5 April 2012
Dcn Les Ruhrmund
Tonight is the start of the Easter Triduum. Over the next three days we recall the passion, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. This is the very core of our faith. Without the Triduum, Christianity doesn’t exist. These three days are the holiest days in the year without any exception or comparison. Christmas is celebrated in anticipation of the Triduum. The 40 days of Lent are preparation for the Triduum and the 50 days after Easter are the joyful celebration of the Triduum.
It is one event that takes place over three days. The event is the salvation of the world. The passion, death and resurrection of Jesus is one saving event that starts with the Last Supper and finishes with the Resurrection. And yet there are many Christians, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, who still see these three days as separate events which they choose to commemorate in bits and pieces. There will be many people here tomorrow afternoon for example for the Good Friday liturgy who have missed tonight’s Mass. For them it’s a little like arriving at the theatre half way through the second act having missed the first. The crucifixion of Jesus in itself is a truly horrible event and it only finds real meaning in its place between the Last Supper and the Resurrection.
The events we recall tonight, Jesus’ last hours on earth before his death on the cross, are essential and fundamental to our Christ-given mission as Church. This is the night that Jesus institutes the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist and the holy order of priesthood.
The three readings give us a good indication of the complexity of these events.
The first reading describes the Jewish Passover meal which is celebrated every year in thanksgiving for their freedom from slavery in Egypt. Interestingly, this year the Jewish Passover coincides with Good Friday – they celebrate it tomorrow night. The Jewish people were saved by the blood of the lamb that was smeared on the door posts of their homes and they ate the lamb that was sacrificed.
At the Last Supper, Jesus offers himself as the Lamb of God who will be sacrificed for the freedom of all humanity from the slavery of sin; he will offer himself for the life of the world. In the second reading Paul repeats the words that Jesus used at the Last Supper; words which are used at every Mass by the priest when the bread and wine are consecrated and become the Body and Blood of Christ; the Blessed Sacrament. The presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist is not just symbolic, allegorical, metaphorical, or merely spiritual. It’s real. Truly and substantially the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ; ipse Christus – Christ himself.
Jesus gives the apostles the power and authority to offer the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, to God, the Father, in a supreme act of worship in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. This is the foundation of the priesthood. That’s what a priest is – someone who offers sacrifice. Only those who are ordained to offer this sacrifice can correctly be called priests. Religious leaders who do not offer the sacrifice of the Mass are not priests; they are pastors and ministers but they are not priests.
The Mass combines past, present and future at the same time. St Thomas Aquinas said that the Mass reminds the faithful of what Jesus did for humankind in the past, makes him present in the Real Presence, the consecrated bread and wine, and promises the faithful the future glory of heaven by giving food for eternal life.
The Gospel reading is John’s telling of Jesus washing his disciple’s feet. Today is often referred to as Maundy Thursday. Maundy being an old English word derived from the Latin word mandatum meaning “command”. At the Last Supper Jesus says to his disciples “I give you a new commandment: love one another just as I have loved you.” And he demonstrates this profoundly by washing their feet.
We’re inclined to sentimentalise the washing of the feet. But there was nothing appealing or easy in what Jesus did. The feet of the disciples would have been dirty, smelly from the filthy streets of Jerusalem at Passover time, rough and coarse from a lifetime of walking on dirt roads and mountain tracks – not a pretty sight. Imagine for a moment sitting down some people who are close to you; perhaps people with whom you live or work or study, or perhaps people who work for you in your home or garden and offering to wash their feet. They are unlikely to forget the experience. That’s the picture and example that Jesus wanted to leave with them – not the horror of the crucifixion that was to follow shortly but the image of love, service and humility.
Each of these actions – the washing of the feet, the institution of the Holy Eucharist and the priesthood, the Mass, the mandate to love and serve and finally the Agony in the Garden – are encapsulated tonight in the Mass of the Last Supper as we begin the Easter Triduum.
What a glorious night