MASS OF THE LAST SUPPER
ST. PATRICK CATHEDRAL, ARMAGH
HOMILY BY CARDINAL SEÁN BRADY
THURSDAY 12 APRIL 2001
Those who love remember. We try and remember the birthdays, the wedding anniversaries and the anniversaries of the deaths of those we love. They say photographs are priceless because they help us to remember and that is why we fill photo albums. We build headstones to remember those who have died. We put up memorials to help us remember other important events.
Tonight at this Mass we remember a lot of things. We remember the fact that on the night before he died, the night that he was betrayed, Jesus ate a farewell meal with his disciples. At that meal he did at least three extraordinary things.
First of all he washed the feet of his disciples, and so tonight we wash the feet of the followers of Christ to remind us of what Jesus did. Secondly, he took bread and wine and changed them into his own body and blood and he gave his body and his blood to his disciples and told them to eat it and drink it. This blood was to be the blood, which would seal the new covenant, the new alliance, and the new friendship between God and man. Thirdly, he said, “do this in memory of me”. He is ordering his disciples to do what he has just done. Because Jesus was not unreasonable, he wasn’t going to order somebody – his friends – to do something without giving them the power to do so. And so, in those words we take it that he is giving them the power to do what he has done, in memory of him. We are convinced that at that moment he ordained them priests and gave them the power to continue to do so.
Of course that farewell meal which Jesus was eating was, in itself, no ordinary meal. It was the Passover meal. It was the most solemn meal, which every Jewish family ate at Passover. Recently we had the scare, and it still exists, about Foot and Mouth disease. We had the eerie scenes of sheep, lambs and goats being slaughtered to avert a plague. Well this Passover meal commemorated something similar. Originally it is thought that the nomads used to slaughter some of their sheep and lambs to keep away diseases from their flocks. Isn’t it amazing the way things keep repeating themselves?
When the Jews were in slavery in Egypt, and were being hounded and harassed by the Pharaohs, God decided to come to their aid. He decided to send a plague on the Egyptians – the Pharaohs. He told the Jews to take a lamb and slaughter it, then they were to mark the door posts and the linnets of their homes with the blood of the lamb. On that night the Angel of Destruction would see the doors that were marked with blood and would pass over them, pass them by. Doors that were not marked with the blood of the lamb, were the doors of the Egyptians. The Angel of Destruction would come in there and strike their first-born dead. As a result, Pharaoh changed his mind, he decided to let the Hebrews go free, leave Egypt, leave the slavery. And so they did and they marched through the desert and eventually, years later, came into the Promised Land. To commemorate that wonderful intervention of the Lord, they said they would celebrate a Passover meal every year, at this time. They ate it standing up; ready for action, with bitter herbs and unleavened bread as that is the way people ate the first Passover lamb.
That is what Jesus was doing when he celebrated the First Mass. Tonight we are remembering all of that and we are washing the people’s feet to show that it is just not enough to come to Mass and receive Holy Communion then to go back to our homes and leave it at that. We must have the attitude that Jesus had. He is about to leave them – he knew the hour had come, the enemies were all around him. They had decided to destroy him, to get rid of him. Judas had already promised that he would betray him. And so, Jesus, at this last meal, is trying to show his love. Having loved his own who are in the world, he loved them to the end. And so, he not only left us his body and blood to be our food and drink, to be not just nourishment for bodily life but also our spiritual nourishment. He said, “listen, your attitude must be right. I am your Master and yet here I am in your midst as One who serves”. To bring that message home he got down and he washed their feet. That was an unheard of thing that the Master would wash the feet of his servants. Jesus said, “behold I am in your midst as one who serves”. And so, the Eucharist is the memorial of his love for us. It is the memorial of One who gave his life and there is no greater love than that of somebody who is prepared to give his life.
Today we are commemorating three things really. We are commemorating the institution of the Eucharist. We are commemorating the ordination of the first priests. Today this diocese rejoices because it is the Diamond anniversary of two of our priests – Canon Des Campbell of Haggardstown, Dundalk and Canon Michael Ward of Donaghmore, Co Tyrone. Sixty years ago they were ordained priests. We are celebrating all of that.
At the Last Supper Jesus said, “This is my body which is given for you. This is my blood which will be shed for you”. It is a costly giving. His body is going to be handed over, into the hands of his enemies, He is going to be scourged and nailed to the cross and pierced with a lance, and he is going to die. His blood will pour forth from his five precious wounds, especially from his side, pierced with the lance, as the blood of the new covenant, between God and His people. The old covenant, the old alliance, the old treaty between God and His people was sealed with blood, but it was the blood of bullocks or goats or sheep. This new alliance is sealed with the blood of the Lamb of God – Jesus Christ.
Tonight, after this Mass, we will bring the Blessed Sacrament in solemn procession to the altar of repose. I know that in many countries the adoration of the altar will go on until midnight. Thoughtful people this evening will try to be just that, thoughtful, to reflect on the fact that this is indeed Holy Thursday, one of the holiest days of the year when we commemorate the self-giving of the lamb of God of Jesus Christ, for the salvation of world. If we want to share in his victory, we try to have the same attitudes as he had – the attitude of serving our neighbours out of love. The attitude of self-sacrificing, of being prepared to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others. The attitude of remembering that we are precious, we have been bought at a huge price – the blood of the lamb.
I know the people of Armagh are tremendous at remembering those they love. I see you go to cemetery at all hours of the day, all days of the week. It is a tremendous sign of people’s love. Tonight then remember the greatest love of all, the love of the Son of God for his people. Tonight then we try to be quiet and reflect on the fact that we have been purchased at a huge price. We try to return love for love, to be sensitive to the needs of others. Every time we eat the bread of Christ and drink his blood, we are doing this in memory of him. We are pledging ourselves to live the kind of life that he lived; we are standing up for the kind of values that he valued.