‘The amazing gift and mystery of the Eucharist’
The following is the text of Bishop Rhoades’ homily at the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, April 14, 2022 at St. Matthew Cathedral:
At this Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, we begin the Sacred Paschal Triduum, the celebration of the Passover of Jesus. In Latin, the word “Easter” is “Pascha” — Passover. Similarly, in Spanish, Easter is called “Pascua,” in Italian, “Pasqua,” and in French “Paques”: all meaning “Passover.” We are celebrating Jesus’ Passover from death to life, foreshadowed by the Old Testament Passover, which we heard about in our first reading from the book of Exodus.
The Jewish feast of Passover commemorates the deliverance of God’s people from slavery in Egypt. The blood of the lamb marked the houses of the Israelites and the angel of death passed over those houses when God rescued His people. Notice that the lamb for the Passover had to be without blemish. In the New Passover, we also have a lamb without blemish: Jesus, the Lamb of God, who is without sin. He is the Paschal Lamb by whose blood we have been delivered from slavery, the slavery of sin, and have been saved from death.
At the end of the Exodus reading, we heard God’s instruction to His people: “This day shall be a memorial feast for you, which all your generations shall celebrate with pilgrimage to the Lord, as a perpetual institution.” Even today, faithful Jews annually celebrate the Passover. And God has commanded us to celebrate a memorial feast of the New Passover as a perpetual institution: the Eucharist. As we heard in our second reading from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians recounting the institution of the Eucharist, Jesus twice told the apostles, “Do this in remembrance of me.” First, after He says over the bread: “This is my body that is for you,” and then again, after He says over the cup: “This covenant is the new covenant in my blood.” The Eucharist is the memorial feast of the new Passover, in which Jesus “passes over” to the Father by His death and resurrection.
Tonight we celebrate the institution of the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. At every celebration of Mass, we remember Jesus’ Passover. At the altar, the priest repeats Jesus’ words and action at the Last Supper. This remembrance is more than just “calling to mind” an action from the past. Christ’s Passover really becomes present. The sacrifice Christ offered once for all on the cross becomes present on the altar. How is this possible? It is possible because God the Creator is not limited by time. “All that Christ is – all that He did and suffered for all men – participates in the divine eternity, and so transcends all times” (CCC 1085) Jesus, the Son of God, instituted the Eucharist so that His great act of love for us would not only remain in the past. His passion, death, and resurrection are not confined to the past. In the Eucharist, the Paschal mystery of Christ is not repeated; it is made present by the power of the Holy Spirit. The act by which Jesus showed us His love “to the end,” the very act by which He poured out His life for us on the cross, becomes present in the Eucharistic sacrifice.
Jesus left us this memorial of His sacrifice in the Holy Eucharist so that we can enter into it, enter into the hour in which He loved us to the end, the hour of His passion, death, and resurrection. Thus, Christ’s sacrifice becomes the Church’s sacrifice, our sacrifice. We join with Him in offering it to the Father. We participate in the offering. We are able to unite our lives with His offering. We unite our praise and prayers, our work and our sufferings with those of Christ and with His total offering of Himself, and so they acquire a new value (CCC 1368). The Second Vatican Council made this clear when it said: “Taking part in the Eucharistic sacrifice, which is the source and summit of the whole Christian life, the faithful offer the divine victim to God, and offer themselves along with it.”
In the Eucharistic sacrifice, Jesus becomes really and truly present under the species of bread and wine. He loves so much that He comes to dwell with us. He enters into the most intimate union with us when we receive Him in Holy Communion. We take Christ bodily into ourselves. Jesus gives us His divine life, His grace, to nourish us for our growth in the Christian life. He is a fountain of grace for all who are properly disposed to receive Him. If we are not in a state of grace, it is necessary that we go to confession and become reconciled with the Lord before receiving Holy Communion, the spiritual food for our journey to heaven.
We should always approach Holy Communion with reverence, respect, and devotion, realizing that we are approaching to receive Jesus, not mere bread and wine symbolic of Jesus, but truly Jesus Christ, the bread come down from heaven, His true Body and Blood. We are receiving the Lord Himself. As Jesus Himself said: “My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.” And as St. Paul said: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a communion in the blood of Christ? The bread we break, is it not a communion in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16). When we receive Holy Communion and enter into this most intimate union with Christ, we are also most intimately united with one another. The Eucharist is what makes the Church. It’s not just “me and Jesus.” Through our union with Christ, we are also united deeply with one another.
The ultimate effect of the Eucharist is eternal life and glory. As Jesus said: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:54). The Eucharist, therefore, is the pledge of our future resurrection. The Eucharist is not only the memorial of Christ’s death, but also of His resurrection, the whole Paschal mystery. When we receive Holy Communion, we receive Christ’s Body in its glorious state after the resurrection. St. John Paul II once said that “with the Eucharist, we digest as it were, the ‘secret’ of the Resurrection. For this reason, St. Ignatius of Antioch rightly defined the Eucharistic Bread as ‘a medicine of immortality, an antidote to death.’” We receive a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, where together with all the saints, we will have the joy of contemplating God face to face.
Finally, in the Gospel of this Holy Thursday Mass, we heard St. John’s account of the washing of the feet at the Last Supper. St. John does not recount the words of Jesus instituting the Holy Eucharist, probably because he knew his readers already knew about the institution from the other Gospels and from St. Paul. Yet, in telling us about Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, an act of great humility, St. John is teaching us something essential about the Eucharist. St. John Paul II said that “by bending down to wash the feet of His disciples, Jesus explains the meaning of the Eucharist unequivocally.” He is teaching us that the Holy Eucharist is the sacrament of love and humility. In fact, it was at the Last Supper that Jesus said to the disciples: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you should also love one another.” This is what the Eucharist is all about – it is Christ’s sacrifice of love in which we partake. It is the sacrament of His love “to the end.” The Eucharist strengthens us to love as He did. If we truly open ourselves to the grace of the Eucharist, we are compelled to love, to wash the feet of our neighbor, to serve the poor and the suffering. Otherwise, we are not living what we receive; we are not living the Eucharist.
During this Sacred Triduum, we remember and we celebrate Jesus loving us to the end. At the Last Supper, Jesus “entrusted to the Church a sacrifice new for all eternity, the banquet of His love” (Collect). We thank Him for the gift of the Holy Eucharist, truly the center of our lives. May we always treasure this amazing gift and strive to live it by our charity and love!