I’ve read somewhere that “Easter is Christmas, grown up!” Tonight we enter into the Triduum, our most holy three day Easter celebration that includes Holy Thursday and the Mass of the Last Supper, Good Friday, when we enter reverently into Jesus’ Passion and Death, and Easter Vigil, the Beginning of the Celebration of Jesus’ conquest of Death by his Resurrection from the dead.
There are some important features of the Triduum. In the early Church, in Jerusalem, Easter was one long, three day service beginning on Holy Thursday evening and ending at dawn on Easter Sunday. We still observe that form in our Triduum liturgies today. At the end of our Mass tonight, there will be no concluding prayers or dismissal. There is no formal end to this Mass. Those of us who desire to do so will process out of the Church at the end of Mass with the Blessed Sacrament to Claretian Hall, where we will keep vigil with the Lord until midnight. It is as if we go with Jesus to the Garden of Gesthemene where he asks us to join him, saying, “Will you watch with me even one hour?” All will be welcome to spend time with him, as long as we wish, until midnight.
The Church will be dark and empty tonight, Friday and Saturday. The altar will be stripped. There will be no Blessed Sacrament in the Tabernacle during the Triduum. The only services we will have will be those commemorating the Crucifixion and Passion of Our Lord.
There is no beginning and no conclusion of the Good Friday services. We just come in, and afterward we simply leave. Only after renewing our Baptismal promises at Easter Vigil, receive new members into the Church and celebrate the Eucharist do we conclude our Triduum worship. The Easter mystery is simply too big to do it in one service. That is why it is a three-day celebration. In the early days of the Church, people brought food and blankets and remained the entire three days in prayer, meditation and worship.
Tonight is special for me, personally, because on this night the Universal Church commemorates the institution of the priesthood, and this is my first Holy Thursday as a priest.
We hear talk of the shortage of priests. We hear, for example people say that if we allowed priests to marry we would have more priests. I personally do not believe that to be true. Instead, the issue of celibacy becomes a huge, false distraction from the reality of the priesthood. What we really have is a shortage of generosity, and a shortage of appreciation for the sacrifices our priests make for the good of the community. It seems that people like parts of the priesthood, but the idea of total commitment is not embraced. What we really have is a shortage of fidelity to God and Church.
I’ve been reflecting upon my commitment to priesthood, in as part of my examination of conscience. There is only one priesthood. As I have said before, Fr. Victor and I only participate in the priesthood of Jesus Christ through our apostolic High Priest, our bishop. You may have heard me say that apart from the Bishop there is no priesthood. Priesthood is not a job or a career; Priesthood is a holy participation in the sacred mystery of the Love of God. In my examination of conscience I see how far or how close I allow myself to be in full participation, as an “alter christus”, another Christ, for you, the People of God. And so I see my failures of fidelity. I am the “bride of Christ”; I am now married to Him. I haven’t always been the spouse I want to be. I struggle to keep my promises. But, I am very happy as a priest. People who complain that priests should marry, don’t understand priesthood. Moreover, they are generally confused by the “Protestant” and secular culture surrounding us. That culture certainly has no understanding of Priesthood or Eucharist. We must be on guard as Catholics to Protestant or secular thinking contaminating our Catholic thought and belief. Know your faith! Don’t drift into error. Priesthood and Eucharist may only be found in the Church, and nowhere else. There is no priesthood without the Eucharist. There is no Eucharist without the priesthood.
One of the important aspects of Priesthood is obedience. In the institution of the Eucharist Jesus says, “Take”, “Eat”, “Drink”, “Do this in memory of me.” We celebrate Mass out of obedience. Am I worthy to celebrate Mass? I don’t think so, and sometimes I even see myself as being ridiculous. However, I did agree to be obedient. I don’t say Mass for myself, but on behalf of all of us, you and me. We are obedient when we follow Sacred Tradition. Jesus told us what to do. We see an example of this in the second reading, where St. Paul is teaching about the Mass and says, “I received from the Lord what I passed 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 the earliest account we have of the Mass, and we attempt to be obedient to this unbroken tradition here this evening, 2,000 years after the Last Supper. Obedience to tradition is what makes us Catholic. Teach the traditions to your children, and you, too can say to the next generation, along with St. Paul and with the Church, “I handed on to you what I received from the Lord….”
There are four Gospel accounts of the Last Supper. The first three in Matthew, Mark and Luke offer similar accounts of the actual supper in the “upper room”. The Gospel of John was written many years later. He doesn’t give an account of the Supper. Instead John offers a reflection upon its meaning. In the account of the “Foot Washing” by Jesus we seem to be hearing a reflection that joins the Eucharist with Baptism and Confession, and a symbol of service to our brothers and sisters.
Listen again with me to part of the Gospel:
“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”;
Allow me to change some words and listen again:
“Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered him, ’Unless I wash your dirty feet, and forgive your sins from time to time, you will have no inheritance with me and you cannot be with me at the altar, or in heaven.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.’ Jesus said to him, ’Whoever is already baptized doesn’t need to be baptized again. He has no need except to have his feet washed, his new sins forgiven…’”
We are to be baptized and we are to baptize. When we subsequently sin we are to seek forgiveness in the only place where forgiveness is possible, from Jesus himself, in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. As Church we are to forgive one another, and serve one another, as Jesus has done. We become servants for the forgiveness of sins and the salvation of the world. Only then should we approach the altar.