13 Apr 2017
Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper
Tonight begins the holiest time of year for Christians. For three whole days we pray and celebrate and pray some more. It is the Holy Triduum. And our focus during these days is on those events—which God did—that won for us our salvation; those events in history that secured for us our freedom as sons and daughters of almighty God; those events which reopened the gates of paradise that had been closed by the sin of Adam and Eve.
In many ways, the Holy Triduum is like our national holidays: the 4th of July, or Memorial Day, or Veterans Days. We commemorate those events which have made the country what it is: the land of the free and the home of the brave. And during this most holy time of the year, we disciples of Jesus Christ commemorate the works of God which have made us who we are: the Church, the light of the world, a redeemed and restored people.
And this idea of “commemoration” comes through quite a bit in Scripture tonight. As we heard, God spoke to Moses and Aaron in Egypt. But what he gave to them was instructions for a commemorative ritual—the ritual celebration of Passover. The celebration was to be a particular day of the month, and the sacrifice was to be a pure and unblemished lamb, and then the blood was to be spread on the door lintels of the houses of the faithful.
God gave them a set of ritual instructions to follow; the ritual was to commemorate the Passover. But, you know, at the time, the Passover hadn’t even happened yet. It sounds a bit like putting the cart before the horse. How can you commemorate something that hasn’t even happened yet? And the answer is that the ritual, the commemoration, is itself part of the event to come.
By participating in the ritual, the event it celebrates becomes present and real—not all at once, but a little at a time. This is what St. Paul gets at in his letter to the Corinthians when he writes, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.” Now, when St. Paul wrote that, of course Jesus had already died, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven.
When we celebrate the ritual of the Mass, we don’t pretend that Jesus isn’t risen. Instead, the ritual of the Mass, the ritual of the Eucharist is about commemorating our risen life in Christ. And that’s an event which hasn’t happened yet—entirely. By participating in the ritual of the Mass, the event it celebrates becomes present and real—not all at once, but a little at a time. Whenever we share in Christ’s Body and Blood at the altar, we share that much more in his risen and divine life.
God gave Moses and Aaron the Passover ritual before they’d even left Egypt. But he gave the ritual to them as a foreshadow and as an entryway into the event of the Passover. And this is what we have here in the Mass; it’s what we have throughout these next three days. Through these rituals we share in, we have both a foreshadow and an entryway into those works of God which raise us up; those works of God that give us hope and life, fulfillment and joy of heart.
Whether it’s the ritual of listening to the words of Scripture, or the ritual of the Washing of Feet in just a few minutes, or the ritual of the Eucharist, or the ritual of processions with incense and candles and singing, or the ritual of greeting one another in the name of Christ, or the ritual of the Sign of Peace—all these rituals we Catholics have are doorways into the thing, into the event, we’re commemorating. The rituals make it present and real.
After Jesus had washed the Apostles’ feet, he said, “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” That sounds a lot like God giving those ritual instructions to Moses and Aaron: I have given you instructions on what to do, now go and do it. Of course, the hard part with ritual is to not simply go through the motions, but to actually do the ritual.
Now, the idea of sacrifice is pretty central to the rituals that have been handed on to us. And it’s a central theme of the Holy Triduum. Sacrifice isn’t necessarily about giving something up; instead, it’s about participating in something bigger than ourselves. And that “something bigger” we’re interested in is all those events God has done (and is doing) to raise us up; all those saving acts of God that help us fulfill our potential as his sons and daughters.
When Jesus died on the Cross, he said, “It is finished.” In other words, the purpose of his being born at Christmas was fulfilled on the Cross. The main “ritual” Jesus had to participate in was the sad human ritual of crucifying criminals and blasphemers. Through that ritual, he participated in something bigger than himself: he loved his enemies, forgave them, and did not lose hope in God the Father. Because of that, he fulfilled his purpose; he opened the gates of paradise to those who follow his example.
It’s why martyrdom was so important in the early Church. Being martyred for love of God became almost a ritual, a commemoration of the redemption won on the Cross. Thankfully, we don’t have to go through the ritual of crucifixion. Instead, the rituals we’re given to participate in involve: Scripture, the Eucharist, washing feet, offering forgiveness and mercy, being truthful, loving one’s enemies, using our minds and expanding our knowledge. And when we actually participate in them we become holier; we become more like the God in whose image we’re made.
And all these rituals—all these saving acts of God—are brought together over these next three days: the Eucharist, Baptism, Confirmation, Anointing, prayers, processions, and so on. As we go forward now into the ritual of the Washing of the Feet, there aren’t any words that go with it. We simply have the ritual of washing feet; the ritual of one person cleansing another. As we do this ritual, I would encourage you to reread the Gospel, and to put words and action together.
Perhaps you’ll hear Jesus say: “Do you realize what I have done for you? Do you realize what I have done for you? Let me cleanse you, and so raise you up.”