We must let the Lord wash us with his mercy

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Holy Thursday

The following homily was given by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades during the livestreamed Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper Thursday, April 9, 2020, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Fort Wayne.

At this Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, we begin the Sacred Paschal Triduum, the Passover of Jesus. We heard in our first reading from the book of Exodus about the Jewish feast of Passover, which commemorates the deliverance of God’s people from slavery in Egypt. From the very early history of the Church, Christians have seen the Jewish Passover as a foreshadowing of the Passover of Jesus. “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed,” St. Paul wrote. Notice that the lamb for the Passover had to be without blemish. Jesus is the Lamb without blemish, 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.

Tonight we remember the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. As we heard from the book of Exodus about the institution of the Jewish Passover, we heard in the second reading from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians about the institution of the Eucharist. In fact, that passage from first Corinthians is the oldest written account of the institution of the Eucharist, older even than the accounts in the Gospels. The Eucharist celebrates the new Passover, in which Jesus “passes over” to His Father by His death and resurrection.

At the end of the Exodus reading, we heard the Lord’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. Last evening, I was planning on being in the home with a Jewish family in Fort Wayne who invited me to join them for their Passover meal, but it was cancelled because of the pandemic. It is an important memorial feast of our Jewish brothers and sisters.

As God commanded His people to remember the first Passover, the Exodus, so Jesus commanded the apostles to remember His Passover. He said to them, as St. Paul recounts: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Jesus says this twice: 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.” “Do this in remembrance of me.”

At every celebration of the Eucharist, we remember. At the altar, the priest repeats Jesus’ words and action. This remembrance is more than just “calling to mind” an action from the past because, in God’s time, which is eternity, that action becomes present in mystery, what we call “sacrament.” Christ’s Passover is made present. In this great sacrament of love, “Christ gives us the very body He gave up for us on the cross and the very blood which He poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (CCC 1365)

At the beginning of St. John’s account of the Last Supper and Jesus’ Passover, the evangelist writes: “Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end.” Then St. John tells us about an act of great humility on the part of Jesus at the Last Supper. He washed the feet of the disciples.

It wasn’t incidental that Jesus washed the disciples’ feet during the same meal that He gave us the gift of Himself in the Eucharist. St. John Paul II wrote the following: “It is not by chance that the Gospel of John contains no account of the institution of the Eucharist, but instead relates the ‘washing of feet’: by bending down to wash the feet of his disciples, Jesus explains the meaning of the Eucharist unequivocally.” Jesus Himself said, after washing the feet of the disciples: “If I, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”

My brothers and sisters, Jesus has washed our feet. He cleansed us with the water of Baptism. How often He has purified us in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation! Jesus purifies us with His word and His love. We must let Him wash us with His mercy. The Blood and Water that flowed from His Pierced Heart on the cross purifies us in the holy sacraments. But we are not to be just passive recipients of His divine goodness. He asks us, indeed, He commands us, to do as He has done. At the Last Supper, Jesus said to His disciples: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” This is what the Eucharist is all about: It’s Christ’s sacrifice of love in which we partake. It strengthens us to love as He did.

St. John Paul II once said that it is our mutual love and our concern for those in need that is “the criterion by which the authenticity of our Eucharistic celebrations is judged.” 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. Pope Benedict XVI explained it this way: “Each of us is truly called, together with Jesus, to be bread broken for the life of the world.”

During this time of crisis, we are not able to celebrate the Eucharist publicly, but we can still live the Eucharist which we have been privileged to receive throughout our lives. And during these days of the coronavirus pandemic, we are especially called to live the Eucharist, to witness to God’s compassion and love: in our homes, in our service to those who are sick, to those who are hurting, to those who are lonely, to those who are in need, and, of course, to the dying. And, even if it’s only possible to serve them and love them by our prayers, prayers are also an expression of love. We also love and serve our neighbor by keeping a physical distance at this time so as not to spread the deadly virus.

The Lord has loved us to the end. That’s what we celebrate during this Paschal Triduum. At the Last Supper, Jesus gave us the banquet of His love, the sacrament of charity. May we live the mystery of the Eucharist during this time of trial! May Mary, the Woman of the Eucharist, Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament, help us to live as men and women of the Eucharist!