Holy Thursday 2016
“It’s the Mass that matters”. These are words that often echo in my heart and mind: “It’s the Mass that matters”. As a boy growing up I heard my mother say these words so many times that I will never forget them. She herself heard these words so often from the Presentation Sisters who taught her at school that she never forgot them. The sisters too must have been taught these words by their own forbears in the faith.
When you know, understand and believe what the Mass actually is you cannot but agree that “It’s the Mass that matters.” Whether it’s celebrated in one of the great European Cathedrals or in our own beautiful cathedral, whether in one of our small country churches or on a rock on a mountaintop, it’s always the same Mass at which our Lord’s offering of himself, the gift of his body and blood on the cross, is made present to us. At Mass we are nourished by the Word of God and by the sacrament of the Lord’s body and blood; at Mass God offers himself to us and we offer ourselves back to God; at Mass we enter into a Holy Communion with God and with one another; at Mass we who are many are made one to form the body of Christ.
Yes, Mass is special. Every Mass is special. But at tonight’s Mass we see, hear, and do things that we don’t usually see, hear and do at Mass, for tonight is particularly special. We could say every day of the year is special, for every day of the year is the same. Sure, the temperature & weather might change, the number of daylight hours might change, what we do on particular days might change, but really each of the 365 days of the year are more or less the same. The sun comes up, the sun goes down, the earth spins around, and another day!
Yet we humans love to recognise certain days more than others and to mark them in a particular way. We love anniversaries! There is something about marking the actual day of the year that something happened in the past that links us, almost transports us, back into that event in the past and we relive it. And by reliving it we actually draw that event from the past into the present: birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and death anniversaries. We relive and make present again these precious moments. It’s a very powerful phenomenon.
This brings me to what we will hear only at tonight’s Mass. For tonight is the anniversary of the Last Supper; the anniversary of the institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood in the Upper Room; and the anniversary of our Lord’s handing himself over for us and for our salvation. Every Mass connects us with these events, but tonight’s Mass particularly so. Tonight only, during the Eucharistic Prayer we will hear and pray these words “celebrating the most sacred day on which our Lord Jesus Christ was handed over for our sake.” And tonight even the Church’s most sacred and cherished words are changed: In the Institution Narrative you will hear me say:
“On the day before he was to suffer for our salvation and the salvation of all, that is today.” Please listen carefully to these words tonight, let them pierce your soul, and let them connect you to the events of our salvation.
What will we do at tonight’s Mass that we don’t normally do? At Holy Communion time we will all be encouraged to both eat the sacred Host and drink the precious blood from the chalice. In some places these days this does happen more regularly, but for many centuries it was the practice to do so only tonight, and the Church strongly encourages this practice to occur everywhere tonight.
Receiving Holy Communion under both kinds is not a more complete reality than receiving the Host only, but it is a more complete sign. And tonight’s Mass is full of signs linking us into the events of our redemption. Drinking from the chalice is encouraged tonight so that our “communion may stand out more clearly as a participation in the sacrifice actually being celebrated” (GIRM 85). In other words, it should remind us that by our communion we too are drawn into Jesus’ offering on the cross. I am reminded of Jesus’ question to his Apostles: “Can you drink the chalice that I must drink?”
Lastly, what will you see that is different at tonight’s Mass? You will see me wash the feet of a small group of men, women, and children. We are accustomed to seeing 12 men have their feet washed in imitation of what Jesus did in the Upper Room washing the feet of his 12 Apostles. But this year Pope Francis has made a change. In order that the full meaning of this rite might be expressed, those chosen may now represent the entire People of God: men, women, and children; priests, religious, married, and single; children, youth and the elderly; the healthy and the sick. This gesture of washing feet that we witness tonight is a reminder that the commandment of love binds all the disciples of Jesus without any distinction or exception.
The “Ceremonial of Bishops” from the year 1600 mentions the custom of the bishop washing, drying, and kissing the feet of thirteen poor people after having dressed them, fed them, and given them a charitable donation. This is the love - the charity - that is not just asked but demanded of every follower of Jesus Christ who came not to be served but to serve.
The significance of the washing of the feet is not just as an exterior imitation of what Jesus has done. Rather, it points to the meaning of what Jesus has accomplished which has a universal importance, namely the giving of himself to the end for the salvation of the human race, and his charity which embraces all people and which makes all people brothers and sisters by following his example. As the Lord said “I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done”. And what he has done is shown us how perfect his love is by loving us to the end, to the very end. This is what he wants us to copy, to love to the end, to the very end.