The Sacrament of the Sacrifice

Holy Thursday

Jesus knew something that the Apostles didn’t as they met in the Upper Room to celebrate the Passover Meal. They may have had some notion that things were getting more difficult for Jesus with the increased opposition from the Jewish authorities, but they could never have imagined what was about to occur later that evening and how it would rapidly lead to a catastrophic conclusion the following day.

Yes, the Apostles had heard Jesus speak on several occasions that he had to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die, but they never would have thought that this would actually happen.

But Jesus knew. John points to it in the opening passage of the Gospel we have just read: “Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to pass from this world to the Father”. Jesus knew his fate and knew that events would soon sweep over him.

Thus, as he met in the Upper Room for the Passover Meal he knew that this would be the final meeting with his chosen ones before he was taken from them. This was his Last Supper with his disciples, and thus carried a deep significance for him. St Luke records that Jesus said, “I have longed to eat this Passover with you”.

The rituals for the Passover Meal were clearly laid out, as we read in the first reading tonight from the Book of Exodus. The Apostles would have been very familiar with the rituals and prayers. They had done this many times before, even with Jesus. They would have been anticipating the usual format for the meal and so were surprised by the action of Jesus at the commencement of the meal as he washed their feet. But more deviation from the traditional ritual was to follow.

As the meal began Jesus took the unleavened bread from the table. He blessed it and broke it. So far this was nothing unusual. But then he said words which would have made no sense to them: “This is my body, given for you”. The meal progressed. The lamb was consumed. Then, at the end of the meal, Jesus took up the cup of wine and again said words whose meaning would have eluded them: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood”.

While Jesus knew that they would not understand what he had done, he gave them a clear instruction: “Do this in memory of me”.

However, something may had struck them. As faithful Jews they would have been familiar with the practices associated with the religious sacrifice of animals in the temple. The blood is completely drained from the sacrificed animal. Thus, reference to ‘body’ and ‘blood’ carried the language of sacrifice.

When Jesus referred to his body and blood as being separated, he was alluding to a critical truth – his death next day was a sacrifice.

Note that St John recorded that as the spear pierced the heart of Jesus blood and water flowed. All his lifeblood was drained from him.

His actions at the table were about establishing a memorial of his sacrifice: “Do this in memory of me”. In the second reading tonight St Paul reminded the Christians, “every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are proclaiming his death”.

However, there is more. At the Passover meal, the sacrificed lamb was consumed by those participating, and they were instructed to leave nothing over. They called this a ‘communion sacrifice’. The eating was the act by which each person united themselves with the sacrifice and invoked its fruitfulness upon themselves.

In the Response to the Psalm this evening, we sang, “Our blessing cup is a communion with the blood of Christ”. Our reception of the Eucharist is a communion with the sacrifice of Christ. Every time we receive Holy Communion we participate in a real communion with the sacrifice of Christ. We are appropriating to ourselves the salvation that Christ secured for us on Calvary.

The Apostles could not have grasped at that moment the significance of what Jesus did at the Last Supper. It only made sense through what happened the next day and then received its power and efficacy by the Lord’s triumphal resurrection.

Tonight, we go to the Upper Room. We quietly ponder the momentous significance of what the Lord did as he took the ritual of the Passover and transformed it into what we now call the Mass. We realise that Christ has left his Church a gift beyond reckoning. This was the Last Supper with his disciples and he would not leave them without the means by which his sacrifice could be sacramentally embraced. 

Let us never take the Mass and what happens at every Mass for granted. The Mass is the Sacrament of the Sacrifice of Christ. At every Mass we draw down the grace of salvation upon our own lives, by our devout and prayerful participation. By our reverent reception of Holy Communion we are in communion with the sacrifice of Christ.

What a profound and wondrous mystery in which we are privileged to share. At every Mass let us with great awe and humility embrace the mystery that it proclaims. At every Mass let us desire from the depths of our souls to receive the salvation won for us on Calvary. As we receive Holy Communion let us invoke the saving grace knowing that it is through Christ and his death on the cross that we are saved.

Archbishop Julian Porteous

Thursday, 28 March 2024

Tags: Homilies