“Our Lord’s Synonymous Last Commandment and the Pathway to Heaven”
Homily, Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper
April 14, 2022
The world seems plagued by crises these days, and the Church, too: the devastating war in Ukraine causing horrendous and senseless suffering; the ongoing effects of the waning pandemic, which are still with us; the challenges with the economy and many people struggling because of out-of-control inflation. And then, of course, as a Church we face many challenges as well, including the effects of a secularizing mentality and the lack of faithful adherence to Christ in both word and deed even among those in high levels of leadership in the Church.
Perhaps, though, the greatest crisis we face as a Church right now, because it cuts to the very core of what it means to be Catholic, is the crisis in Eucharistic faith. Survey after survey reveals a steadily declining belief and understanding among Catholics in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
You may have heard that the bishops of the United States are launching what we are calling a “Eucharistic Revival” project, a three-year process to reignite Eucharistic faith, which will begin on Corpus Christi Sunday with the Eucharistic procession after Mass here at the Cathedral and cathedrals all throughout our country. Other initiatives will be taken at the diocesan level this year, and then next year at the parish level, and then culminating in a national Eucharistic Congress in July 2023.
This is the gift our Lord gives us tonight, at the Last Supper: the gift of the Eucharist, his Body and Blood. This is the gift that the leadership of the Church in our country is striving to reawaken within our people. But why is it that there is such a decline in this core Catholic belief, something that is at the very heart of our identity as Catholics?
After all, the Church all throughout the centuries has invested great resources in exalting the Holy Eucharist, from buildings to house it, to vessels to hold it, to ceremonies and music composed to honor it. Our Cathedral is one such example, an edifice of grandeur and beauty to house the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, in which our Lord transforms bread and wine into his Body and Blood, and to contain the tabernacle which reserves it for us.
We can think of the beauty of cathedrals and other church buildings throughout the world, of rightfully beautiful and ornate vessels such as chalices, the ciborium to hold the hosts for distribution at Mass, and the monstrance to hold it in display for the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. How much beautiful music has been composed over the centuries to honor this most precious gift, which is sung and performed in elaborate ceremonies featuring beautiful vestments!
Perhaps people no longer see the purpose of all of this grandeur, perhaps they cannot see beyond the temporal aspect to what it is meant to make present to us. Perhaps they see it as only charming folkloric customs or artistic expression. And then again, perhaps the problem is not that people fail to appreciate the grandeur we use to honor the Blessed Sacrament, but rather, the littleness of the Blessed Sacrament. A simple piece of unleavened bread, in keeping with the tradition of our ancestors in the faith, the ancient Israelites, in their haste to leave Egypt the night of the first Passover, as we heard in our first reading. And a simple mouthful of wine contained in a chalice on the altar. Is this really the God of the universe?
The Last Commandment
Perhaps people have a hard time understanding this because it is hard to accept that the infinite God become one of us in the mystery of the Incarnation, and then did so all the way to assuming the status of a slave, which is what our Lord was doing in bending down to wash the feet of his apostles: it was the lowliest, most menial chore of all, reserved only to slaves. Perhaps people don’t really believe in the Incarnation, the infinite God assuming the lowliness of a slave, is the reason why they don’t believe a simple piece of bread and a simple cup of wine can be transformed into the Son of God’s Body and Blood.
Pope Francis elaborated on this point at the message he delivered at the Sunday Angelus last year on August 22, when the Gospel reading for that Sunday was from the Bread of Life Discourse in St. John’s Gospel, several chapters earlier than the Gospel reading we heard tonight. He said there: “Even today the revelation of Jesus’ humanity, and the fact that the Eucharist is Jesus’ Body and Blood, can cause scandal. It is something difficult for people to accept.” He associated this with what Saint Paul calls the “folly” of the Gospel “in the face of those who seek miracles or worldly wisdom.” As he says, “What sense can there be, in the eyes of the world, in kneeling before a piece of bread? Why on earth should someone be nourished assiduously with this bread?”
And yet, this is, indeed, his Body and Blood: “Indeed, Jesus affirms that the true bread of salvation, which transmits eternal life, is His very flesh. To enter into communion with God, before observing the laws or satisfying religious precepts, it is necessary to live out a real and concrete relationship with Him.”
It seems to me the Holy Father hit on the crux of the matter right there: “To enter into communion with God … it is necessary to live out a real and concrete relationship with Him.” That is, communion is a reality that must be lived out concretely in our daily lives, before one dare approach to receive the sacrament of that Communion. This explains the Church’s timeless teaching on worthiness to receive Communion: to be free from serious sin, and to prepare oneself by fasting and other appropriate means such as frequent Confession and prayer throughout the week and especially before the celebration of Mass begins in order to be properly recollected.
This in turn explains the significance of the two accounts of the Last Supper we hear about in the readings for this Mass of Holy Thursday: St. Paul speaking of our Lord’s actions in taking bread and breaking it and sharing it and taking a cup of wine and sharing it, pronouncing them his Body and Blood, and then giving the commandment, “Do this in remembrance of me”; and St. John’s account of our Lord washing the apostles’ feet and giving them the commandment, “as I have done for you, you should also do.”
It’s the same commandment: what we do in ritual we live out in concrete ways in our daily lives, which is what it means to live in a “concrete and real relationship” with God. The two are synonymous, and this is, in fact, our Lord’s last commandment, the commandment he gave to us the night before he died: to us, to all of us. Living this commandment is for everyone, because it is the pathway to heaven. And so in our ceremony of washing of feet, we will have representatives from different vocations and states in life, to remind us of the universality of our Lord’s last commandment.
In that same Sunday Angelus message, Pope Francis summed up this basic meaning and mystery of the Christian life quite succinctly: “God made Himself flesh and blood: He lowered Himself to the point of becoming a man like us. He humbled Himself to the extent of burdening Himself with our sufferings and sin, and therefore He asks us to not seek Him outside life and history, but in relationship with Christ and with our brothers and sisters.”
That is, in “real and concrete relationship.” A relationship as real as his presence in the Blessed Sacrament, and as concrete as lowering oneself to wash the feet of another – and other such acts of abasement that show love for others with the love of Christ himself.