Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for Holy Thursday, Mass of the Lord’s Supper

April 1, 2021
St. Patrick Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas

Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14
Psalm 116:12-13, 15-18
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-15

In the liturgical life of the Church, the usual practice is for the priests of a diocese to assemble with the bishop and to concelebrate Mass on the morning of Holy Thursday, to bless and consecrate the Holy Oils that will be used at the Easter Vigil and throughout the year, and to renew their promises made at ordination. Because of the geographical expanse of our diocese, we do that as priests and bishop on Tuesday of Holy Week. The Lord has blessed me as your bishop because He gives me the opportunity to renew the promises of my priestly and episcopal ordinations here in this Cathedral where I made my initial promises, where I was ordained a priest, and where I have ordained priests who have made those same promises. Holy Thursday is about promises.

Holy Thursday is about promises. The promise was first given to Abraham — to make his descendants as numerous as the sands on the seashore, and later the promise was given to Moses who led the Lord’s people out of slavery in Egypt to the land that God promised to give them. Then there is the promise that God made to David, from whom would come the true king and Savior who is Jesus Christ. But the promise was most truly given by God before time began — that is, in eternity — when God chose to create us and to share with us His divine love as His creatures uniquely made in His image and likeness. The promises made by the Lord are kept by the Lord, even when human beings do not keep their promises to Him, whether the promise broken is the abandonment by Abraham of Sarah at Gerar, the golden calf of idolatry of the Hebrews in the wilderness, the sins of David against Uriah and Bathsheba, or the eating of the fruit of the tree in the garden of Eden. Holy Thursday is about promises.

Holy Thursday is about promises. We were all conceived and called to become sharers in God’s own life. To make that possible, the Father sent His Son to save us from ourselves, from our selfishness and sin. Jesus chose to take our sins upon Himself, and to do this He was not passively condemned but freely handed Himself over to death. In dying, Jesus freed us from sin and manifested how absolutely God loves us. 

That love is made present in the sacrifice and sacrament we share tonight at this Mass of the Lord’s Supper. The Last Supper is the first Passover fulfilled. The Lord who has power to lay down His life and to pick it up again does so with unconditional love for us in His Cross and Resurrection. Our celebration is actually a double remembrance. We remember when God delivered His people from slavery in Egypt, which itself was a foreshadowing of the slavery to sin from which we are delivered by Jesus’ death on the cross. What we celebrate tonight is an anticipation of that death of Christ in the Passover supper He shared with the apostles. Each time we celebrate what happened at that Last Supper, the grace of Jesus’ death on the cross is made present to us. When we celebrate the Eucharist, we not only receive what the Lord promises to do for us and with us, we promise to do what He asks us to do. We need that grace to keep our promise and to do what Jesus asks of us in this evening’s Gospel. Holy Thursday is about promises.

In Saint Paul’s letter, we hear an account of the first Eucharist, but in the Gospel, John does not mention bread and wine, but instead presents Jesus washing the feet of His disciples. Saint John tells us that we cannot consider ourselves Christians if we just come to Mass. When we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, we promise and commit ourselves to live and die for others. We make this promise and continue our promises made at our Baptism and renewed at our Confirmation. Our celebration of Mass is not a commemoration or a personal prayer or an antiquated rule of the Church but a commitment — a commitment and a promise to live the love of Christ. Our participation in Mass is not an entitlement to a personal affirmation from God of our self-esteem to feel good about ourselves despite our indifference to the plight of our neighbor. 

The past year, marked by the anguish of violence and civil unrest, enmity between races and extremists in political life, unemployment, fear, sickness, suffering, and death caused by the pandemic, has revealed the truly chronic plague of mournful indifference and a listlessness among human beings in our society and in the Church. This lethargy has turned us towards an unhealthy introspection and a malignant apathy towards the needs of others and of our promise to worship God and to love and to serve our neighbor as Christ has done for us. Holy Thursday is about promises.

Peter, James and John received a glimpse of His glory at the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor to strengthen them for this moment of suffering and rejection by Christ at Gethsemane. It seems that they did not savor those graces on Tabor and were slow on the uptake when the Lord enters His Passion and asks them to pray with Him. The Gospel tells us that they fall asleep because of mournful indifference. Jesus invited Peter, James, and John to pray with Him in Gethsemane after the Last Supper, that they not be put to the test of temptation: the temptation to give up faith and to commit apostasy, the temptation to abandon hope by despair or presumption, and the temptation to refuse to love by giving in to mournful indifference, the temptation to break their promises. Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque held that Christ was so grief-stricken in Gethsemane because He realized the indifference that He would receive from those whom He would love throughout the ages. Jesus invites each of us by name, as He invited Peter, James, and John, to pray also with Him tonight at Gethsemane because His prayer reveals the anguish of compassion that He feels for every human being, including each one of us who suffer from sin and feel unloved and rejected through our own indifference or the indifference of others.

As Saint John Paul II reminded us in 1979 during his apostolic visit to Chicago, “Love is the force that opens hearts to the word of Jesus and to His Redemption: love is the only basis for human relationships that respect in one another the dignity of the children of God created in His image and saved by the death and Resurrection of Jesus; love is the only driving force that impels us to share with our brothers and sisters all that we are and have.”

It is our share in the prayer of Christ in Gethsemane that spares us from making the Eucharist only about the promises made and kept by Christ for us without keeping the promises of the Eucharist that we have made and are to keep. It is our share in the prayer of Christ in Gethsemane after the Last Supper that sensitizes us to the plight of our neighbor and enables us to keep the promise of the Eucharist: to do as the Lord has done for us. Holy Thursday is about promises. God has made all and kept all His promises to us. Now, He promises to help us to keep all the promises that we have made to Him.

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