Vessels of Clay

Vessels of Clay

Maundy Thursday

This evening in communion with the Church around the world we enter into what we call the Sacred Paschal Triduum. We commemorate on this night the Last Supper, in which our blessed Lord left us the living memorial of His passion, death and resurrection. Unlike other great men who have died memorable deaths, Our Lord knew in advance all that would befall Him, and He wanted, as it were, to capture these events. We do much the same thing in our modern age. We seek to capture special occasions in pictures, on film; we want to record historical words and play them back later. We are loathe for the memory to fade. But fade it does. The events of our lives cannot compare with those of the God-man. All other events of history pass and never return. For Christ Our Lord, every moment of His earthly life was a moment of eternity, a little bit of the Godhead doing something absolutely astounding in our mortal world, something that would never pass, but last forever.

Our Lord came into the world for this moment. He expresses it in a passage we read yesterday and that St Luke conveys to us. As He sat down at table with the apostles on this final evening, He declares: I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer (Lk 22:14). Why did Our Lord long for this night? He longed to give us the supreme proof of His love. He longed, as it were, to convince us of His love. He knew, of course, that the apostles would all run away. But He knew too that, with the exception of Judas, they would come back and that they would understand in retrospect what had really happened, how He, even though He seemed to be the innocent and unsuspecting victim, was actually the one in control of it all. In the discourse on the Good Shepherd, He had made that clear: No one takes my life from me. I lay it down of my own accord. I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to take it up again (Jn 10:18).

The laying down and the taking up again are the two parts of this one mystery of our faith: the redemptive death and the saving resurrection of Jesus our Lord. And both those actions, passion and resurrection, are contained in what Jesus did on this night. As St John just told us in the Gospel, He begins by washing the feet of the apostles, making Himself the servant of all, taking their filth upon Himself, thereby foretelling His laying down of His life the next day on Calvary.

Our Blessed Saviour then proceeds to institute the unique sacrifice of the New Covenant. Putting an end to all the varied sacrifices of the Old Law, He condenses in Himself and in His one act of oblation to the Father, all that it means to offer to God, to atone for sin, to win God’s favour and blessing.

The manner in which Our Lord institutes this new rite itself speaks volumes. The mystery is so simple in its essence, and yet so inexhaustible in its meaning and effects. The first Mass, the first consecration of bread and wine was a gesture that does not require any particular talent. That is why those priests who strive to have a sentimental effect by their theatrical gestures at the consecration are well off the mark. It’s not about them at all. There is nothing they can do to make the moment more special. Actually, the more the priest disappears, the better. All the evangelists make it exceedingly clear that the rite is of the greatest simplicity, and intentionally so. It is as if the Saviour wanted all His priests to understand that it is not about them or their talents in any way. Any man who has been marked with the mission of standing in Christ’s stead at the altar through sacred ordination lends his body to Christ who acts in and through Him. All one need do is follow the simple ritual, say the sacred words, and Christ is there, renewing His sacrifice.

In this single gesture, Our Lord performs His greatest miracle, for in this one act He condenses a great number of miracles. Without intending at all to be exhaustive in their enumeration, we can mention a few. The first is transubstantiation. The bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ by the omnipotence of God. The feat is no less great than that very first word pronounced in the beginning: Let there by light, and there was light. A second miracle is that even though by virtue of the words of Christ, the bread becomes His body and the wine becomes His blood, by virtue of what we call concomitance, the entire Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ are there under each species, in such a way that when you receive even just a tiny piece of the host, you receive the Lord Christ, full and entire, the God-Man in the fulness of His humanity and the fulness of His divinity. A third miracle is that wherever the species of that consecrated bread and wine remain, Christ is truly present, in such a way that even though there be millions of communicants, each one receives Christ Our Lord whole and entire. A fourth miracle is that the appearance of bread and wine, what we call in philosophical terms the accidents, remain without any corresponding substance that they can adhere to. They are, as it were, suspended permanently, hanging there only by virtue of the omnipotence of the divine word of Christ without which we would no longer be able to approach because instead of seeing what looks like a small piece of bread, we would see Christ in His glory, and we would die, overcome by the glory. A fifth miracle that takes place at the moment of consecration is that the one and only sacrificial offering of Our Lord on Calvary is made sacramentally present in every place where Mass is said, without multiplying the unique sacrifice of the New Covenant. A sixth is that the astounding miracle of the Real Presence remains as long as the species of bread and wine remain, thereby giving us wayfarers in this valley of tears the immense consolation of having Our Blessed Saviour with us, not just in spirit, but in all truth. Christ reigns in the Church and in world through the Blessed Sacrament.

On this most blessed night, my dear friends, let us give thanks to Jesus our Saviour, our Lord and our God, for having not forgotten us. Let us keep Him company and express to Him our deepest gratitude for having devised this stupendous means of being with us in order to console us and lead us to eternal life, for being Himself the sacred food that gives us the strength to continue our march towards eternity.

A few days ago on Palm Sunday, we said that the Passion of Our Blessed Lord is the victory of love over hatred, of life over death, of virtue over sin. Tonight as we enter with Our Lord into His passion, we do so with the absolute certainty that if we die with Christ we will rise with Him in glory. The Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass are there to give us the means of doing precisely that. As we take part in the sacramental renewal of the passion and death Our Lord, we are already given a foretaste of the ultimate victory of Christ. This is why Easter has always been and always will be the great, the central celebration of our holy faith. It matters not what trials we may be going through or that we may have yet to go through, we have right here on the altar the Victor Rex, He who overcomes all evil and puts into our hearts the invincible force to do the same with Him.

Let us also on this night remember to pray for priests, for all the priests of the Church,  from the Supreme Pontiff and the other bishops down to the most obscure and unknown of His chosen ones. When God chooses a man for the priesthood, He does not give him a new nature. No, a man who is ordained a priest of Christ remains the weak human plagued with his own sinfulness and feebleness of mind and body. He is truly a vessel of clay that contains an eternal treasure, a vessel that can break and need renewal and restoration. Pray for your priests, pray for more priests, pray for the sanctity of priests. Pray that each of them may one day hear those words that Our Lord spoke to His disciples on this holy night: You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom (Lk 22:28-30).