Homily for the Mass of the Lord's Supper, Holy Thursday
Exodus 12.1-8, 11-14 Psalm 116 1 Corinthians 11.23-26 John 13.1-15
Tonight’s Mass is one of the few times when the Church tells the priest specifically what he is supposed to preach on. It’s right in the Sacramentary – the official book of prayers used at the Mass. So you’d think that putting together a homily for Holy Thursday would be pretty easy and straightforward. Here’s what we – the priests – are supposed to do – and what you are supposed to hear: “The homily should explain the principal mysteries which are commemorated in this Mass: the institution of the eucharist, the institution of the priesthood, and Christ’s commandment of brotherly love.” That’s all. No big deal. Just explain the greatest mysteries of the faith in one, brief homily. Pretty simple. But not really.
To help tie all this together, there’s an image that is woven throughout our Scripture readings tonight – and really all during this Holy Week. It’s the image of blood.
Think back to tonight’s first reading from the Book of Exodus. The Israelites are told to take the blood of the Passover lamb and put it on the lintel of their doors and their doorposts. The Israelites were familiar with using blood in ritual ceremonies; animal blood was used to cleanse and purify people or things, to set them aside as holy – claimed by God. And so the blood on their doorposts also marked them – set them apart – as God’s children.
Then think of the Responsorial Psalm; it too talks about blood, but in a different way. We sang that the cup we drink is a sharing – a communion – in the blood of Christ. This Eucharist, this meal unites us to Jesus Christ himself through his blood. It’s the same in the second reading from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians – Jesus speaks of the blood of a new covenant, a covenant that God has made with us, his people; a covenant that establishes a relationship between us and God, a relationship that is based in the blood of Christ.
But now think back to a passage we heard earlier this week, on Palm Sunday, from the Passion Narrative according to St. Matthew. Here, too, we hear about blood – Christ’s blood – but in a way that is often misunderstood. There is a line in Matthew’s Passion Narrative, when Jesus is on trial before Pilate, and certain representatives of the Jewish people cry out: “His blood be upon us and our children” (Mt. 27.25). This verse has been used by some people to put responsibility for the death of Jesus on the Jewish people. But that’s really a misunderstanding of what is being said. Remember how the Jewish people thought of blood – it was not used for vengeance or punishment, it was a sign of purification and cleansing. It was a sign of being set apart – claimed by God. And in the light of the gospel, the blood of Christ takes on an even deeper meaning.
Pope Benedict reminds us that the blood of Christ is a sign of love; the blood of Christ has been poured out for us in love and has marked us a children of God. (See Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. II: Holy Week, Ignatius Press 2011, p. 187-188) Jesus was handed over to death for our sake. His blood is more precious than anything else in the whole world because it shows how much he loves us. And we all need that love; we cannot cleanse ourselves; we cannot purify ourselves; we cannot save ourselves – Christ must do it for us. As followers of Christ, we are proud to say that the Blood of Christ is upon us, and we hope and pray that it will be upon our children as well; because it is only through the Blood of Christ that we are saved.
So think now of those things we remember on Holy Thursday. Tonight, we remember the institution of the Eucharist – the gift of sharing in the blood of Christ. When we eat Christ’s body and drink his blood, we share in his life; Jesus’ blood runs in our veins. The more we receive the Eucharist, the more Christ lives in us and we live in him. Tonight we remember the institution of the Priesthood. As priests we have the humble privilege of bringing the Eucharist to the world. By a power not our own, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, we make the Blood of Christ present today. And everything that we do reminds the world that we cannot save ourselves; only the Blood of Christ can save us. And tonight we remember the command to love one another as Christ loves us. And how does he love us? – to the point of death. True Christ-like love is being willing to lay down your life for another. True Christ-like love is being willing to shed our blood for our fellow human beings, because Christ has shed his blood for us.
That’s who we are as Christians – men and women saved by the Blood of Christ, gathered together around a table to share a meal through which that same blood runs in our veins, giving us the strength and the courage to love all people so much that we are willing to shed our blood for them, because Christ has already shed his blood for us.
A 14th Century prayer says it well. It’s called the Anima Christi and was translated by Blessed John Henry Newman into English.
Soul of Christ, be my sanctification;
Body of Christ, be my salvation;
Blood of Christ, fill all my veins;
Water of Christ's side, wash out my stains;
Passion of Christ, my comfort be;
O good Jesus, listen to me;
In Thy wounds I fain would hide;
Ne'er to be parted from Thy side;
Guard me, should the foe assail me;
Call me when my life shall fail me;
Bid me come to Thee above,
With Thy saints to sing Thy love.
May the Blood of Christ – this night and always – be upon us, upon our children, and upon the whole world.