There are very few occasions in the Roman Missal when the rubrics give an instruction as to what must be preached. In fact, I think Maundy Thursday is the only occasion when such an instruction is given. It says: ‘The homily should explain the principal mysteries which are commemorated in this mass: the institution of the Eucharist, the institution of the priesthood and Christ's commandment to love.’ Well if you've got all night…!
This evening we celebrate first and foremost the institution of the Eucharist, the Last Supper of the Lord which took place immediately before his passion, death and resurrection. In this meal Christ was in an extraordinary way able to sum up all that was about to happen and leave it with us ever after as a constant reminder and link with those wonderful events.
We know that Christ ate numerous meals with his disciples and was often present as an honoured guest in many great households for formal meals at which local worthies could show off their interesting guest and get the opportunity to quiz Jesus about his teaching. These various meals were all a lead up to that one most important meal of all that took place in the Upper Room the night before he died for us.
At that Last Supper Jesus offered his Apostles the bread and the wine saying that these were his body and blood; in this way he gave the Church a powerful sacrament which would represent the sacrifice that he was about to make and become for us the spiritual food that would sustain us as we live out the Christian life.
In the mass we are united with Jesus in a most powerful way possible this side of eternity; those events of his death and resurrection are made present on our altar so that we can share his body and blood in the most intimate communion there ever could be.
The watchword for us Catholics down through the centuries, especially in times of persecution, has always been: It’s the mass that matters. In this simple phrase we hold the very core of our faith. If you are a Catholic you go to mass; you reverence the Eucharist, and you know that through sharing in it your faith is strengthened and sustained.
We take those words of Jesus very seriously: Do this in memory of me. And every time we celebrate the Eucharist we bring him and his message of love not only to mind but also made present on the altar; his body and blood hidden under the form of bread and wine. The Eucharist is then at the very heart of our worship of the one, true God.
This deep and powerful connection that we have with Our Lord in the mass helps us to keep true to everything he taught us, it helps us to keep faith with him and to constantly rededicate our lives as his present-day disciples.
We reverence the Eucharist because we believe that in the Eucharist Christ is present among us in the most powerful way imaginable.
And we who are Priests hold the Eucharist especially close to our hearts because it is our privilege and duty to preside at it day by day, week by week, month by month. And together with our special ministers we have the great honour of distributing the Eucharist to those who approach the altar to receive the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.
At the Last Supper, Jesus showed his disciples how to exercise their ministry. He put on an apron and went around and washed their feet. He took on the role of the lowest servant in a household and carried out this task of washing feet with great humility and love. In this way he provides us with the model for all Christian ministry and shows us that the greatest among us is the one who serves.
Imperfect though our lives might be, we are not afraid to follow his example, because by doing so we are sure that we will learn to become more like him. Getting down on our knees before others and performing for them the most basic of tasks, just as Our Lord did, we know will do us the greatest possible good.
Conversely, by humbly baring our feet and letting someone else wash them will also unite us with Christ just as it did for the Apostles in the Upper Room. Receiving care graciously from others is just as edifying as giving care to others. We would do well to remember this and refrain from rejecting those who wish to serve us.
But this evening, as only a few can actually participate in the washing of feet, the rest of us, in witnessing our brothers and sisters literally following Christ’s command, are also drawn into this greatest of all mysteries.
Whatever our role is, tonight in this mass we more deeply take to ourselves Christ’s command to love one another. We learn from him who is the greatest of all educators; who teaches us by example that there is nothing higher than to give loving and humble service to our brothers and sisters in the human family.
There is another task that we perform tonight; we receive the Holy Oils blessed by the Archbishop yesterday in the Cathedral. These oils are used throughout the year in the various steps of Christian Initiation and in the Sacrament of the Sick.
These Holy Oils have their special role in opening the way to salvation through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation and in the healing of the sick. They remind us of the tremendous work of teaching the young and caring for the sick that is carried out in every parish.
These ministries of teaching and caring are in themselves a wonderful expression of Christ’s great mandate to love one another. This work goes on continually in this parish; may it ever flourish and cause our community of faith to be an ever more perfect sign of Christ’s love for the world!
This is where the word Maundy comes from. It is a direct translation from the Latin word ‘mandatum’ and it refers to Christ’s mandate or law that we should love one another. Here we arrive at the very heart of the Christian faith: love.
The universe itself was created as a result of the overflowing love the members of the Trinity have for each other. The gift of free will is the result of the desire of God that we should have a completely free choice whether to love him or not. The salvation Christ won for us is too is a profound act of love and forgiveness.
And from all these things, we see that what Christ wants from us above everything else is love. Love and nothing more. Love in return for love. Love which will draw us inevitably into eternal life.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket