this Evening Mass on Holy Thursday, the Church recalls, first of all, the Institution of the Most Holy Eucharist which took place on this day. She recalls that Last Supper when the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, loving those who were his own until the very end, offered his Body and Blood under the species of bread and wine to God, and under these symbols, gave them to his Apostles that they might consume them, and ordered them and their successors in the priesthood to offer. He instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his body and blood, so as to perpetuate, until his return, the sacrifice that he would suffer on the Cross. By doing this, he made sure that he would always be present among us in the Holy Eucharist.
In our Second Reading of this Mass, a Reading taken from the First Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians, we heard a brief and clear narrative about the Institution of the Most Holy Eucharist.
“For this is what I received from the Lord, and in turn passed on to: that on the same night that he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took some bread, and thanked God for it and broke it, and he said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this as a memorial of me’. In the same way he took the cup after supper, and said, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Whenever you drink it, do this as a memorial of me’. Until the Lord comes, therefore, every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are proclaiming his death” (1 Cor. 11:23-26)
The command of Jesus to repeat his actions and words ‘until he comes’ does not only ask us to remember Jesus and what he did. It is directed at the liturgical celebration, by the apostles and their successors, of the memorial of Christ, of his life, of his death, of his Resurrection, and his intercession in the presence of the Father. From the beginning the Church has been faithful to the Lord’s command. Of the Church of Jerusalem, it is written: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers… Day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts (Acts 2:42-45).
It was above all on “the first day of the week, Sunday”, the day of Jesus’ resurrection that the Christians met “to break bread”. From that time on down to our own day, the celebration of the Eucharist has been continued so that today we encounter it everywhere in the Church with the same fundamental structure. It remains the centre of the Church’s life. The Eucharist is the center of our faith and, for that reason, it is so important to us. Without it we would not be Catholic or Christian.
2. THE INSTITUTION OF THE SACRED PRIESTHOOD
This is the second mystery which the Church recalls this evening. While the Synoptic Gospels describe the Passover of Jesus, which ends with him commissioning the apostles as priests of the New Passover, “Do this is memory of me,” St. John, in his gospel, rather focuses on the washing of the feet of the apostles. This washing of feet, as it were, is a ritual that changes the status of the apostles. In the gospel narrative, Peter refuses at first to let Jesus wash his feet, but Jesus responds, saying that Peter can have no “part”; he can have nothing doing with him – Jesus (Jn. 13:8). The condition for Peter to “have a share with Jesus”, it to submit to the ritual of washing of feet. This points to gravity and specifies the priestly character is intrinsically linked with “sharing in Christ”.
This ritual of ‘feet washing’ finds parallels in the ‘consecration’ of Aaron and his sons (Lev. 8:6-10). In that text we learn that Moses “washed them with water”. In a similar way, in, Leviticus 16, this ritual is repeated on the priestly Day of Atonement. There we find the following pattern: the high priest, Aaron, takes off his garments completely, bathes, dresses up again, and then goes into the holy place and offers sacrifice (Lev. 16:23-24). It is this same pattern that we find in John 13:4-12. Jesus undresses, washes the feet of his disciples, dresses again. Thereafter, he will soon offer himself in sacrifice. Whereas in Leviticus the high priest washes his entire body, in John, Jesus washes only the feet of the disciples. Jesus is sharing his high priesthood with the disciples. He must wash them, that is, ordain them as priests, lest they have ‘no part/share’ in his own priesthood. From this point of view, we can appreciate the institution of the two great sacraments of the Eucharist and Holy Orders. In fact, these two sacraments are so mutually dependent and intertwined that the one cannot exist without the other. For, it was at this same Last Supper that Jesus, after having instituted the Most Holy Eucharist, said to his Apostles: Do this in memory of me. By these words, he made them Priests of the New Testament.
On this day, the Christian people of God, are exhorted, following the words of the Bishop during Chrism Mass, during which he gathers around the altar all the priests of the Diocese, to bless the Holy Oils and commemorate that day when Christ instituted the Eucharist and ordained the first Priests:
“My brothers and sisters, pray for your priests that the Lord may pour out his gifts abundantly upon them, and keep them faithful as ministers of Christ, the High Priest, so that they may lead you to him, who is the source of salvation…”
Priests need the prayers and support of God’s faithful and of the entire Church. Without them, these priests and servants of God shall surely perish and therefore fail in the tasks that God has allotted them. This is a day of special prayer for priests!
3. CHRIST GIVES THE NEW COMMANDMENT OF BROTHERLY LOVE TO HIS DISCIPLES
This is the third mystery which we recall this evening. It is at the Last Supper on Holy Thursday that Jesus gives us the New Commandment of brotherly love. Love is the identity of all disciples of Jesus. He says: “I give you a new commandment: Love one another; just as I have loved you, you also must love one another. By this love you have for one another, everyone will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:34-35).
Jesus asks us to follow him and to imitate him along the path of love, a love which gives itself completely to the brethren out of love for God: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn.15:12). The word “as” requires imitation of Jesus and of his love, of which the washing of feet is also a sign: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (Jn.13: 14-15).
Jesus’ way of acting and his words, his deeds and his precepts constitute the moral rule of Christian life. Indeed, his actions, and in particular his Passion and Death on the Cross, are the living revelation of his love for the Father and for others. This is exactly the love that Jesus wishes to be imitated by all who follow him. It is the “new” commandment: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35).
Saint John, the Apostle and Evangelist, who communicates Jesus’ New Commandment of brotherly love to us takes it up again in his First Letter. In it he says: “My dear people, since God has loved us so much, we too should love one another. No one has ever seen God; but as long as we love one another, God will live in us and his love will be complete in us.” (1John 4:11-12). The apostle, John, further underlines: “Anyone who says ‘I love God; and hates his brother, is a liar, since a man who does not love the brother that he can see cannot love God, whom he has never seen. So this is the commandment that he has given us that anyone who loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 4:20-21)
It is a matter of daily experience that we shall occasionally offend one another. Even among the most loving Spouses, even among the most loving families or among the best of friends, it will happen, now and again, that we offend one another. Without even intending to offend others, it will happen, now and again, that we do something which offends our spouses, parents, children, relatives, friends, and other people. The test by which we can find out whether or not we are trying to live the New Commandment of brotherly love is our READINESS TO FORGIVE every wrong which we believe has been committed against us.
Furthermore, the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, the Prayer which Jesus himself taught us, says: Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. This petition is so important that it is the only one to which Jesus returns, and which he develops explicitly in the Sermon on the Mount.
“So then, if you are bringing your offering to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother first, and then come back and present your offering” (Mt. 5:23-24).
“If you forgive others their failings, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours, but if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive yours either” (Mt. 6:14-15).
“Forgive whatever you have against anybody, so that your Father in heaven may forgive your failings too” (Mk. 11:25).
The Parable of the merciless servant ends with these words: “That is how my heavenly Father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart” (Mt 18:35).
Our First Reading of this Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper was taken from the Book of Exodus, the Book which tells us about how God delivered his people from bondage, leading them out of Egypt, where they were slaves, to the land of freedom, the land of Canaan, which He had promised to their fathers.
Just as God ransomed the Israelites from Egypt, Jesus has ransomed us from slavery to sin through his Pascal Mystery which we enter this evening. Just as Moses delivered the Israelites from the heavy hand of Pharaoh, Jesus delivers us from slavery to the devil. As we enter this Sacred Triduum, let us place before the Lord all those things that keep us bound to the ways of this world.
Lord Jesus, you are the great Deliverer. We want to spend the next three days preparing ourselves to receive the deliverance which you bring to us through your Passion, Death and Resurrection. We await your Resurrection with our staff in our hand, with sandals on our feet, and dressed in readiness to follow you to freedom. Come, Lord Jesus, and deliver us, your people. AMEN.