MASS OF THE LORD’S SUPPER
ST. PATRICK CATHEDRAL, ARMAGH
Thursday, 9 April, 1998
HOMILY BY CARDINAL SEÁN BRADY
Every Holy Thursday we commemorate the Lord’s Supper. We remember that Jesus on this holy night gave the sacrament of the Blessed Eucharist and Holy Orders to us as a supreme sign of his love. He did this so that always and everywhere people may be able to receive his body and blood, so that always and everywhere people may have this wonderful source of grace. He also gave us the splendid example of his love for us when he washed the feet of his disciples. He also gave us a new commandment, the commandment of love. “Love one another as I have loved you”.
We are commemorating all of this evening in Armagh as in every Mass. This evening we commemorate it in a special way, with the washing of feet, the procession afterwards to the altar of repose, we accompany Jesus as he leaves the Upper Room and proceeds to the Garden of Gethsemane where he begins his life-giving passion for love of us.
This evening then we celebrate the institution of the sacrament of the Blessed Eucharist. Jesus having loved his own who in the world loved him to the end. Maybe on an evening something like this, the friends of Jesus had gathered around the table. A sense of stillness, sadness perhaps, certainly a sense of the sacred hung in the air. It was the most sacred night in the Jewish year, they had gathered to commemorate the liberation of their ancestors long ago, out of the slavery of Egypt.
The twelve apostles did not know, maybe Judas knew, but Jesus certainly knew, his hour had come. One treasures every word and every gesture of the last hours of a loved one’s presence. Jesus feels he has said enough now he is going to give them a parable in action. He began to wash the disciples feet and to wipe them with a towel. “I have given you an example”, he said, “that you should do as I have done to you”.
Jesus came, not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. This was not the kind of Master the kind of Messiah which they were expecting. No wonder poor Peter was all upset. Yet Jesus is quite clear, “You call me teacher and Lord, you are right so I am”. Jesus knew that he had come from God, the source of our love and that he was going to God in the fullness of love.
He knew that his task here on earth was to reveal and put us in communion with that God of love and compassion. Nothing and no-one, not even Peter, was going to sway him from that. Jesus knew the compassionate God of the Exodus who had seen the miserable state of his people in slavery in Egypt. God had heard their cries to be free and it had inspired Moses to lead the people into freedom. Jesus knew that the same compassionate God had sent him to lead you and me and all of us out of the bondage of sin and out of all that prevents or hinders full life. Yes, Jesus claimed his identity as Lord and Master but not as the world would envisage. Not as those around him would have him Lord and Master but as God his Father would have him Lord and Master, that is, as servant, full of compassion, mercy and love.
“Greater love than this no-one has than the one who lays down his life for his friends”. One of the twelve, Judas, couldn’t live with his Master as servant. He couldn’t believe in such love and mercy so he went out into the night, others, washed and fed and moved by such powerful memories of love, went through the night of Friday to the light of Sunday.
Jesus has left us the Eucharist as the memorial of his love, the memorial of his death. The meaning of the Eucharist can only be fully understood if we reach back to the faith of the people of the Old Testament. We need to go back to the Covenant which was so central to both the Jewish and Christian traditions. The Covenant was a treaty or an alliance between two parties. In the Scriptures we used the word ‘Covenant’ to describe the special relationship which God established with His people – Israel. God’s new and special relationship with His chosen people, the Covenant, is sealed with the pouring of blood and the eating together of some of the sacrificial food this was ‘Communion’. Moses says of the blood: “Behold the blood of the Covenant which the Lord has made for you”. The blood was sprinkled upon both the altar, symbolising God and the people, a powerful expression of the unity of life which God establishes. By eating the sacrificial food together, the people are made ONE as they share together the blessings of the God.
There is one fundamental Covenant which unites the Old Testament and the New Testament. It is expressed in the words of God: “I will be their God and they shall be My people”. Unity with God and unity with each other belongs together.
Through the prophets God had promised His people a Covenant of Peace, a new and everlasting Covenant. As Christians we believe that Jesus Christ established that new Covenant. At the Last Supper Jesus echoed the words of Moses: “This is my blood of the covenant”. By sharing this gift of his body and blood we become truly united in deep communion with God himself and with one another.
The Mass is a celebration of the Eucharist and lies at the heart of the life of our Church, so the Mass is the vital centre of all that the Church is and does. The Eucharist is the heart of the Church’s life because at the heart of the Eucharist is the real presence of our crucified, risen and glorified Lord. Jesus Christ remains present with us in our Holy Communion to continue and to make available his saving work among us.
The most Holy Eucharist holds within it the whole spiritual treasure of the Church, namely Christ himself. That is why we bow down and genuflect before it. That is why people organise twenty-four hour adoration, that is why we light candles and put flowers on our altars, that is why use incense to show honour and respect to Jesus who is really present, hidden here under the appearance of bread and wine. He is just as present as he was that night when he washed the disciples feet.
So tonight we do once again what the Lord did – giving thanks and pronouncing a blessing Jesus took bread in his hands, broke it and gave it to his disciples and said: “Take and eat all of you for this is my body, do this in memory of me”.
People often write to me saying: Why don’t you call for special prayers for peace at this time? But every day and every Mass celebrated throughout the world there are prayers for peace: “Deliver us Lord from every evil and grant us peace in our day”. “Lord Jesus Christ you said to your apostles, I leave you peace, my peace I give you look not on our sins but on the faith of your Church and grant us the peace and unity of your kingdom where you live forever and ever”.
Tonight we pray those prayers more earnestly and more fervently than ever. I urge you to spend some time before the altar of repose, and tonight when you go home ask other people to come out and pray that the long awaited peace, the long awaited deal, the long awaited agreement, may be issued tonight.
Lord grant us the peace and unity of your kingdom where you live forever and ever.