Holy Thursday

Preached April 18, 2019; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon

People say that Jesus did not start a religion; they are wrong and tonight’s celebration is the proof. The religion of Jesus Christ is the religion of the Holy Eucharist. The great cathedral of Notre Dame of Paris is not some monument of some vague ‘faith’; it was originally the fruit of the eucharistic religion of the French people.

We could ask ourselves: “Do I think the Mass is worth a church like Notre-Dame?” It is not that we have the money or ability to do the like, but what is our attitude? Notre-Dame was built for the Mass. Without the Mass it would never have been built in the first place. Was it worth it? Or was it a waste? If it was worth it, then doesn’t that mean the Mass deserves the best we have to give it, in every respect?

Today, the first reading tells us about the institution of the Jewish Passover. Before the people were actually delivered from their slavery in Egypt, before the destroying angel struck down the firstborn of the Egyptians, the people were commanded to celebrated the Passover. Each family sacrificed a lamb, marked the doorposts and lintel of their house with the blood of the lamb, and ate the roasted flesh, with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Strange as it may seem to us, their fidelity to the ritual was a condition for their deliverance.

But that was not the end of the matter; the Lord also commanded them: This day shall be a memorial feast for you, which all your generations shall celebrate … as a perpetual institution. The Passover feast, we could say, is the foundation of the Jewish religion; it is a perpetual memorial of God’s salvation, their deliverance from slavery, which formed them into a people. Before they had merely been the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, now they were truly the people of Israel, the people of God.

The religion founded upon the deliverance from Egypt and the celebration of the Passover had a creed, summed up in the words, I am the Lord, your God who brought you up from the house of Egypt, that place of slavery; a temple, a ritual of sacrifice, a priesthood, a law, and promises of blessing. (Ex 20:1)

Now we move to the 2nd reading. Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, in the midst of the Passover meal, took bread and said, This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me. And the cup, This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.

This was before he suffered and died on the Cross but it tells us of the sacrificial meaning of his suffering and death on the Cross, the sacrifice that establishes the new and eternal covenant in his Blood, the Blood of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Once again, this was not the end of the matter. Jesus commanded them, Do this in remembrance of me. And St. Paul tells us, As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes. You proclaim the death of the Lord, that is you show forth, beneath the appearances of bread and wine, the reality of his sacrificial death.

There is a difference between the Last Supper, which we commemorate this evening, and the Mass. The Last Supper was a Jewish Passover meal in which Jesus established the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrament of his Body and Blood, in anticipation of his suffering and death. The Mass is taken out of the context of the Passover meal (so the Passover meal does not provide the form for the celebration of the Eucharist), comes after the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and is the perpetual and living memorial of what he did for our salvation, that is of his death and resurrection. It is a living memorial because it is not just a reminder, but it contains the very reality of Christ’s Body and Blood, offered always anew for our salvation.

In the concluding verses of the “Pange Lingua” which we will sing after Mass during the procession to the tabernacle of repose, we sing, “Over ancient forms of worship, new rites of grace prevail.” (Et antiquum documentum, novo cedat ritui) The Mass takes the place of the Passover feast. The Mass is given by Jesus Christ, at the Last Supper, as the foundation of his religion. Through the Mass he forms and establishes us as his people, called out from every tribe and tongue, people and nation. (cf. Rev 5:9)

He has given us a new religion, a new creed, a new temple, a new sacrifice, a new priesthood, a new law, and a new promise, the promise of eternal life. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. (Jn 6:54)

As for the new law, he first sets the example through the symbolic act of washing the feet of his disciples, then the example of giving his life on the Cross, the example that remains with us in the gift of himself in the Holy Eucharist. The new law, the consequence and fruit of the Holy Eucharist, the way in which the religion of Jesus Christ is to be lived out and put into practice is summed up in Jesus’ “new commandment”, As I have loved you, so you must love one another. (Jn 13:34) Unless he washes us, unless we let him love us, we have no part of him. We must receive his love, the love of his Cross, the love of his sacrifice, the love he gives us in the Holy Eucharist, and then, as he has loved us, we must learn to love one another.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.