Life on the Chrism Trail

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

April 6, 2023
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

One of the bitter fruits of the sin of our first parents in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, was the rejection of the capacity of human beings to trust God. Closely following this loss was the loss of a trusting relationship between man and woman and among human beings in general. Eve, taken by God from the side of the sleeping Adam, listens to the evil one and convinces Adam to disobey God and to eat the fruit of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This original sin produced in man and woman a destructive suspicion of God as an adversary towards human freedom instead of humble recognition of God’s sovereignty as the source of human freedom.

The first reading from Exodus speaks of the first Passover. God spares the Israelites the punishment to be inflicted upon the Egyptians, their oppressors. Through Moses, God directs the Israelites to prepare a meal as a sacrifice with part of it to be eaten with their shoes on their feet as a people in flight from slavery. The Israelites begin their flight as a fearful mob of refugees, but God saves them from the chaos of sinful mob rule and through His Covenant made with Moses on their behalf that transforms them into a holy nation, God’s chosen people whom He longs to free and to bring to the Promised Land. The Lord keeps His promise.

The Israelites by God’s mercy are led dry-shod through the sea, as we will sing in the Exultet this Saturday night at the Easter Vigil. Israel’s oppressors are drowned; the Israelites’ freedom is given to them by the Lord. That gift of freedom is the fruit of God’s Covenant. With the freedom of the Covenant comes the responsibility of the Ten Commandments to direct their actions and to change their hearts. They move from slavery and being possessed as property to freely belonging to God and to each other. Their Passover and the Covenant with Moses is only provisional and meant to prepare them for the coming of the Christ, God’s own Son. The Lord keeps His promise.

The Lord Jesus celebrates the Passover meal with His chosen disciples, each called by name. He washes their dry feet, made dirty by the grime of their sinful human condition, the grime of sin that the Exodus did not remove but that prepared God’s People for the washing of baptism. The Lord Jesus washes their feet and commissions them to do the same for others. The Lord keeps His promise.

The Last Supper is the first Passover fulfilled. The Last Supper first prefigures the eternal Passover; the Lord’s giving of His life freely in obedience to the Father by dying on the Cross. 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. The washing of the feet of the disciples by Jesus at the Last Supper does not place a focus upon baptism and service at the exclusion or detriment to the understanding of the Eucharist. The humble example of Jesus in washing the feet of the disciples pours forth from the Eucharist symbolized by the Blood and Water that poured forth from the side of Christ when the soldier opened the side of His precious and dead Body with a lance.

This means that the Eucharist is the primordial sacrament of the Church. We might easily mistake baptism as the primordial sacrament since we cannot receive the other sacraments without first being baptized. Baptism precedes the Eucharist chronologically in order of reception. Yet, we are baptized, washed clean of sin, and God’s grace is poured out for us that we might partake of the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Divine Charity that is not merely an expression of human fellowship among like-minded believers. The Eucharist is the source of all of the sacraments of the Church as they pour forth as Blood and Water from the side of Christ’s crucified Body opened by the soldier’s lance.

As Saint Augustine describes beautifully in his Tractate 120, “Then came the soldiers, and broke the legs of the first thief, and of the other who was crucified with Him. But when they came to Jesus, and saw that He was dead already, they broke not His legs: but one of the soldiers with a spear laid open His side, and immediately poured forth blood and water. A suggestive word was made use of by the evangelist in not saying pierced, or wounded His side, or anything else, but opened; that thereby, in a sense, the gate of life might be thrown open, from whence have poured out the sacraments of the Church without which there is no entrance to the life which is the true life. That blood was shed for the remission of sins, that water it is that makes up the health-giving cup and supplies at once the laver of baptism and water for drinking.”

Augustine continues, “Because of this, the first woman was formed from the side of the man when asleep, and was called Life, and Eve, the mother of all living. Truly it pointed to a great good, prior to the great evil of the original sin (in the guise of one thus lying asleep). This second and new Adam, Jesus Christ, bowed His head and fell asleep on the cross, that a spouse might be formed for Him from that which flowed from the sleeper’s side. O death, whereby the dead are raised anew to life! What can be purer than such blood? What more health-giving than such a wound?”

The betrayal of the Lord’s trust on Calvary is transformed by Christ, true God and true man, to renew trust through perfect obedience and unconditional love that pours out of His open side. The Eucharist as a covenant of trust between Christ and His Church is united with the sacramental covenant of marriage, the rich trust and complete self-donation of a man and woman to each other with intimacy that confers holiness on husband and wife. The sacrament of holy orders, especially the vocation of the priesthood, is laden with trust, the trust to say yes, the trust to persevere in obedience and celibate chastity, the trust of the Seal of the Confessional.

Jesus entrusts all of this to His Church and to His priests serving within the Church as earthen vessels containing the priceless treasure of His priesthood. His gift of Himself on the cross is at the heart of the gift of His Body and Blood on Holy Thursday. The gifts of the bread and wine become His gift of His Body and Blood at Mass that in turn make us His Church not only as the summit of our Christian life but as its source. In doing so, Jesus knows our sinfulness and He trusts us as He frees us to trust Him and to manifest that trust through conversion from slavery to sin. The Lord keeps His promise.

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