[Another Holy Thursday homily, this time from 2008.]
We begin now to enter fully into the mystery of the Lord’s Passion, the beginning of the Sacrifice of Jesus at the Mystical Supper in the upper room. Of this evening Jesus said to his disciples: “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” For He was about to bestow upon them and upon the world a unique and infinitely precious Gift: his own Body and Blood, which would be sacrificed for the forgiveness of our sins and for a perpetual memorial of his everlasting love.
But the Supper began on a sorrowful note. “One of you,” Jesus said, “will betray me.” One thing I noticed in this reading that I never noticed before is that it seems that once Judas made his deal with the chief priests, Jesus was no longer his Lord. In Matthew’s account, when Jesus announced the betrayal, all the disciples asked in turn, “Is it I, Lord?” When Judas’ turn came, he asked, “Is it I, rabbi [or, teacher]?” He had already fallen away.
But let us return to the other disciples, for I think we can identify with them, if we are honest. They probably believed, in general, that they were faithful disciples of the Lord. Yet there was in them a salutary self-distrust. A kind of dread entered their hearts, which comes from the fear of God. They wouldn’t have thought that any of this select group would betray their Master, yet Jesus said one of them would, and so, horrified and trembling, they approached Him: Am I the one?
They must have known, as we ought to know for ourselves, that human beings, on this side of Paradise, are capable of evil, even the worst kinds; we are all potential betrayers of our Lord. That is one reason why the Church always urges us to embrace humility and reject pride. This keeps our souls in a sober self-awareness. Peter lost sight of that for a while, and boldly protested that he would go even to prison and death for Jesus’ sake, even saying that if all the others fell away, he alone would not. But a few hours later he was swearing with oaths that he didn’t even know the Man.
Is it I, Lord?
But the Lord continued with this Passover that would forever change the world, despite his weak and wavering disciples. He loved them, after all, even with all their faults, and He knew that when his Spirit would come they would become holy and fearless preachers of his death and resurrection, and would give much glory to God. So “Jesus took bread, and blessed and broke it, and gave it to his disciples and said: ‘Take eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’” There, He did it, the miracle of miracles, yet I wonder if the disciples could understand the magnitude of it at that moment, which was so charged with emotion, with fear and confusion and the threat of betrayal and the prediction of death. Even so, He commanded them: “Do this in memory of Me.” Do this, do what I just did. Make My sacrificed Body and Blood present every time you gather in My name: that you may eat and drink the price of your redemption, that you may have life and have it to the full, that you may abide in Me and I in you, that I may raise you up on the last day.
Jesus’ command—Do this in memory of Me, six words—was the first ordination rite of the priesthood of the New Covenant. Jesus would complete it after his resurrection when He gave them power to forgive sins (Jn. 20:22-23). But here at the table in the upper room, He gave them the grace and authority to perpetuate his sacrifice, to ritually proclaim his death and resurrection until He comes in glory. None of this would be fully realized by them until the day of Pentecost and the unfolding life of the Church of Christ, but at this moment Jesus declared it. He sacrificially offered his own Body and Blood at the Last Supper in anticipation of its completion on Calvary, and He gave a share in his own high priesthood to his disciples in anticipation of its exercise after Pentecost.
We may rightly wonder if today’s priests are aware of the surpassing gift that Christ has given them by communicating the same command to them: “Do this in memory of Me.” It is through the priesthood alone that the sacrifice of Christ is perpetuated in the Church, for the life and salvation of its members and of the whole world. The priesthood is not a “service profession,” even though the post-Vatican II Church has tended to recast it that way. It is a consecration, an inner configuration of a man to the person of Christ, specifically in the Lord’s priestly function of offering the sacrifice that saves the world. In one of the prayers of the priest in the Divine Liturgy, the priest refers to himself as one “whom You have placed in this, your ministry, through the power of your Holy Spirit…” So priests are more than followers of Christ; they have been inserted into his ministry; they do what He did, by the power of the Holy Spirit. So the Eucharist is at the heart of the priesthood, and the priesthood is ultimately meaningless without it—or perhaps it becomes just another service profession dealing with people’s temporal needs. But in fact, the Eucharist is so important—and the priest’s faith in the Eucharist so essential to his ministry—that in the ordination rite of the priest in the Byzantine tradition the priest must swear that he believes that bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ at every Divine Liturgy.
Yet we see today that the priesthood of Christ is in disarray. A very small (though numerically significant) percentage of priests have sexually abused children and adolescents. An alarmingly large minority are actively homosexual. A greater percentage still are disobedient to the Magisterium and do not preach or live according to the Gospel and the teachings of the Church. Some no longer believe in the Holy Eucharist either, grieving the Heart of Jesus, who bequeathed this Gift to his Church at the price of his own blood.
Starting with myself, I entreat all priests to sit in the upper room with Jesus, allow his eyes to penetrate the depths of our souls, and then ask: Is it I, Lord?
After they had finished the Supper, Jesus said to them: “You will all fall away because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’” The long Gospel reading for this day does not end with the Last Supper but continues into the beginning of his Passion: the agony in the garden and the arrest and trial before the chief priests. Perhaps the Church thus intends to link the Supper with the Passion, for they are inseparable. The Passion doesn’t begin in the garden; it begins at the table. In John’s Gospel, while Jesus is still sitting at table with the disciples, He declares: “Now is the Son of Man glorified.” According to John, Jesus’ glorification is the whole of his Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension. The Mystical Supper inaugurates the Sacrifice; it is the fountainhead of our salvation.
Let us, as disciples of Christ, gather around our Lord who is present in our midst and who will renew the mystery of his Sacrifice in a very short time on our own altar. Let us bring Him the love that others deny Him, let us offer ourselves to Him while others betray Him—yet let us not become overconfident or complacent or proud of our own righteousness. Even as we sit with Him at table we must realize how far we fall short of his glory, how unfaithful we often prove to be, and let us ask Him: Is it I, Lord? Having humbled ourselves before Him, let us approach, as the deacon says, “with fear of God and with faith,” and receive the Divine Mysteries with a heart ready to go with Him to his Passion.