When we come to this night, we come to the three days
that are “Ground Zero” of our Faith.
Everything we do, everything we pray, everything we believe,
is grounded and given meaning only in what we commemorate now.
It has been about 1,990 years
since the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
The events of the lives of Moses and Abraham,
and the Biblical texts that tell us about them,
take us back another 2,000 years.
Century upon century. Layer on layer.
All of this has come down to us
through the enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt,
their captivity in Babylon, and waves of conquerors.
Then, in turn, through all the history of the Church
as she went from Jewish to Greek to Roman,
and finally arriving on our shores.
With all that is different in how we celebrate the Eucharist tonight,
from how our ancestors did when they cleared this wilderness,
and from how the first Christians did so,
some things have never changed.
For example, we have this description from Saint Justin Martyr:
On Sunday we have a common assembly of all our members,
whether they live in the city or the outlying districts.
The recollections of the apostles
or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as there is time.
When the reader has finished,
the president of the assembly speaks to us;
he urges everyone to imitate the examples of virtue
we have heard in the readings.
Then we all stand up together and pray.
On the conclusion of our prayer,
bread and wine and water are brought forward.
Doesn’t that sound familiar?
Then Saint Justin goes on to say this:
The apostles, in their recollections, which are called gospels,
handed down to us what Jesus commanded them to do.
They tell us that he took bread, gave thanks and said:
Do this in memory of me. This is my body.
In the same way he took the cup, he gave thanks and said:
This is my blood.
Justin wrote this in the year 155.
The words I will speak at the altar in a few minutes –
you’ve heard them so many times –
are the same words you just heard Paul recount.
Saint Paul wrote that around the year AD 55,
or about 25 years after Jesus died and rose from the dead.
Despite all the centuries and all the layers,
at the heart of our Mass, we do what they did.
We are doing what Jesus said to do.
A lot of the focus tends to be on the Eucharist as a meal.
That was something that has been emphasized since the 70s.
There was a feeling that this wasn’t emphasized enough, before.
Unfortunately, I think the opposite has happened:
With so much emphasis on the meal, and on a “table,”
that the reality of the Mass as a sacrifice became obscured.
That’s why, for example, there was so much interest
in having the priest face the people when he is at the altar –
where, for uncountable centuries, the priest and people together, faced the same way:
toward the Lord where our hope comes from.
Do you see what I’m saying?
When the priest stands here, and speaks to you across the—
well, doesn’t that seem like it’s a dinner table?
But when the priest is on the same side as the people,
Doesn’t that help emphasize that something else is going on?
The priest is acting for you. He’s offering a sacrifice.
Well, of course, the Holy Mass is both, as is Passover,
which the first reading describes.
In fact, what we are celebrating between tonight and Sunday,
is the New Passover.
That’s what Jesus meant when he referred
to a “new and everlasting covenant” --
something the Prophet Jeremiah foretold.
Notice, I said that the New Passover takes place over three days.
Three nights, to be precise. Tonight we remember the beginning.
Tomorrow is when the Passover Lamb was slain.
And then, late at night on Saturday, we celebrate the Resurrection.
Now, a lot of focus at this Mass every year
is on the Lord washing the feet of the Apostles.
But what many people don’t realize
is that there are two distinct meanings to this,
only one of which people seem to remember.
What people remember is the act of profound humility.
As Jesus said, “as I have done for you, you should also do.”
But there’s another meaning, which has almost been lost.
And it has to do with the priesthood.
In the Old Testament, at God’s direction,
Moses washed Aaron and his sons when they became priests.
Well, these men are Jesus’ priests; and so, Jesus washes them.
Remember: this is the night Jesus instituted both the priesthood,
and the Holy Mass.
The way the Passover worked,
first the lamb was offered at the temple.
It was slain – sacrificed – as the first reading describes.
Then the lamb was brought to the home,
and there the meal that followed the sacrifice was shared.
And that’s what we do in the Mass.
The priest is at the altar, offering the Lamb of God.
That’s what I am doing, when I stand there.
If it helps, you might notice the following things happening
in the Eucharistic Prayer.
Let me point out several things to listen for.
The priest begins by addressing God the Father:
“Accept and bless these gifts, these offerings”—
that is, the bread and wine we bring to the altar.
Then we remember all the other members of the worldwide Church,
especially “your servant Francis our pope and Dennis our bishop,”
and “all gathered here.”
And we recall the Blessed Mother, and the Apostles, and some of the saints.
When you see me extend my hands like this over the bread and wine,
that’s nearly the last moment they are merely bread and wine.
That prayer asks the Holy Spirit
to turn our “oblation” of bread and wine
into Jesus’ offering of his Body and Blood.
Then, of course, the priest speaks the very words of Jesus,
from that night before he died.
That part of the Eucharistic Prayer links to the Last Supper.
Now, after this, listen carefully to what I pray at the altar.
I’ll say, “we offer to your glorious majesty…
this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim”—
the Victim is Jesus, on the Cross!
When I pray that prayer,
it is both Christ speaking, as he offers himself,
and the Church is speaking, as we join that offering.
We ask the Father to accept this offering
just as he accepted what was offered, long ago,
by Abel, Abraham and Melchizedek.
But this, this offering is supreme.
That’s why I bow at that point,
and ask that an angel bear this offering “to your altar on high.”
When Jesus had completed his offering on the Cross,
he bowed his head and died.
How can we not bow down in awe of this?
At the end of the Eucharistic Prayer,
the priest lifts up the Lord’s Body and Blood, and prays,
“Through him, with him and in him…almighty Father…
all glory and honor is yours.”
The offering of the Lamb is complete! “It is finished!”
Then we rise and pray as he taught us.
We exchange the peace he gives us.
And then the Body and Blood of the Lamb – who died and rose again –
These are the things Jesus did
and which the Apostles witnessed so long ago.
This is what the first Christians did, in memory of him.
This is what we do.
The place has changed, the language is different,
and we’ve added some things along the way;
but it is the same Eucharist, the same Sacrifice, then and now.
Jesus is the same. One Lord, one hope, now and forever.