Homily for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper
St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, Maundy Thursday, 14 April 2022
They’ve been dark times of late. The world has recoiled at the invasion of a free nation by a bully power, and at the numbers dead, damaged or driven out. Closer to home we’ve had bush-fires, floods, mice, COVID. Lockdowns and other public health measures have taken their toll psychologically, educationally and financially. There’ve been harrowing reports of injustices suffered by the frail elderly and disabled, Aborigines and refugees, by victims of domestic or sexual violence, the trafficked, mentally ill, and homeless. We are trying to balance concern for our common home, the earth, with our energy needs and other wants, at a time of wage stagnation, declining home-ownership, and rising prices and interest rates. Though leaders and experts offer solutions, especially around election time, some of these problems seem intractable…
On top of these society-wide issues, many of us have anxieties about ourselves or those we love; physical or emotional pain; sickness or financial woes; death in the family and in due course ourselves. I, for one, am still grieving the loss of my mother some weeks ago: she was often here on Holy Thursday night…
Does the story of Jesus’ darkest hours have anything to say to our bleakness? Is there a wisdom here, and some reason to hope for light at the end of present tunnels rather than more darkness?
Well, the smell of fear hung heavy over the first Holy Thursday night (e.g. Mt 26:22; Jn 14:1) and it came from many sources. One was anxiety generated by ambition, disloyalty and violence. The apostles are all jockeying for power and influence, spooked by Jesus’ ominous talk of betrayal, departure and death.
So Jesus instructed them yet again on His vision of authority and service.[i] He prayed at length for their unity, fidelity and safety (Jn chs 14-17). He engaged in the dramatic gestures of stripping like a slave to wash their feet (Jn 13:1-16) and offering them His own Body and Blood in the Passover-become-Eucharist.[ii] Then He took them out into the garden to pray[iii] and such were the terrors of that night that they took swords with them.[iv]
So fearful was the high priest Caiaphas of losing control that he ordered the illegal detention and trial of Jesus (Mt 26:3-5,57; Jn 11:45-53). A melee ensued, in which one man lost his clothes, another his ear, and a third His liberty.[v] Soon the soldiers were engaging in acts of gratuitous violence and humiliation of their captive.[vi] Meanwhile, the disciples fled the scene and went into hiding (Mt 26:56; Mk 14:50-52; Jn 20:19). Simon Peter tagged along with Jesus for a bit but, fearing recriminations, denied ever knowing Him.[vii]
There are resonances with the present Russo-Ukrainian conflict: in the naked ambition and abuse of power by some, the use of military force and of soldiers as fodder, the atrocities, flight of refugees, capture and killing of innocents. In the betrayals by Judas and Peter, we see how even Christians can renounce their ideals in order to satisfy the powerful, fit in with the crowd, go with the flow…
Jesus’ Maundy Thursday wisdom for us is: Do as I do. Count yourself greatest when you serve the least. Make this service the source and purpose of your authority. Offer your all as a sacrifice to God and gift to others. Eschew violence. Endure evil rather than perpetrate it. Consecrate yourself to the truth.
There, in the Cenacle, the frightened apostles join the refugees of war, those isolated by COVID, and those left homeless by floods. There in that very same locked room, in the days to come, they will hear the Magdalene proclaim the resurrection and the Risen Lord peace, join in prayer with the Blessed Mother, and receive the fire of God’s love at Pentecost. Amidst the horrors of displacement and homelessness, these spiritual refugees are offered by Jesus a sheepfold, a family, a table with God, where strangers are welcomed and innocence vindicated, where justice is restored and communion reigns—the sacrament of which Jesus initiates this very night. Faith is the remedy for present fears.
Ambitions and fears around power and security motivate both Jesus’ friends and enemies tonight, as they have human beings so often in history. But Jesus’ fears are not of that sort. He worries for His disciples: that they will be tempted, scattered, feel orphaned, be persecuted.[viii] He knows that one is about to betray Him and another to deny Him, and He fears for their souls.[ix]
He fears also for Himself. In the Cenacle and the Garden He declares “my soul is very sorrowful, even to death”. He sweats great drops of blood as He begs His heavenly Father to be relieved of this chalice of wrath.[x]
Once more there are parallels with our recent difficulties. People we love have been threatened and scattered by COVID, floods or finance. During lockdown they’ve been in hiding like the apostles and troubled in spirit like the stupefied apostles in the Garden or Jesus abandoned on the cross. Depression and anxiety remain endemic today, especially among young adults…
Jesus’ Maundy Thursday wisdom for us in these present terrors is: Suffering is the price of being alive and aware. But there is often a spiritual problem at its heart: best to gather as a community and pray the Father relieve your sufferings. In the end God’s will must be done, so take up your cross and follow. Watch and embrace the moment. Again, faith is the remedy for present fears.
Not all fears need remedy. George MacDonald once said, that “If there are wild beasts about, it’s better to feel afraid than secure.” Christ tells us to fear that Devil who destroys soul, far more than the soldier that kills the body (Mt 10:28; 1Pet 5:8-9). But fearing the Devil does not mean fleeing the scene like the apostles tonight. We stand and fight. The Devil is cowardly and more afraid of us—or, better, of Christ in us—than we are of him.[xi]
Some people, with what St Thomas Aquinas called a servile fear of God, abhor the judgment and punishment they see coming.[xii] Some, with a more filial fear, dread losing or hurting a dear friend and master. And some, with a reverent fear of God, experience awe before something so immeasurably great: like the forces of nature, the beauty of the cosmos, the birth of a baby, the perfections of the Creator, the mind-blowing mysteries of Christ in the Eucharist and on the Cross. This last kind of ‘fear of the Lord’ is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 9:10). Here faith feeds holy fear while remedying those unholy ones that surround us this night. Holy Thursday faith casts light on all human fears, reminding us that God is with us even when we suffer. He is there in the debris of flood, the devastation of war-zones, and the desperation of refugee camps, there beside the homeless, sick, lonely and infirm. He knows our hunger, grief, despair. He wept for these things. As we venture out into the darkness tonight after Communion, we know we will not be alone: we will be together, and we will be with Him who is with us always in the Blessed Sacrament.
[i] Mt 18:1-5; 20:20-28; Mk 9:33-37; 10:35-45; Lk 9:46-50; 22:24-30; Jn 13:1-16; cf. Jn 21:15-23.
[ii] Mt 26:26-29; Mk 14:22-25; Lk 22:14-23; 1Cor 10:16; 11:23-26.
[iii] Mt 26:36-46; Mk 14:32-42; Lk 22:40-46; Jn 18:1-11.
[iv] Mt 26:51; Mk 14:47; Lk 22:35-38; Jn 18:10.
[v] Mt 26:51-54; Mk 14:47,51-52; Lk 22:49-51; Jn 18:10-11.
[vi] Mt 26:57,67-68; Mk 14:46,65; Lk 22:52-54,63-65; Jn 18:12.
[vii] Mt 26:58,69-75; Mk 15:54,66-72; Lk 22:54-62; Jn 18:15-18,25-27.
[viii] Mt 26:21-24,31,41; Jn 13:33; 14:1,18,27-28; 15:18-16:11; 16:16-22,32-33; 17:11-14.
[ix] Mt 26:21-25,30-35; Mk 14:18-21,27-31; Lk 22:21-23,31-34; Jn 13:2,21-30,38.
[x] Mt 26:37-39; Mk 14:33-34; Lk 22:39-46; Jn 12:27-32,44; 13:21.
[xi] Peter Kreft, Practical Theology: Spiritual Direction from Saint Thomas Aquinas (Ignatius Press, 2014), p. 153.
[xii] St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae IIa-IIae q. 7, a. 1.
INTRODUCTION TO THE MASS OF THE LORD’S SUPPER
ST MARY’S CATHEDRAL, SYDNEY, MAUNDY THURSDAY, 14 APRIL 2022
Welcome to the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, beginning the three-day-long Sacred Triduum commemorating Christ’s saving Passion, Death and Resurrection. On the night before He suffered, 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 the washing of His disciples’ feet. Earlier today our priests renewed their priestly promises and the oils were consecrated for the sacraments in the year ahead.
I acknowledge the presence tonight of Bishop Terry Brady,
Dean Don Richardson and the cathedral clergy, Seminary Rector Fr Michael de Stoop, assisting deacons, and seminarians of our archdiocese.
During this time of war in Ukraine, of recovery from flood and pandemic, of election campaigns and much else besides, we ask that Christ present in His word and sacraments, in His priests and people, draw especially near us. As we accompany Him into the terror of the night and along His way to cross and tomb, we ask that He ready us to rise with Him from the graves of our sins and anxieties to new life at Easter. And so we confess…