Fr. Roger J. Landry
Sacred Heart Convent of the Sisters of Life, New York, NY
Holy Thursday 2015
April 2, 2015
Ex 12:1-8.11-14, Ps 116, 1 Cor 11:23-26, Jn 13:1-15
To listen to an audio recording of tonight’s homily, please click below:
The following text guided the homily:
Holy Thursday in the Year of Consecrated Life
This year’s celebration of the Sacred Triduum is unique in the history of the Church. That’s because this year we’re marking the first Year of Consecrated Life in ecclesiastical annals, and like special holy year, it’s meant to influence everything the Church does, how we pray liturgically and privately, how we mark the major feasts, baptisms, weddings, funerals, how we work and go about our day to day life. This Year for Consecrated Life is meant to flavor how we celebrate this “three-days-in-one,” the “trinity” of days encompassing Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, and the Sacred Triduum will dramatically underline the fundamental nature of Christian consecration that is at the root of this holy year. And so tonight I would like to enter deeply into the connection between Christian consecration and what we celebrate on Holy Thursday.
Jesus’ whole life, we know, was a consecration and his entire saving mission was to get us to enter into that consecration. As we marked on the Solemnity of the Annunciation eight days ago, upon coming into the world, he said in his body language, as Psalm 40 prophesied, “Behold I come to do your will, O Lord,” and as Hebrews 10 explained, “By this ‘will’ we have been consecrated through the offering of the Body of Christ once and for all.” That consecration was manifested first at Jesus’ presentation, when as the Mosaic Law prescribed for every first-born son, he was “consecrated to the Lord” as a light of revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of God’s people. His consecration was revealed all the more at his baptism. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church underlines, Jesus’ “eternal messianic consecration was revealed during the time of his earthly life at the moment of his baptism by John, when ‘God anointed [him] with the Holy Spirit and with power,’ ‘that he might be revealed to Israel’ as its Messiah. His works and words will manifest him as ‘the Holy One of God,’” in other words, “the Consecrated One of God.” In the Old Testament the way people were consecrated was through sacred anointing; at Jesus’ baptism, the Father publicly revealed Jesus as the Christ, literally the “anointed one,” and sent the Holy Spirit down upon him in the form of a dove as an external sign of that consecratory anointing.
But what was brought to light at Jesus’ incarnation, birth, presentation and baptism all pointed to what Jesus was planning to do during the first Triduum. It was on Holy Thursday that Jesus got explicit about his own consecration and how he sought to have us enter into it. Speaking to God the Father in his great Priestly Prayer, he implored, “I pray for them. … Consecrate them in the truth. Your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world. And I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth.” The word consecration comes from the roots con and sacer. Sacer means to “cut off” and “con” means to be with. To consecrate means to remove something from common reality in order to join it to something else. In Jesus’ case, he was both consecrating himself and us to God, removing us from worldliness so that we might be filled with God’s holiness. He was seeking to unite us to him as branches on the Vine, so that he might abide in us and we in him, so that we might be united with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and so one with each other. When he prays that we be consecrated in the Truth and mentions that his word is truth, he is ultimately describing that we are to be consecrated in Him, who is the Word-made-Flesh and the Truth that sets us free. Tonight on Holy Thursday, we celebrate the culmination of Jesus’ mission of consecrating himself to the glory of the Father and joining us to him as one Body to Head as Bride to Bridegroom, as Vine to Branches in one joint consecration.
Holy Thursday is the only occasion when the Church explicitly tells priests what to preach on. The rubrics tell us that “the homily should explain the principal mysteries that are commemorated in this Mass: the institution of the Eucharist, the institution of the priesthood and Christ’s commandment of brotherly love.” The Church wants to make sure that not only do the faithful hear about each of these three “principal mysteries” but also are encouraged to enter into each of them more deeply. I think in these three mysteries we see how Jesus lived out his consecration and wants us to live out our baptismal consecration and, for those in the consecrated life, your “more intimate form” of baptismal consecration.
The Year of Consecrated Life and Christ’s Command to Loving Service
Let’s begin with the commandment Jesus gives us during the Last Supper to love one another as he has loved us, and how he puts that love into action in the gesture of washing the feet of those disciples who would be his apostles. Jesus’ entire consecrated life can be summarized by the first sentence of St. John’s account of Holy Thursday which we just heard: “Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. Having loved his own in the world, he loved them to the end.” The motivation of his consecration was love, and he loved us, as the Greek can perhaps better be translated, “to the extreme.” He loved us to his absolute limit, with all he had, holding nothing back. “No one has greater love,” he would tell the apostles tonight,” than to lay down his life for his friends,” and we see the greatest manifestations of his total self-giving love in what he did during the Last Supper, how he gave himself for us on Golgotha, and how he triumphed over all that harms and kills us in his Resurrection.
He epitomized his consecrated, saving love in the gesture of washing the apostles’ feet. Washing another’s feet was the gesture of a slave. People at most wore simple sandals and along journeys on dirt roads they collected lots of dust on dry days, mud on wet days, and animal waste always. That Jesus himself would take on the form of a slave and do this service for his disciples shows all of us that there was nothing he wouldn’t do to serve us and save us. Imagine if Donald Trump came down from his penthouse suite to clean the bathrooms in the Trump World Tower, and then wanted to go to the house of the janitor and clean his own family’s toilets. That would only be a tiny glimpse of how great God’s humility in taking on the service of a slave in washing the feet of his disciples. Most people would feel very uncomfortable at that type of service, at that type of love, but Jesus insisted on giving it. Only a few days before, when Jesus was dining in the house of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with 300 days worth of priceless aromatic nard and dried them with her hair. Judas criticized Mary for wasting a year’s worth of salary on Jesus — three times what the 30 silver pieces he would receive for betraying Jesus were worth! — but Jesus defended her, saying she was doing it for his burial and that we wouldn’t always have him. On another occasion when a woman washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, Simon the Pharisee criticized Jesus for not recognizing the woman was a sinner. But Jesus said that she would be forgiven much because she have loved much and expressed that love for Jesus by that gesture of washing his feet, something that Simon himself didn’t do when Jesus entered because he didn’t love Jesus at all. By his own action Jesus was “loving much” and showing how he was willing to “waste” not just a year’s work but his whole life to wash our feet.
Jesus, by loving us to the extreme, by serving us in this way, is actually consecrating us within his consecration. We need to have the faith to allow Jesus to love us in this extreme way. St. Peter, as we see, was very uncomfortable with this prospect. “You will never wash my feet,” he exclaimed. But Jesus replied that unless he did so, Peter would have no part of him. In order to be part of Jesus, in other words, in order to enter into his consecration, we need to allow him to clean us. Peter, realizing this and wanting to be totally for the Lord, then gave him permission to wash his hands and his head as well. Jesus’ gesture and dialogue with Peter give us a chance to examine our own receptivity to what God wants to do in us. What does it mean for us to have our feet washed? The early saints of the Church, when they looked at Jesus’ statement that once we’ve been washed only our feet need to be cleansed, said that this is meant to refer to the sacraments of Baptism and Penance. In Baptism, we’re thoroughly washed, but over the course of our journeying each day, our feet come into contact with the filth of the world and we need to allow Jesus to cleanse us. That’s what he does in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where Jesus is continually on his knees at our feet and not only carries out the service of a slave but dies to take away our sins. We need to allow Jesus to clean not only the soles of our feet but our immortal souls. One of the reasons why Jesus performs this rite at the beginning of the Last Supper is to show us that before he gives his body and blood, he wants and needs to cleanse us. In order to enter into the consecration of his body, blood, soul and divinity to the Father, we must be severed from the filth that is not capable of being so consecrated.
But there’s a second application to Jesus’ washing our feet. It’s to set an example of service for all of us toward others, to consecrate ourselves in love for others. After he had carried out this unforgettable gesture of service, Jesus told his apostles and all of us why he had done it: “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord — and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” Jesus is clearly calling us to imitate his loving abasement in service of others, to be willing to do the “dirty work,” to not think we’re too good to do something that will help others, but to bend down in order to lift others up: to be truly patient and understanding of them and their defects; to suffer for them, especially those whom the world doesn’t value; to pray for them even if they persecute us; to love them when they make us their enemies. JI always admire the transition that takes place in young mothers and fathers, how quickly they may go from being dainty and antiseptic, to readily and without hesitation changing diapers several times of day. What to most teenagers may be disgusting work for them is no longer disgusting, because they love their children. Love gives meaning to what they do. Jesus is calling us to serve others in the same way, recognizing that no service is beneath the love we’re supposed to have for others. That’s key to our consecration.
Those in the consecrated life are supposed to be icons of this type of service to everyone. St. John Paul II, the tenth anniversary of whose birth into eternal life we mark today, wrote in his beautiful apostolic exhortation on the consecrated life in 1996, “In the washing of feet Jesus reveals the depth of God’s love for humanity: in Jesus, God places himself at the service of human beings! At the same time, he reveals the meaning of the Christian life and, even more, of the consecrated life, which is a life of self-giving love, of practical and generous service. In its commitment to following the Son of Man, who ‘came not to be served but to serve’ (Mt 20:28), the consecrated life, at least in the best periods of its long history, has been characterized by this ‘washing of feet,’ that is, by service directed in particular to the poorest and neediest. If, on the one hand, the consecrated life contemplates the sublime mystery of the Word in the bosom of the Father (cf. Jn 1:1), on the other hand it follows the Word who became flesh (cf. Jn 1:14), lowering himself, humbling himself in order to serve others. Even today, those who follow Christ on the path of the evangelical counsels intend to go where Christ went and to do what he did. He continually calls new disciples to himself, both men and women, to communicate to them, by an outpouring of the Spirit (cf. Rom 5:5), the divine agape, his way of loving, and to urge them thus to serve others in the humble gift of themselves, far from all self-interest. … The quest for divine beauty impels consecrated persons to care for the deformed image of God on the faces of their brothers and sisters, faces disfigured by hunger, faces disillusioned by political promises, faces humiliated by seeing their culture despised, faces frightened by constant and indiscriminate violence, the anguished faces of minors, the hurt and humiliated faces of women, the tired faces of migrants who are not given a warm welcome, the faces of the elderly who are without even the minimum conditions for a dignified life. The consecrated life thus shows, with the eloquence of works, that divine charity is the foundation and stimulus of freely-given and active love.”
The Year of Consecrated Life and the Gift of the Eucharist
The second expression of extreme love to which we need to respond with great receptivity is the Lord’s gift of himself in the Holy Eucharist. Jesus’ self-emptying out of love didn’t end with his taking the form of a slave and doing the work of a slave to cleanse us. His consecration went so much further in taking on the form of our food and becoming our very nourishment. The patron of priests, St. John Vianney, used to say about the Eucharist, that if we had had the ability to ask God anything in the whole world, we would never have dreamed of asking God for this, to become one of us, to share our life from conception to death, to take on our sufferings and sins, and then to hide himself under the appearances of bread for us to consume, so that we might become one with him. But God in his goodness gave us what we would never have dared to ask. This is his love to the extreme, which is why the Church calls the Eucharist the “sacrament of love.” This was the fulfillment of the ancient Passover rite that we heard described in the first reading. But just like the ancient Jews, we need to eat the Lamb. We need to immerse ourselves in the Lord’s blood, applying it to the doorposts and lintels not of our houses but of our lives. God called his chosen people through Moses to make the Passover a “perpetual pilgrimage,” to leave our homes and come out to meet the Lord. This is what we do here at Mass. This is part of our consecration.
It’s here in the celebration of Mass that Jesus loves us to the extreme. In St. Luke’s version of the Last Supper, Jesus says, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you.” He was burning with a desire to give himself to us and for us before he would give himself unto death on our behalf on the Cross. Like all love, he desires union with the one he loves, and that’s what he seeks to bring about in the Holy Eucharist. He gives the total gift of himself to us, he says, “I love you to point of giving my life for you,” and he awaits our reply. He eagerly desires to feed us with himself. No other nourishment for our bodies and souls would satisfy his extreme love. It’s here that he says, in the present tense, “This is my body that is for you” and “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” The Lord gives himself to us here, not just tonight but every Sunday, not just Sundays but every day. He responds to our hunger for God by seeking to feed us with the only adequate response to that hunger. He seeks to join our consecration to his in the consecration of the Mass.
What’s our response to this gift? In the Responsorial Psalm, we prayed, “How shall I make a return to the Lord for all the goods he has done for me?” God wants us to take up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. This is our thanksgiving. He wants us not just to do just anything; he wants us to “do this” in memory of him. The question for us is whether we receive that gift, or are resistant to it or reject it. In 2011 years ago, Pope Benedict asked on this night, “Jesus desires us, he awaits us. But what about ourselves? Do we really desire him? Are we anxious to meet him? Do we desire to encounter him, to become one with him, to receive the gifts he offers us in the Holy Eucharist? Or are we indifferent, distracted, busy about other things?” We know that in response to Jesus’ outpouring of love, many people resist. Some don’t come at all. Some come without being cleansed. Others come without seeking a true communion of love with God and with others. Others outright reject Jesus’ gift of himself as if he couldn’t have loved us in this concrete way. Others reject as if Jesus couldn’t have loved us that much or in that way. Tonight is a night in which we’re called to respond to his graces to order our whole life, first, on receiving this gift and then imitating it, offering our body and blood, our sweat, our tears, our heart, all we have and are, for others as Jesus has done for us and left us an example, instructing us to do this in his memory. We’re called to consecrate ourselves to him who consecrates himself for us.
Consecrated men and women are summoned by the Church to show this love for Jesus in the Holy Eucharist in a special way. St. John Paul II wrote in Vita Consecrata, that adoring and receiving Christ in the Holy Eucharist is the “first” “indispensable means of effectively sustaining communion with Christ.” He wrote, “The Eucharist contains the Church’s entire spiritual wealth, that is, Christ himself, our Passover and living bread, who, through his very flesh, made vital and vitalizing by the Holy Spirit, offers life to the human family. This is the heart of the Church’s life, and also of the consecrated life. How can those who are called, through the profession of the evangelical counsels, to choose Christ as the only meaning of their lives, not desire to establish an ever more profound communion with him by sharing daily in the Sacrament which makes him present, in the sacrifice that actualizes the gift of his love on Golgotha, the banquet which nourishes and sustains God’s pilgrim people? By its very nature the Eucharist is at the center of the consecrated life, both for individuals and for communities. It is the daily viaticum and source of the spiritual life for the individual and for the Institute. By means of the Eucharist all consecrated persons are called to live Christ’s Paschal Mystery, uniting themselves to him by offering their own lives to the Father through the Holy Spirit. Frequent and prolonged adoration of Christ present in the Eucharist enables us in some way to relive Peter’s experience at the Transfiguration: ‘It is well that we are here.’ In the celebration of the mystery of the Lord’s Body and Blood, the unity and charity of those who have consecrated their lives to God are strengthened and increased.”
The Year of Consecrated Life and Christ’s Establishment of the Priesthood
And the third action of extreme love Jesus gives us on Holy Thursday is his institution of the priesthood. So great was Jesus’ desire to continue to wash and purify us, so eager was his longing to give his body and blood for us to unite us in love with him that he did something even more amazing than humbly giving himself to us under the appearances of simple human food. He instituted the priesthood on frail men, sinful men, at times scandalous men in order to continue to be able to cleanse us and feed us until the end of time. Talk about emptying oneself and becoming a slave! He entrusts himself to his creatures! Tonight on Holy Thursday he instituted the priesthood, consecrating the apostles in the truth of his word in order to bring his healing and his presence to the whole world until the end of time, in order to do all that he did in memory of him.
There are many people, including Catholics, do not approach the reality of the priesthood with eyes and hearts of faith. They look at the priesthood in general without any supernatural vision, seeing the priest as someone who just fills the role of presiding, or teaching, or coordinating the things in Church, or — worse — as a businessman or manager of ecclesiastical goods. Others look at priests the way Protestants do, as someone chosen by the community to lead them in a Bible study or try to inspire them in prayer and in charitable service. But relatively few look at priests with genuinely Catholic faith, as men chosen not by the community but by God, given a vocation despite all their weaknesses and sinfulness, to carry on the work entrusted to the apostles in the Upper Room. Peter, Andrew, James, John, Matthew, Simon, Jude and the other apostles weren’t anywhere close to the most talented people, the brightest, the best speakers, the best organizers, Jesus could have found. But he chose them and gave them his own power to continue his saving work. So tonight, on this Holy Thursday, we ask the Lord for a greater trust in what he did in establishing the priesthood to give us his mercy, to give us his body and blood, to baptize us at the beginning of our journey of faith, to prepare us to receive the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, to join our hands in marriage, to anoint us and get us ready for eternal life with God. We’re called to receive this gift for what it is, a gift from God, through which Jesus serves us in a very humble way. We’re called to be grateful for this gift. We’re called to do all we can to perpetuate this gift. It’s a day for us to thank God for the gift of his priesthood, to pray for those who have responded to that gift, to pray for those who are wavering, to pray for those who are being called, that they may more fully enter into Jesus’ priestly consecration so that they may be agents of his holiness, of his consecration, in the midst of the Church and the world.
And on this Holy Thursday during the Year of Consecrated Life, I’d like to say something about the role of consecrated women in the life of priests, especially diocesan priests, and to thank you, sisters, on behalf of all the priests of the world, for all you do for us. The priesthood is not easy. We are called to be the Friend of the Bridegroom, the best man who according to the customs of the time of Jesus, was meant to protect and help the bride in the time between the legal exchange of consent and the time when the husband had earned enough money for the wedding reception, which would involve the consummation of the marriage and then the assumption of the common life of a husband and wife. To be a good priest, a good friend of the Bridegroom, involves both nourishing the friendship with the Bridegroom, Jesus, as well as faithfully protecting and helping the Bride. The friendship with Jesus is, frankly, the easy part. But often the Bride can be somewhat reluctant to keep her commitment to the Lord, to rejoice in her having been chosen, to stay faithful and not cavort with other sweet-talking suitors. This work of trying to help the Bride recognize she’s hit the all-time lottery and not just gained the attention of Prince Charming but the Prince of Peace, not just Mr. Right but Mr. Righteousness can get arduous and a little disheartening at times. Pope Francis in his Chrism Mass homily this morning talked about this pastoral fatigue priests experience from seeing the Bridegroom rejected, unappreciated and even cheated upon. That’s why you, consecrated women, are so important, not just in your prayers for priests, but in your response. You show us the face of the Bride who says a whole hearted yes to Christ. You show us that the Bridegroom can and indeed does make his Bride so happy. You manifest that Jesus is worth all of one’s life, all of one’s heart. And I can’t express enough what a service that is for priests and for me! 16 years ago as I was preparing for priestly ordination, I had anticipated — because the bishop who was preparing to ordain me had more or less told me — that I would spend much of my priesthood serving and forming men to be priests. But after his transfer, his successor had other plans for me. But over the course of time, I began to dedicate so much of my time to preaching retreats for consecrated women of various institutes, to becoming a spiritual director to dozens, almost all consecrated women and religious, and how much the Bridegroom has enriched me by this service. Little did I know that Jesus would arrange my transfer to work for the Holy See at the United Nations just to give me an excuse to be in New York to have more time to serve the Sisters of Life. But God is good! Consecrated women teach everyone in the Church how to love the Lord and you also teach the friends of the Bridegroom not only how to teach other brides to love the Lord aright but how to love the Lord that way, too.
Entering into Christ’s Consecration through the Consecration
Christ, having loved those who were his own in the world, loved them to the end. Tonight we come to thank him for that love, shown in his becoming a slave to purify us, to save us, and feed us, and to continue to sanctify us through the priesthood all the way until his second coming. Jesus has eagerly desired to eat this Passover with us tonight so that we might pass over with him into this mystery of extreme love, this sacrament of his own relationship with the Father. Tonight we thank him for all the dirty work to save us, to cleanse us, to feed us, and to continue to sanctify us through the humility of the priesthood he established. Tonight is the night in which he fulfilled his life of consecration so that we might be consecrated in him. Blessed are those who are called to the Supper of the Lamb!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 Ex 12:1-8, 11-14
“This month shall stand at the head of your calendar;
you shall reckon it the first month of the year.
Tell the whole community of Israel:
On the tenth of this month every one of your families
must procure for itself a lamb, one apiece for each household.
If a family is too small for a whole lamb,
it shall join the nearest household in procuring one
and shall share in the lamb
in proportion to the number of persons who partake of it.
The lamb must be a year-old male and without blemish.
You may take it from either the sheep or the goats.
You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month,
and then, with the whole assembly of Israel present,
it shall be slaughtered during the evening twilight.
They shall take some of its blood
and apply it to the two doorposts and the lintel
of every house in which they partake of the lamb.
That same night they shall eat its roasted flesh
with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.“This is how you are to eat it:
with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand,
you shall eat like those who are in flight.
It is the Passover of the LORD.
For on this same night I will go through Egypt,
striking down every firstborn of the land, both man and beast,
and executing judgment on all the gods of Egypt—I, the LORD!
But the blood will mark the houses where you are.
Seeing the blood, I will pass over you;
thus, when I strike the land of Egypt,
no destructive blow will come upon you.“This day shall be a memorial feast for you,
which all your generations shall celebrate
with pilgrimage to the LORD, as a perpetual institution.”
Responsorial Psalm Ps 116:12-13, 15-16bc, 17-18
How shall I make a return to the LORD
for all the good he has done for me?
The cup of salvation I will take up,
and I will call upon the name of the LORD.
R. Our blessing-cup is a communion with the Blood of Christ.
Precious in the eyes of the LORD
is the death of his faithful ones.
I am your servant, the son of your handmaid;
you have loosed my bonds.
R. Our blessing-cup is a communion with the Blood of Christ.
To you will I offer sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and I will call upon the name of the LORD.
My vows to the LORD I will pay
in the presence of all his people.
R. Our blessing-cup is a communion with the Blood of Christ.
Reading 2 1 Cor 11:23-26
I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you,
that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over,
took bread, and, after he had given thanks,
broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood.
Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup,
you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.
Verse Before the Gospel Jn 13:34
I give you a new commandment, says the Lord:
love one another as I have loved you.
Gospel Jn 13:1-15
Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come
to pass from this world to the Father.
He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end.
The devil had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand him over.
So, during supper,
fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power
and that he had come from God and was returning to God,
he rose from supper and took off his outer garments.
He took a towel and tied it around his waist.
Then he poured water into a basin
and began to wash the disciples’ feet
and dry them with the towel around his waist.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him,
“Master, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus answered and said to him,
“What I am doing, you do not understand now,
but you will understand later.”
Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered him,
“Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.”
Simon Peter said to him,
“Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.”
Jesus said to him,
“Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed,
for he is clean all over;
so you are clean, but not all.”
For he knew who would betray him;
for this reason, he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
So when he had washed their feet
and put his garments back on and reclined at table again,
he said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you?
You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am.
If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet,
you ought to wash one another’s feet.
I have given you a model to follow,
so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”