March 28, 2013
Christian Brothers, Iona College, N.R.
The little congregation was almost half layfolk.
“Your Only Begotten Son … entrusted to the Church a sacrifice new for all eternity, the banquet of his love” (Collect).
You’ve heard many times, no doubt, of the threefold commemoration we celebrate in this evening’s liturgy: the institution of the Holy Eucharist, the institution of the Christian priesthood, and the command to love one another. That last remembrance gives Holy Thursday its other name, Maundy Thursday, from the Latin mandatum: mandatum novum do vobis, “I give you a new commandment” (John 13:34).
The Collect, part of which I quoted, and the reading from St. Paul (1 Cor 11:23-26) emphasize the Eucharist, this “sacrifice new for all eternity, the banquet of love.” The preface will put more emphasis on the priesthood. The gospel highlighted Christ’s example of loving service and his command that we imitate him—not so much by washing one another’s feet, tho that’s a customary part of the Holy Thursday liturgy, as by serving one another in love in whatever great or humble ways we can in our community, in our families, in our ministry of teaching or advising, at our workplaces, and so on.
The Collect calls the Eucharist “a sacrifice new for all eternity” and “the banquet of his love,” i.e., Christ’s love.
|The Last Supper, by Tintoretto|
The Eucharist is a sacrifice because it’s the offering of something precious to God, viz., the body and blood of Jesus, according to his own words (1 Cor 11:25-26). He himself made this offering to his Father, surrendering himself in his passion and death rather than alter the divine message he brought, rather than dilute the truth, or rather than run away from his enemies and keep silent. He offered it freely: “Not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42) and “Into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
The Eucharist is our sacrifice too. We join Jesus in his self-offering, in 2 senses. We also offer him to the Father as the most precious gift we can give: “we offer you this sacrifice of praise … this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim, the holy Bread of eternal life and the Chalice of everlasting salvation” (EP I). We participate in this offering. At the same time, we offer ourselves in union with, in imitation of, Jesus. With Jesus we offer to the Father our lives, our actions, our words, our thoughts, our selves. We commit ourselves to the same self-surrender, the same handing over of our spirits.
The sacrifice is new, as is the covenant that it marks. The sacrifice is new because the priest offering it and the victim offered are the same Person. In the Old Law there were many priests thru many generations; in the New Law there’s only one, “the true and eternal Priest” (Preface), who in the Eucharist continually offers himself until he comes again. The covenant is new because it establishes a new relationship between God and his people; indeed, creates a new people who are God’s own. It’s new because it destroys sin, not merely covering it over or sending it away like the old covenant. It’s new because it offers us eternal life, a permanent relationship with God, as the Collect notes: “new for all eternity.” It’s new because, unlike the sacrifices of the Old Law, it’s offered just once, and our daily memorial of the Lord’s self-offering brings us into that one sacrifice, never repeated, always the same, eternally offering to us God’s mercy and God’s own life.
The Eucharist is a “banquet of love” because it is food, a spiritual feast of bread and wine turned into—“transubstantiated” is the classical term—the body and blood of our Savior. “Take and eat … take and drink,” he commands us, not in the passage we read this evening but in Matthew’s version (26:26-27). And in John’s Eucharistic discourse, Jesus assures us that his flesh is real food, his blood real drink (6:55).
The love, obviously, is in Jesus’ self-giving on our behalf. “This is my body, given for you” (Luke 22:19; cf. 1 Cor 11:24). It is in his invitation for us to join him in the heavenly feast for eternity: the master “will gird himself, have [his vigilant servants] recline at table, and proceed to wait on them” (Luke 12:37). It is in the Lord’s abiding presence among us in this most holy sacrament: on our altars, in our tabernacles, in our sick rooms, in Viaticum as our companion on our final journey.
An example of what the Eucharist can mean for us. Yesterday morning Fr. John Malloy, who was your chaplain here for 4 years in the 1980s, died in San Francisco at age 91. He had congestive heart failure, pneumonia, and other problems, and had had a breathing tube for some time. He finally asked Tuesday morning that it be removed, and he used an oxygen mask to help him breathe while his vital organs slowly began to shut down. But, his director informs us, he was so happy that he was able to receive Communion again, which he couldn't do with the breathing tube. And that Communion on Tuesday was effectively his Viaticum, his last Communion, because he died at 6:00 a.m. on Wednesday.
It’s a banquet of love, finally, because “we may draw from so great a mystery the fullness of charity.” Note that mystery in the liturgy, from μυστήριον in Greek, meaning a sacred religious rite, is the equivalent of the Latin sacramentum. We partake of this “mystery” by consuming it, from which we are to “draw” its substance, which is the love that it symbolizes; which is the Love that it personifies. The ultimate meaning of this sacrament is that we become what we eat and drink; that we become who we are—the body of Christ—and Christ so fills us that we act, speak, and think in charity.