Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Maundy Thursday

Mass of the Lord's Supper 7.30pm

Today we begin the Triduum - the three great days which are at the centre of our salvation

The word "Maundy" is a corruption of the latin word mandatum, meaning commandment. It is the name given to today because of the Lord's novum mandatum, his new commandment:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. Jn 13: 34

Jesus gives us this new commandment after having washed his disciples' feet. It is the night before his death, his betrayer has already left the room in order to hand him over to the authorities. And Jesus declares "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him". Jn 13:31

The Jewish Passover celebrated God's act of rescue, when he set the People of Israel free from slavery and bondage in Egypt, and led them to the Promised Land. At the "Last Supper" Jesus radically transforms that story giving us the Passover meal of the new covenant: the Eucharist. We are set free from slavery to sin and are led into the promised land of our heavenly home.
Love is at the very heart of the Gospel of our Blessed Lord. Pope Benedict has reminded us of this so powerfully by his two important teaching documents thus far: his first Engyclical Letter, Deus Caritas est - God is Love and his Apostolic Exhortation on the Eucharist, Sacramentum Caritatis - The Sacrament of Love.
The Eucharist is the Sacrament of Love, and tonight we celebrate this great gift to the Church, which the Lord gave us on the night before he died. The link between the Cross and the Eucharist is central to what we as Catholics believe about the Mass. This is our Sacrifice, this is the Sacrament of our Salvation.
"Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him". Tonight's Mass begins with the hymn We should glory in the Cross of Christ, based on the entrance antiphon of the Mass. We also sing to the glory of God as the Gloria makes a brief, restrained, return this evening, having been absent from the Liturgy since Ash Wednesday.
How is it that we can "glory" in the Cross, the great evil instrument of torture and death of the Roman Empire? It is because it is the great sign of the length to which God goes to redeem us: His only Son is himself the victim. The Cross is at the centre of the Triduum - it looms over this evening, it is stained with the Blood of the Lamb on Good Friday, it is empty on Easter Sunday. Love's redeeming work is done in all these events.
The cross at Newman House, containing a Relic of the True Cross

A new Commandment - love one another". The message of love is deepened by the particular ritual tonight of the washing of feet. At the Last Supper, the Lord, the suffering servant, washed his disciples' feet, telling them that he was leaving them an example of service. So tonight the priest washes the feet of a representative number of the faithful in a ritual known in latin as the pedilavium. This is not only a sign of the priest's own call to serve the People of God, but a sign of the service that the Lord still renders to us, giving us the commandment to follow his example of love and service. It is a prelude to the great washing we receive in our baptism, which we will celebrate at Easter.

Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict, performing the pedilavium in Rome.

The ritual of service completed we move to the great passover meal of the new covenant: the Eucharist. As the people of Israel celebrated their deliverance from slavery, with the blood of the lamb having been signed on their doorposts, so we celebrate our deliverance from sin and death through the blood of the Lamb of God. Jesus took the bread and wine of the passover meal and consecrated them as his Body and Blood. How sublime a mystery! How great a treasure we have been given! So tonight we receive the Eucharist in joy, in anticipation of partaking of the great heavenly banquet of the Lamb of God.

But the shadows draw in, and the joyful celebration begins to give way as a more sombre mood closes in on us. There is no blessing at the end of Mass. Instead we transfer the Blessed Sacrament to the Altar of Repose, going in Procession singing the solemn praises of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. The Altar of Repose resembles the Garden of Gethsemane in which the final agonised hours of Jesus are spent, before he is handed over to his enemies. He prays that most pure prayer: Father, thy will be done. And he invites us to "watch and pray". So we keep watch with the Lord. (At Newman House we also have a now established tradition of going to visit the Altars of Repose in our neighbouring churches, as a sign of our communion and fellowship). The Watch is kept until midnight, when we disperse as the disciples did. For already the day of the Lord's Passion has arrived.


The Altar of Repose at Newman House

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