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Holy Thursday

April 13, 2006

Blessed Holy Thursday!

Drum roll, please…

This is it, folks. The day for which we’ve been watching and waiting and fasting and praying these past 40 days has finally dawned. The stage is set. The lights go down. A hush falls over the assembly. The greatest drama in the history of creation is about to unfold in all its tragedy and triumph, and we do not merely watch. We become immersed. We will not only see, but also hear, touch, smell and even taste the wonders of our salvation.

We begin at noon, at the cathedral, as our successor to the apostles, our bishop, gathers his priests to renew their commitment to the ordained priesthood which Christ instituted on this day roughly 2000 years ago when He commanded His first bishops, “Do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19). We celebrate God’s intimate gift to us, in which He pours His graces upon us in tangible forms through the hands of men who lay down their lives in service to God and to us. Without the priesthood, there is no Eucharist, no sacramental Confession, and no anointing of the sick. Access to our most personal, powerful encounters with our risen Lord hinges on this most vital ministry. We praise God for holy priests! And we pray that God will stir up the graces of ordination in all priests, that they may be more fully equipped to live up to their high calling.

Also at this Mass, our successor of the Apostles will bless the sacred oils which will be used in the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, received by new believers at the Easter Vigil, just two days from now, and at other sacramental anointings throughout the year.

The first oil to be blessed is the Oil of the Sick, used in the anointing of those who are seriously sick, going in for serious surgery, or suffering from the frailty of old age. The sacramental use of this oil (which, by the way, should not be delayed until death is immanent) strengthens the sick, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to unite their sufferings to the suffering of Christ for the salvation of the world. It renews trust in God, gives peace and guards against discouragement. It forgives even the temporal punishment due to sin, minimizing or even eliminating the sufferings of Purgatory. It may also bring about the healing of the body, if this would be best for the sick person’s soul.

Next the oil of catechumens is blessed. Those who are to be Baptized (including babies, so this we’ve all received this anointing) are anointed with this oil, which strengthens them (us) to reject Satan and evil in all its forms for the rest of their (our) lives. When the bishop blesses this oil, he asks that through it God will give us wisdom and strength, that He will bring us to a deeper understanding of the Gospel, will help us to accept the challenge of Christian living and will lead us to the joy of new birth in the family of His Church.

Finally, the chrism, for which this Mass is named, is consecrated. Chrism is a perfumed oil, usually a mixture of olive oil and balsam, which is used to signify the gift of the Holy Spirit in Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders; the three sacraments which leave an indelible (non-removable) spiritual mark upon our souls. The word “Christ” means “anointed”. As “Christians”, we are “anointed ones”, inwardly anointed with God’s Holy Spirit, which is outwardly signified by the anointing with sacred chrism.

This anointing, foreshadowed by Old Testament anointings of priests, prophets and kings (see Exodus 29: 1-9, I Kings 19:16, Samuel 10:1), gives us a share in Christ’s threefold mission of priest, prophet and king. Priests offer sacrifice, and while the priesthood of the laity is fundamentally distinct from the ordained priesthood, we are called to offer the sacrifices of our lives in union with Christ’s perfect sacrifice on Calvary, re-presented in the Mass. Prophets speak God’s word. Through this anointing, we are commissioned to bring God’s encouraging, comforting, enlightening and challenging message to everyone we encounter in our daily lives. Kings exercise authority, bringing God’s sacred order into the chaos of our fallen world. As kings, we live self-discipline and service. We rule ourselves, disciplining our own choices, thoughts and actions based on what God has told us will bring lasting happiness and fulfillment. We serve others, taking to heart Jesus’ words in Luke 22:25, where He explained that those who are the greatest must be as the least. We must be selfless servants, laying down our lives the way He did, for the eternal benefit of those over whom we have authority.

Readings: (Mid-day Chrism Mass)
Isaiah 61:1-9 (God’s Servant comes to anoint us with us oil of gladness and to name priests of the Lord)
Psalm 89:21-27 “Forever I will sing the goodness of the Lord”
Revelation 1:5-8 (Jesus made us a royal nation of priests to serve God)
+Luke 4:16-21 (Jesus is God’s Servant, the anointed One)

Now we come to the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, at which Lent ends (which is why Mass begins with the singing of the “Gloria” and the ringing of bells) and the curtain rises on our three-day observance of the Easter Triduum (“Triduum” means “three days”). We count these days as the Jewish people did, from sundown to sundown, so Triduum extends from sundown today to sundown Easter Sunday evening. Together, these three days form one single celebration of the Passion, death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. There are significant intermissions in this one celebration, so we can go home and rest, but the celebration we begin tonight will not end until Easter Sunday. This is the culmination, the highest point, of the entire liturgical year. Come, let us worship…

Readings: (Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper)
Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14 (the first Passover)
Psalm 116:12-14 “Our blessing-cup is a communion with the blood of Christ”
I Corinthians 11:23-26 (the institution of the Eucharist)
+John 13:1-15 (Jesus washes His disciples’ feet)

We begin in Egypt, on the night of deliverance, sacrificing a lamb in the evening twilight and marking the doors of our houses with its blood to guard our first-born from the blow of the destroying angel. We eat the sacrificial meal in haste with unleavened bread (there’s no time to let it rise), staff in hand, poised for flight. We are still slaves…for now. We’re about to make the break for freedom. And God has promised that we will succeed.

Centuries melt away. We find ourselves in Jerusalem, still around the Passover table, listening to the words of deliverance. The bondage of Egypt is behind us, replaced by the bondage of Rome. We long for our own earthly kingdom, never dreaming that God is preparing a kingdom for us beyond anything we could ever ask or imagine. The bondage of sin is so much a part of our lives that we don’t even notice. It doesn’t even occur to us to beg deliverance from that.

Jesus leads our celebration, telling the story, answering the questions, and guiding our ceremonial actions: washing hands, dipping herbs in the salt water of symbolic tears, tasting the bitterness of slavery in bitter herbs, eating a paste of nuts, apples and dates that resembles the mortar with which we laid bricks in Egypt, savoring the goodness of freedom represented by unleavened bread.

This year, Jesus breaks tradition. When the main part of the meal is over He rises from the table, wraps a towel around His waist and begins to wash His disciples’ feet. Peter, the spokesman, protests. Jesus shouldn’t be doing slaves’ work! Jesus insists: “If I do not wash you, you have no part in Me” (John 13:8). Our Holy Father explains, “He seems to be saying: ‘Submit! Let Me serve! Let Me begin the Great Service.’ In this service is contained the New Order. The New Testament. The New Covenant. Let Me begin the Service of the New Covenant with this washing of feet. It will be followed by the sacramental Sacrifice of My Body and My Blood. The Sacrifice of the Cross and of death. The great, unending service of the New Covenant. Through this service, you shall have: ‘a share in My heritage’ (John 13:8). You and all the others. You shall all have ‘part with Me’. You will be in communion with Me. Through Me, you shall be in communion with the Father and with the Spirit. Let Me serve you now” (John Paul II, homily, March 31, 1983).

Service and submission go together. Jesus has called these twelve men to be leaders, and has explained that leadership is service (Luke 22:25-30). Now He gives them an object lesson, modeling the kind of service He expects, service to which they must submit. He gives them a taste of how difficult it can be to submit even to service so they will have empathy for those who struggle to submit to their servant leadership. He’s also emphasizing that as leaders, they must always submit themselves to His leadership, to His service.

In washing His disciples’ feet, Jesus is also preparing them for the next stage of the Passover, one which would forever transform this holy night. He explains that He washed only their feet because only their feet were soiled (with the sole exception of Judas, see John 13:10-11). They were generally clean, but He wanted them to be spotless (Ephesians 5:26-27) because He was about to unite Himself to them in unspeakable intimacy. The purity required of them was a purity that only He could provide (and which He also provides to us in sacramental Confession).

Then, taking the unleavened bread, He prays the Passover blessing over it, breaks it, and passes it to them, commanding them to eat this, His Body, broken for them in the eternal sacrifice of Calvary (Luke 22:19). Taking the third ceremonial cup of wine, He pronounces the Passover blessing over it and distributes it to them, commanding them to drink this, His Blood, the Blood of the New Covenant. “Do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:20). They’re marked with the blood of the spotless Passover Lamb. The angel of death has passed over.

The Passover has just become the Mass, the Mass in which we unite ourselves to Him tonight.

The Apostles have just become priests.

Continuing the seder with songs of praise taken from the Hallel, or praise Psalms (Psalms 113-118), Jesus leads His disciples out into the moon-washed night (the timing of Passover is based on the phase of the moon–it’s full tonight), across the Kidron Valley to the Mount of Olives (Matthew 26:30), directly across from the temple. Here they enter the Garden of Gethsemane to pray (Matthew 26:36) as Jesus has so many times before (John 18:2).

We are invited to keep vigil with Him tonight, to watch and pray with Peter, James and John as Jesus begins His agony in the garden. “Could you not keep watch with Me one hour?” (Matthew 26:40). In another garden, long ago, our freedom was lost when our first parents failed the test (Genesis 3:1-6). Jesus urges us to pray that we will not undergo the test (as we pray in the Our Father, “Lead us not into temptation”), for though the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41, Mark 14:38).

Come, let us watch and pray, keeping vigil with our champion as He contends for our salvation.

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