I’m indebted to my sister-in-law Nicole for the gift and discovery of Mrs. Rutledge’s book and to Bishop Robert Barron for introducing me to this remarkable Anglican preacher through his video on her more recent book The Crucifixion.
I complain often enough that almost everyone here tonight knows that I have a second job helping to train permanent deacons. But many of you may not know that I am the pastor of four parishes.
I am the pastor of every Catholic soul living in the territory of Christ the Redeemer church, whether or not those souls ever show their faces in church.
I am the pastor of the wandering sheep who come and go, making their infrequent appearances particularly at Christmas and Easter.
And I am the pastor of the thousand or so people who form the community at Mass every Sunday.
But tonight I am pastor of the fourth parish, the parish I might call our family. This night is one of the three greatest nights of the Christian year, but it attracts well less than half the number who attend Midnight Mass.
It’s a fair bet that most people who make the effort to come to church on Holy Thursday—that would be you—are members of the parish-within-a-parish formed by the committed.
I was reading a Holy Thursday homily by Fleming Rutledge, an Anglican priest who is an expert on preaching. She said that “tonight the homilist can dispense with crowd-pleasing warmups” and go directly to the heart of the matter. I thought that was such good advice that I even took out some teasing of Father Paul I had included in my first draft.
Really, there is just no better night to be in church than tonight. At the Last Supper no one sat at the table with Jesus but his inner circle. I don’t think it’s wrong for you to think of yourselves as the inner circle tonight—“not because you are more worthy than others, but simply because, in the mystery of his will and purpose, Jesus has called you to be here.”
This is family night. Jesus had a reason for choosing the Last Supper to declare his love for his disciples; and he has a reason to gather us tonight, each of us drawing near to one another as Jesus draws us near to himself.
At the Last Supper Jesus changed the relationships of the apostles to one another, by making them sharers in the one bread and the one cup, while changing their relationships to him by sharing with them his Body and his Blood.
It is exceptionally difficult to do justice in one homily to the three peak moments of the Last Supper—the institution of the Eucharist, the establishment of the priesthood, and Christ’s example of charity which the Gospel just related.
It is difficult—but during this special family gathering it is possible, because I am not telling most of you anything that you do not already know, or that you haven’t at least begun to grasp in the depths of your heart.
Mrs. Rutledge’s advice about dispensing with crowd-pleasing warmups and going directly to the heart of this mystery was not intended to insult those who come to Mass out of a sense of obligation or even good habit; but the fact is that your ears are open tonight to words of greater depth than a homilist dares to speak on an average Sunday.
Consider these words about the Mass from the fourth century, and ask how they would go over with the crowd on Easter: “When you see the Lord sacrificed, and laid upon the altar, and the priest standing and praying over the victim, and all the worshippers empurpled with that Precious Blood, can you then think that you are still among men, and standing upon the earth?
“Are you not, on the contrary, straightaway translated to heaven? Oh! What a marvel! What love of God to man! He who sits on high with the Father is held in the hands of all, and gives himself to those who are willing to embrace and grasp him.”
These words of St. John Chrysostom are not the thoughts of most folks who come rushing into Mass at ten after five on a Sunday afternoon. But they must be our thoughts tonight as we allow the Lord to lead us deeper and deeper into the mystery he instituted that first Holy Thursday night.
The Passover meal that our Lord celebrated with his beloved apostles recalled the first Passover, which began Israel’s Exodus. Instead of going where their captors demanded, as in the past, Israel became a people on the move at the command of God.
In the same way, tonight’s sacred meal—like every Mass—makes us a people on the move. The command to get moving flows directly from the Eucharistic Mystery; when Jesus told the disciples to follow his example of service, he did not intend to separate the humble gesture of foot-washing from the total sacrifice of self he was to make on the Cross. His noble gesture at the feet of his apostles was not an invitation only to service, but to sacrifice.
I wonder if we are aware in this parish family of the extent to which the Eucharist is fulfilled by the Christian charity of many of the family present tonight? You all know how difficult it is for me to cope with the emotion involved when I lay bare the gratitude of my heart. But I must take that risk tonight; this Eucharistic community has examples within it as powerful, really, as Christ’s washing those feet.
I often speak of the work of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, but tonight I have an example even more concentrated, if I can use that word. Last week a parishioner told me and some others of some great and painful difficulty he experienced a few years back.
In his candid testimony, he named a parishioner who had been a tremendous support to him in those dark days. He had no way of knowing that I was aware of two other men who had faced similar or even greater hardships, and who had been guided and supported by that same parishioner.
I’m trying my best to respect privacy but I can say that this man’s wife has been similarly generous to individuals, and has been instrumental of one of the most fruitful but demanding of our parish’s outreach ministries.
From what source has this couple received the spirit of charity, the tireless generosity, and the humility that demands no recognition for these and other works in the parish? I don’t think I insult them at all in saying he is an ordinary man and she is an ordinary woman, although, in her case an ordinary woman with six times my energy.
But where did it come from? The answer can only be this Eucharistic celebration, the institution of which we rejoice in tonight. This link between the Mass and sacrificial service of others is something I studied in the seminary, something I’ve known, but it was only here at Christ the Redeemer that I’ve come to understand it. The parishioners, through their remarkable charity in many forms, have taught me this lesson, and taught it well.
So many of our parish family are, here and now, just what the great servant of God Dorothy Day was in an earlier time.
Dorothy Day was known for a very progressive vision of social justice and Christian charity. She worked to change society according to the Church’s social teaching—she was a radical, proposing a radical Christian alternative to the Marxist agenda for the poor and the working class.
And yet she said to all who would join her in the Catholic Worker Movement that the Mass was “the greatest work of the day”, and that all other works must flow from worship.
That is what Jesus has taught us tonight, that is what is happening in our midst in this parish community, and that is what each of us must recommit ourselves to as tonight we eat his Body and drink his Blood.