Homily for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper Year A

09 Apr 2020

St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

For some weeks now and perhaps many more to come, the COVID19 pandemic has meant no public Masses. Not gathering physically is hard for most people, since human beings are made for relationship, proximity, intimacy. It’s especially hard for Catholics as our religion is so incarnational and touchy-feely. Our worship and sacraments engage all the senses. We gather in sacred spaces with particular architecture, art and furnishings. We bow and sing and exchange the Peace. And we commune with brothers and sisters kneeling all around us and with a God so tangible you could eat Him!

Being forced to separate is all the more difficult in Holy Week. If there’s any time we should be together, it’s amidst the jubilant Palm Sunday crowd waving palms and singing Hosanna; alongside the terrified disciples going out into the night after the Last Supper; at the foot of the Cross on Good Friday with the dying Lord and His grieving followers; with Christ, His angels and saints, celebrating Easter triumph. This year, however, it’s not to be, at least not in the ordinary way.

Happily, thousands can still gather by live-streaming, making spiritual communion where they cannot make a sacramental one, and joining present sufferings to the Sacrifice offered by the Lord on the night He was betrayed. If ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’, it may be that, rather than becoming accustomed to doing Church from home, our hunger to gather for and receive the Holy Eucharist will only intensify. Then, when things get back to ‘normal’, we may value our Sunday gathering more than ever. In the meantime, our enforced retreat is a chance to meditate upon what Holy Communion means to us.


What do we think of when we hear the word ‘communion’? In ordinary usage it connotes fellowship, rapport, sharing. We also talk about the spiritual union between the faithful in a particular locality, between the churches, and of the Church around the world with the Pope. In the Creed we profess faith in ‘the communion of saints’ between the faithful living today and those who’ve gone before us and are now in heaven. Above all, it’s communion with Christ we seek, through conversation in prayer, hearing the Word of God, receiving the sacraments, and serving Him in the poor. In ‘Holy Communion’ we gather up, celebrate and strengthen all these realities in the Mass, and are given Christ’s Body and Blood under the appearances of bread and wine.[1] 

A group of people posing for the camera

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It’s hard to maintain communion while being driven apart by a deadly disease and distancing regulations. The Last Supper was not only about sacraments. Before He celebrated His first Eucharist Jesus washed His disciples’ feet, telling them to do likewise (Jn 13:1-15). A few decades after that story was committed to paper, waves of what was probably Smallpox claimed the lives of at least one in ten people in the Roman empire, an even higher proportion of the army, and at least two emperors.[2] Panic spread faster than the plague, and even the great physician Galen fled Rome along with many of the better off.[3] The Church stayed. The Roman empire at the time had no systems of care in place, and the early Christians filled that void with caritas – Christian love, from which we get our word charity work – and hospitalitas – Christian hospitality, the origin of our words hospital and hospice. Staying to feed and nurse the sick, Christians saved thousands.[4]

When plague returned in the following century to take another million lives in the Roman empire,[5] the sick and dead were abandoned in the streets. Some blamed the Christians, yet again they distinguished themselves by their care. St Cyprian of Carthage wrote on the spiritual significance of pestilence and encouraged Christians to redouble their service of the sick and suffering.[6] This, he thought, was like an HSC for faith and an opportunity for Christians to shine. And it saved lives again: the death rate was half in cities with significant Christian populations.[7] Again, those who saw Christian charity and hospitality in action were mightily impressed.

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In the centuries that followed, great Christians such as Saints Edmund and Roch, Elizabeth of Hungary and Catherine of Siena, Charles Borromeo and John of God, Aloysius and Camillus, Louise de Marillac, Damian of Molokai, Piergiorgio Frassati and many others demonstrated Christian heroism in caring for those with infectious diseases. Today we have much better social systems, health institutions and public regulation, but the call of Christianity remains: not to lose heart, not to hide, but to live faith, hope and love actively in the world.

Communion and service: these key messages of Holy Thursday speak directly to our present situation and needs. Over the coming holy days we will encounter a God- a man whose words and example are not only of communion and service, but also of sacrifice and salvation. But already in days past we’ve witnessed countless acts of selfless service by health workers and pastors caring for the sick and anxious, by families and neighbours sustaining each other through isolation and grief, by researchers seeking a cure and essential workers keeping the wheels of society turning, by those lacking work but still looking out for others, and by those leading us through all this.

Three times in His Last Supper, Jesus addressed all those heroes and each of us about what to do in such a crisis. After washing our feet, He said “I’ve given you an example to follow.” After giving His Body and Blood for us and to us, He said “Do this in memory of Me” (1Cor 11:23-6). And before going to His death He gave us a last commandment, “No greater love has anyone than this: that they give their life for their friend… So love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn 13:34-35; 15:12-17)

Announcement Immediately after the Agnus Dei

Before Genuflecting

Because our current circumstances impede attendance at Mass and reception of Holy Communion: I invite you now to ask God to give you by spiritual communion for the graces you would have received in sacramental communion. Offer this Mass of the Lord’s Supper, and your hunger for the Eucharist, for the safety of your loved ones, yourselves and of our world at this time. God is not limited by our separation.

Introduction to the Mass of the Lord’s Supper

Livestreamed from St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

Welcome to this Mass of the Lord’s Supper at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, livestreamed in response to the COVID19 pandemic and church closures. Tonight’s Mass marks the beginning of the Sacred Triduum, the three-day-long Liturgy commemorating the saving events of Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection. We know that on the night before He died, Christ instituted the Eucharist and the Priesthood, as the means of perpetuating His all-sufficing sacrifice for the salvation of the world. He also gave us the example of Christian service in washing His disciples’ feet. Though we cannot wash your feet tonight, please know that the priests of Sydney and beyond ache for your presence with them at Mass and are offering the Eucharist for you even when they cannot offer it with you.

You in turn are maintaining contact with those in your neighbourhood, looking out for those who are isolated or anxious, and joining your prayers to those of the whole Church for an end to this disease and for safety for all people. And so, as we witness Christ’s Last Supper tonight and join Him on His way to the Cross tomorrow, we ask Him to ready us to rise out of the tombs of our sins and anxieties to new life at Easter…

[1]    Mt 26:26-29; Mk 14:22-25; Lk 22:19-20; Jn 6:48-51; 1Cor 10:14-17; 11:17-34 esp. vv. 23-26 etc.

[2]    5 to 10 million died in the Antonine Plague of 165-80 AD. See Sarah Yeomans, “The Antonine Plague and the spread of Christianity,” Biblical Archaeology Review 43(2) (2017), 22-24 & 66.

[3]     Cf. Sean F. Everton & Robert Schroeder, “Plagues, Pagans, and Christianity: Differential  Survival, Social Networks, and the Rise of Christianity”, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 58(4) (2019), p. 778.

[4]     Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 86.

[5]    The Plague of Cyprian of 249-70 AD.

[6]     St Cyprian of Carthage, De Mortalitate; cf. Stark, The Rise of Christianity, pp. 81-82.

[7]    Lyman Stone, “Christianity has been handling epidemics for 2000 years,” FP 13 March 2020.