01 Apr 2021

Holy Thursday Mass of the Last Supper, St. Mary’s Basilica, Sydney

Our world is in crisis. For the past year waves of COVID-19 have infected more than 125 million people and cost nearly 3 million lives. Lockdowns and restrictions have been commonplace and, even here in Australia where we’ve been spared the worst of it, businesses and jobs have been lost, people been separated, many have suffered anxiety and loneliness.

That plague was bookended by bushfire and flood that many say presages a full-blown climate emergency. The media are full of crisis talk: they tell us there’s a crisis in aged care, rental markets, the tourism industry; a substance-abuse crisis, energy crisis, mental health crisis; crises of sexual violence, refugees, Indigenous well-being, and more… Meanwhile, they tell us, there’s been a collapse of respect for institutions like the royal family, Church, democracy, banks, the military, the justice system, the media… And underneath all this is a crisis of confidence, identity, leadership and trust…

What’s the upshot of all this apocalyptic analysis and catastrophising language? Some respond with a sense of urgency to confront the threats whatever they are. Others are paralysed by anxiety and panic, or go into denial. Too much bad news and we become cynical or angry at the messenger. We can despair of our own ability to respond, and give up altogether.

Whatever our present difficulties, for the next three days we will be immersed in a very real crisis, one so drastic it will tear the world apart. There will be trials and the Son of Man will go to a terrible fate. Men will flee in horror and graves open. The world will be plunged into darkness and the veil of the Temple rent asunder. If tomorrow’s is a crisis for Christ himself, and Easter a crisis is for all humanity, tonight’s is a crisis for Jesus’ followers – the Church – a crisis of faith.

Duccio, The Washing of the Feet and The Last Supper (1308-11), Museo del Duomo, Siena

The Jewish Passover recalls the terrible events of our First Reading (Ex 12:1-8), when sacrificial lambs were slain, their blood painted on the lintels, their flesh fast cooked with bitter herbs and woofed down with wine. On that night the Angel of Death smote Egypt’s first-born and we stood ready to flee through the Red Sea. Of all this the Passover is a permanent memorial. The Christian Passover also retells the terrible events of our Second Reading (1Cor 11:23-26 when the Lamb of God was slain, His blood splattered on pillar and post, His flesh pre-emptively offered as spiritual food. On that night we sat by at dinner, lay by in the garden, stood by at Jesus’ trials. Of all this the Eucharist is perpetual commemoration.

Tonight Jesus voluntarily takes off the cloak that will be stripped from Him tomorrow. He kneels at His disciples’ feet, modelling Christian leadership and service, priesthood and discipleship. We hear it in our Gospel (Jn 13:1-15) and soon will see it enacted in the Washing of the Feet. Though beautiful, it reverses the natural order between rabbi and disciple, creator and creature, and leaves Peter and the other apostles deeply unsettled.

There are stranger things to come. Jesus returns to robe and table, takes bread and wine and utters the customary blessings. But then He adds portentous words: This bread is My Body which will be broken, this wine My Blood which will be spilt. One of you will betray me; another thrice deny me before cock-crow; the rest desert me. After such terrible words He leads us out into the darkness, all the while praying to escape the terrors ahead. Amidst a melee of warring gangs He is arrested.

Johann Fischer von Erlach, The Lighthouse of Pharos (1721)

There is a crisis in the Kingdom of God. Tonight its first citizens, the apostles, desert: the Shepherd is struck and the sheep scatter. The men are en crise, their sense of vocation evaporating, the security they felt in Jesus’ presence dissolving. The Light has dimmed and their world no longer makes sense. Judas dies from loss of faith – in God, the world, himself. Peter recovers his faith and comes back strong enough to be made rock and shepherd for the Church. A crisis of faith can mean death and dissolution, or recovery and renewal.

‘That’s what happens’ my grandmother used to say, when the best laid plans of mice and men came to naught. That’s what happens, in every disciple’s life. At one time or another our heart is broken or dried up, God seems distant and we feel rudderless, abandoned, confused. Then we find ourselves en crise with the apostles in the Cenacle and the Garden. Like them, we could go either way, to despond or to renewal.

The world is of little help. Instead of supporting our faith and ideals, secular culture undermines or undergrounds them. Believers are pressed to keep faith private, as if it were some dirty little secret. Like the disciples in Gethsemane, our culture is no longer sure what to believe. There’s a crisis of confidence in the global order, in endless affluence, in news fake or ‘truthish’, in personal health and security, in relations between the sexes, and in leaders and their ability to get us out of this mess. We desperately need something to believe in, someone to cast some light on our situation.

William Holman Hunt, Jesus the Light of the World (1851-3), Keble College Oxford

One of the ‘Seven Wonders of the ancient world’ was the Lighthouse of Pharos opposite Alexandria. According to the first century Jewish historian, Josephus, it could be seen 42 miles away. This same Josephus wrote of a wise man, miracle-worker and teacher named ‘Jesus the Christ’, whom Pilate had crucified at the prompting of the Jewish leaders, but whom the Christians claimed had risen from the dead. These stubborn first Christians seemed to believe that Jesus’ light could not be extinguished, and that the light that is faith in Him could be seen across the seas, beyond the grave, to the ends of the space and time. Tonight Christ our Light and lighthouse,[1] institutes that greatest Sacrament of Faith, so that we might approach Him every year, every week, every day if we like, saying “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief”, and receive His substance into ours.

It’s in dark times of crisis that we most need faith, for faith casts light and assures hearts. So having deepened that faith through hearing the Scriptures, enacted that faith in our service to each other, nourished that faith on Christ Himself, we will take Him out into the dark places, to the crises of our world and ourselves, through our Gethsemanes to the place of our Repose. As we do, we pray: Lord enlighten my dim mind, warm my gloomy heart, increase my little faith. Carry me through the Thursday Passovers in my life, the Friday darkness over all my world, the Saturday loneliness of the grave. Bring me to the bright light of Easter, and raise me out of my tomb with Yourself forever!

Introduction to Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper

St. Mary’s Basilica, Sydney

Welcome to this Mass of the Lord’s Supper at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney. Tonight’s Mass marks the beginning of the Sacred Triduum, a 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.

I acknowledge concelebrating with me this evening Dean Don Richardson and the cathedral clergy, Rector Michael de Stoop with the priests of Good Shepherd Seminary, Fathers

as well as assisting deacons and seminarians of the Archdiocese.

As we witness Christ’s Last Supper and proceed with Him out into the darkness tonight, and as we join Him on His way to the cross and tomb tomorrow, we ask Him to ready us to rise with Him out of the graves of our sins and anxieties to new life at Easter…

[1]       Mt 4:16; 5:13-16; 10:27; 28:3; Lk 1:79; 2:32; 8:16-17; 16:8; 17:24;  Jn 1:4-9; 3:19-21; 8:12; 9:5; 12:35-6,46; Acts 22:6-11; 26:13-23; 1Cor 4:5; 2Cor 4:4-6; Eph 5:8-14; 1Thess 5:5; 1Pet 2:9; 1Jn 1:5-7; 2:8-10; Rev 18:23; 21:23-4; 22:5.