March 24, 2005 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Holy Thursday
Reading I (Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14) Reading II (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)
Gospel (St. John 13:1-15)
Today as we celebrate this feast of the Lord’s Supper, we are reminded not only of the institution of the Most Holy Eucharist but also the institution of the sacred priesthood of Jesus Christ. It was at the Last Supper that Jesus made His disciples into priests, when He commanded them to continue to offer the sacrifice as He had done. Do this in memory of Me, He said.
Now we have to understand what that concept of the memorial is because we hear the same thing in the first reading from the Book of Exodus when God says to the people of Israel: This shall be an everlasting memorial for you. The memorial that Our Lord is speaking of does not mean “In the future, remember back” but rather it means “Make it real.” When the Jewish people celebrate the Passover, they are not remembering something that happened 3,500 years ago; they are in the Passover today. They are making it real. They are not making it happen again; they are making it happen still. That is exactly what happens with the Eucharist. It is an everlasting memorial; it continues. We do not just simply remember that Jesus died for us on the Cross 2,000 years ago, nor do we sacrifice Him again. He is being sacrificed still. It is a sacrifice which has never stopped, and it never will.
When we look, then, at what happened at the Last Supper, there are a couple of things that we have to see. First of all, in the Gospel reading we hear about Our Lord getting up from the supper and washing the feet of His disciples. Saint Peter objects to the Lord washing his feet, and we can understand why. According to Jewish law, not even a slave could be required to wash his master’s feet because to wash the feet of somebody was considered to be beneath human dignity. No one could be forced to wash the feet of anyone, according to Jewish law. And so here is the Master – Whom Saint Peter understood as and has already professed to be God – and He is bending down to wash Peter’s feet, which not even a slave could be required to do. Peter, of course, recognized what was going on and said, “Absolutely not.” But Jesus tells him, If you do not allow this, then you will have no part of Me. Peter, then, being what he is, said, “Well, then my hands and feet as well. Do it all! I want to be part of You completely.” But he did not fully understand yet what the Lord was doing. Then when Jesus was finished, He said, What I have done, you also must do, because He had left an example for them.
Well, the example of washing the feet was something that was even less than what He was just about to do, because then He took the bread and wine, and He changed them into His own Body and Blood, into the fullness of His own Person. It is not merely flesh and blood, but it is the fullness – the Body, the Blood, the Soul, and the Divinity of Jesus Christ – truly present in the Eucharist under the forms of bread and wine. So if Peter thought that washing his feet was beneath the Lord’s dignity, how much greater an act of humility was it that He gave Himself to us in the form of a piece of bread so that we, the slaves that we are, are able to receive Jesus Christ, Who is God, into our own selves. Washing the feet seems pretty small by comparison.
Now if we look again even more closely at what happened at the Last Supper, it was after it had turned dark. For us, we would look at this and say, “It was on Thursday night.” That is not the way the Jewish people keep track of time. The day begins and ends for the Jewish people at sunset, not at midnight, but when the sun goes down. Therefore, at the moment when the sun went down on Thursday, Friday began for the Jewish people. It was dark at the Last Supper. Saint John even makes that point very clearly. At the moment that Judas received Holy Communion, and Satan entered his heart because he rejected Jesus in the Eucharist, he went out; and Saint John makes very clear that it was dark. It was night. The sun had gone down, not only physically in the world, but spiritually in the heart of Judas. It was dark. In other words, it was now Friday for the Jewish people, and the Lord at the Last Supper had just sacrificed Himself sacramentally. He had offered on Friday the sacrifice that He was going to offer physically later on Friday.
And so here at the Last Supper, in the form of a sacrament, Our Lord sacrificed Himself and gave Himself to His disciples to eat. Then later in the same day, He went to the Cross and He sacrificed Himself physically so that what happened at the Last Supper was now happening on the Cross. And what happened on the Cross has continued to happen everyday for the last 2,000 years, as Jesus continues to be sacrificed on the altar, as He continues to give Himself in a sacramental manner for us to be able to eat. He Who is Teacher and Master has made Himself less than a slave, bowing down to wash the feet of His own disciples, giving Himself to each one of us to be food for our souls under the form of bread and wine.
This is the greatest act of love that humanity has ever known. When we look at the humility of Jesus, we remember that humility and charity are completely united. The height of charity is equal to the depth of humility in a person. So when we see the greatest act of love, we should also see the greatest act of humility. They are one and the same. And Our Lord says to us, What I have done for you, you also must do. Not that any one of us will be able to change ourselves into bread and wine in order to be consumed, but rather that we are to give ourselves entirely to Him as He gives Himself to us, that we are to serve others as He has served us, that we are to be humble as He is humble, that we are to love as we have been loved, that what takes place in the Eucharist must find its fulfillment in the way that we live, to find the fullest expression in our lives – not merely when we are in the chapel before the Lord – but when we go out, when we are at home, when we are with friends, when we are out amongst the people. The charity that we receive must be lived. That is what Our Lord is asking of us, to continue the sacrifice (which it is everyday), but also to continue the sacrifice in our own individual day-to-day lives, so that what He has done we will continue to do.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.