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Sermons by Fr Guy Nicholls (Cong Orat), our Chaplain

 

Read through Fr Guy's latest homilies given at services in our Carmelite chapel and feel free to comment on any of them as you wish. Please note that anything you write will be read before it is posted and any inappropriate text will be deleted.

 

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Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year B

Posted on 17th May, 2024

 

This Sunday of Eastertide each year gives us an opportunity to hear part of the final chapter of St John’s account of the Last Supper, which is a wonderful prayer addressed by our Lord to His heavenly Father. Having come to the end of his long discourse to the Apostles, He is about to leave with them for Gethsemane. There He will pray with such pain and intensity that He will sweat blood. Here in the Upper Room He prepares Himself for all that lies ahead by this extraordinary prayer. Nothing else in the whole New Testament is like it, where we hear the Son of God addressing His Father with love as He prepares to offer Himself as a sacrifice. Here He shows Himself to the Apostles as a priest, about to offer the one perfect sacrifice which will consecrate us to God. Chapter 17 is entirely dedicated to Christ’s prayer to His heavenly Father at the end of the Last Supper in preparation for His imminent sacrifice, to be accomplished the very next day on the cross. It is also an extraordinary prayer, in that we are given an intimate experience of what it meant for the Son of God to pray to His Father; for the one who is ‘the Word who was with God in the beginning, and who was Himself God.’ We are privileged to hear, through the testimony of the Beloved Disciple who leant on God the Son’s breast at the Last Supper, the very words addressed by the Son of God to His Father on the eve of his leaving the world to return to the Father.

 

The Word, who was with God in the beginning, through whom all things were made, used human language to speak to His heavenly Father. This was so because the ‘Word was made flesh’, He took our human nature to Himself when He became Mary’s son, and therefore He is now able to speak, as man, to the Father whose Son and perfect image He has always been, and still is even as man. This is an amazing thought. Let us try and grasp it, however imperfectly, so as to gain even a tiny glimpse of the inner depths that this great prayer reveals. For those inner depths are of the life of God Himself, and of the one who is true God and true man.

 

First of all, the prayer opens with these significant words: ‘Jesus raised His eyes to heaven.’ This raising of the eyes towards the place where the Father dwells is the origin of what the priest does at Mass when he faithfully repeats the actions of our Lord at the Supper, thus: ‘He took bread in His holy and venerable hands, and with eyes raised to heaven to you, O God, His almighty Father...’ so begin the words of the central part of the Eucharistic prayer. So then let us think of what the whole of the Eucharistic prayer means. At the very beginning of that Prayer, sometimes also known as ‘the Great Prayer’ on account both of its length and its supreme importance in the heart of the Mass, there is a dialogue in which the priest calls on you, the faithful, to ‘lift up your hearts’, and to ‘give thanks to the Lord our God’. It is this ‘giving thanks’ which is at the very centre of the entire Mass, and the Greek word for ‘giving thanks’, ‘Eucharist’, is itself one of the names by which we know both the whole Mass and its principal fruit, the Blessed Sacrament.

 

After that dialogue between the priest and the congregation, he continues to pray alone, just as Christ prays alone in the Gospel reading. This is because the priest is acting ‘in persona Christi’, which means that by virtue of his ordination, he is made a sharer in the very priesthood of Christ Himself. First of all there is the Preface, which is a hymn of praise to God, often closely connected with the feast day or season we are celebrating. So today, for instance, the Preface is a hymn of praise to God for the Ascension of Christ His Son, which brings us hope of heaven. Then, at the end of this Preface we all sing the Sanctus, so as to join the angels worshipping God in heaven, just as the Prophet Isaiah heard them singing: ‘Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory’. After this, once more the priest continues alone with the great prayer, addressing the Father in the same way that Christ prayed at the Last Supper. After praying for the Church, he prays that the bread and wine may be changed into Christ’s body and blood, and then does what our Lord did at the Last Supper, using the same words and actions, and as we say, consecrating the bread and wine to become our sacrifice to God, and the Blessed Sacrament for our Holy Communion. He then prays that God the Father will graciously accept this very sacrifice, as being Christ’s sacrifice and that of His whole Church. He prays that the Holy Spirit may consecrate those who will receive the Blessed Sacrament in Holy Communion, to keep in them in unity and make them holy. At the end of the great prayer, the priest raises aloft the sacrificial gifts in a gesture of offering and praises the Father through Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. In all this, the priest is doing what Christ did; praying Christ’s own entire prayer of supplication on behalf of the whole Church; the prayer of thanksgiving, of blessing, of consecration and of self-sacrifice. Giving thanks and blessing are two ways of expressing the same action and prayer; so in the first and third Eucharistic prayers the priest says: ‘[Jesus] took bread, and...giving you thanks, he said the blessing...’ while in the second Eucharistic prayer the priest says: ‘He took bread, and giving thanks, broke it...’

 

This is why chapter 17 of St John’s Gospel is so significant, because it is Jesus’s own Eucharistic prayer of thanksgiving, of blessing, and of consecration. Consecration is something that a priest alone can do. When we call Christ the one High Priest, it is because of this prayer which consecrates all He will do on the cross the next day. It is the prayer of the Son of God, of Jesus our priest, consecrating Himself to be the sacrifice offered the next day on the cross. This is why we say that every Mass is a re-presentation of the one single sacrifice; it was offered on Maundy Thursday in the signs of bread and wine and in the prayer of thanksgiving and consecration, and it was offered in blood and suffering on Good Friday – but they were one and the same sacrifice. So too, now, every Mass is one and the same sacrifice as that offered by Christ, and as He offered and consecrated Himself at the Last Supper, so too in every Mass Christ offers and consecrates Himself through the hands and words of the ordained priest to continue offering the same perfect sacrifice.

 

The Gospel we have just listened makes this point. In it we hear only our Lord’s words of prayer, nothing else. Throughout this chapter Jesus prays that those the Father has given Him, His Apostles, may be true to God’s name, and that they may all be one; then also because they do not belong to the world, that they may be protected from the evil one. Yet He prays not only for the Apostles, but for ‘those also who through their words will believe in [Him]’, that is all Catholics of every age. Then at the end of today’s Gospel reading, our Lord makes this prayer to His Father: ‘consecrate them in the truth….for their sake I consecrate myself so that they too may be consecrated in truth.’

 

This is the very heart of the prayer that the Son makes to His Father, which we enter into at every Mass. For while we can never repeat that sacrifice offered once for all on the cross, we can and indeed do relive it ourselves every time we do what He commanded us to do in memory of Him. And this was His command to the Church, to consecrate bread and wine into His own body and blood, so that He could thereby consecrate us, nourish us with His own body and blood, fill us with His Holy Spirit and make of us an eternal offering to the Father, so that we may obtain an inheritance with all the elect, the chosen saints in His kingdom, where we hope to enjoy for ever the fullness of His glory.

 

It is this one and the same Christ who so consecrated Himself at the Last Supper as to consecrate us, giving Himself to be our nourishment in the Blessed Sacrament and to be our sacrifice in the Mass; and it is through Him, with Him and in Him that we shall render all glory and honour to God the Almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B

Posted on 8th May, 2024

 

‘I shall not call you servants any more...I call you friends’. These wonderful words are a great consolation to us in this life, which can be so full of difficulties and discouragements. According to St John, at the Last Supper Our Lord spoke at great length, instructing the Apostles about the full depth of meaning of the Sacrament of His Body and Blood that He was giving them, and of the Sacrifice He was about to offer the very next day on the cross. Yet I think we can also see that St John also had in mind another body of instruction, that which St Luke refers to in the opening words of the Acts of the Apostles, which we will hear at Mass on Ascension Thursday this coming week. There Luke tells us that our Lord spent forty days from the day of His resurrection until His glorious return to the Father, continuing to appear to the Apostles and telling them about the kingdom of God.

 

These two instructions, the first at the Last Supper and the other during the Forty Days after the Resurrection really do belong together. Undoubtedly our Lord will have given the Apostles much of the same teaching both before His Passion, and after His resurrection. Both are the consummation of His entire life and ministry, and explain the gift of Himself to the Apostles. When you listen to our Lord’s teaching at the Last Supper, it may at first seem almost hypnotically repetitive. I mean that, so very often throughout the Last Supper, our Lord seems to be saying the same thing over again, sometimes with very slightly different words, as though He is looking at something from as many different angles as possible to give a full account of its riches.

 

It is in these chapters, for instance, that we learn most of the forthcoming gift and mission of the Holy Spirit, who has been mentioned from time to time during our Lord’s ministry, but never in such depth as now. It is from this teaching that we learn that the Holy Spirit is about to come down on the Apostles to form the living Body of Christ from a mere handful of individuals. It is then that the Spirit will become the source of our joy, and source of the power of the Church’s Sacraments which transform us into the likeness of Christ our Lord. In this way the Spirit will make Christ known to us by bringing Him to dwell within us, by filling us with the unquenchable joy of loving the God who has made known His love to us. That great gift we shall celebrate with great joy and solemnity in two weeks’ time at Pentecost, when the Easter season comes to its triumphant end.

 

That is why our Lord said that the Holy Spirit would remind the Apostles of all that He, the Christ, had taught them, and furthermore, lead them into all truth. We are the heirs of that gift of the Spirit. He is the One who inspires us with living knowledge of the love of God and fills us with joy. He is the One who brings about the unity of the Church – and I don’t mean some figurative, metaphorical unity, but the real living bond of love in the Body of Christ who, as St Paul found out, makes us cry out in joy: ‘Abba, Father!’ This is the joyous spring from which flowed our introit this morning: ‘Proclaim a joyful sound, and let it be heard! Proclaim [it] to the ends of the earth.’ The ends of the earth ring out to the same song of joy, because the ends of the earth are filled with those in whom one and the same Spirit makes His home and unites us in the one Body of Christ.

 

And what is the truth into which Christ says the Spirit will lead us? It is the knowledge that Christ no longer calls us servants but friends, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Up until the Holy Spirit’s coming upon them, the Apostles cannot have known the inner secrets of the Son of God. Nor can we, by human means alone. The Apostles and we have nevertheless been given this wonderful knowledge by the Holy Spirit. He is the one who makes known to us everything that the Father has taught His Son, and He does this by living in our hearts, and so making us sharers in God’s own friendship which is His inner life of love. Hence our Lord’s words: ‘I shall not call you servants any more, I call you friends.’

 

Now I just want to invite you to think for a moment how truly amazing it is that God the Holy Spirit dwells in us in order to make us God’s friends, and not merely His servants. We tend either to take it for granted or to treat it as something too obscure to understand. Yet once we begin to dwell on that striking fact, then our Lord’s command to love one another as He has loved us makes more sense. How can we possibly love anyone as God loves us? By unaided human nature this is impossible, but not with God living in us and sharing His inner love with us. This is what Christ has made possible by His death, resurrection and gift of the Holy Spirit. This is why He freely laid down His life for us: ‘A man can have no greater love,’ He says, ‘than to lay down his life for His friends.’

 

As I say, so much of what Our Lord says at the Last Supper seems at first merely repetitive. Yet to stop at just thinking that would be to miss the real heart of what He is saying to us. At the opening of the Gospel we have just heard, He says ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Remain in my love.’ ‘Remain’, or to choose a similar word ‘abide’, are words describing a constant state of being, and means sharing life together. Our Lord uses this word constantly as He addresses the Apostles at the Last Supper: ‘if you remain in me, then I will remain in you’, and as we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel: ‘As a branch cannot bear fruit all by itself but must remain part of the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me.’ And He puts this yet another way when He says: ‘make your home in me as I make mine in you’. It is when we do this, all through the indwelling, which is the remaining or abiding in us of the Holy Spirit, that we can do what Our Lord commands: ‘love one another, as I have loved you,’ and ‘I commissioned you to go out and to bear fruit, fruit that will last.’ We can express our Lord’s words in another way as: ‘go out and bear fruit, fruit that will remain.’

 

To love one another as Christ has loved us, that is the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s living in our hearts. He it is who enables us to make our home in Christ, and Christ to make His home in us. Now when we receive Christ into us bodily in Holy Communion, His sacramental presence remains for a short time only. That is why we can receive Communion every day if we so wish. But the Holy Spirit can make Christ’s remaining in us to be continuous, constant, when He brings the Father living in the Son and the Son living in the Father to dwell in our hearts. The Holy Spirit enables us to bear fruit, the fruit of loving one another as Christ loves us; such fruit will last into eternity. Now there’s something genuinely to make us cry out with joy, and proclaim a joyful sound to the ends of the earth, Alleluia!

Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B

Posted on 8th May, 2024

 

‘O sing a new song to the Lord!’ the psalmist encourages us this morning. As Eastertide continues, its character changes from the recollection of the Resurrection and the appearances our Lord to His disciples, to a more profound dwelling on the joyous new life of the resurrection which we now share with the risen Lord through our baptism. It is the ‘here and now’ on which we are called to reflect, and there is no time of the year in which the ‘here and now’ is more redolent of joy than in this Easter time. And it is out of joy that the Church sings, over and over again, the Alleluia, of which we were deprived during the six long, dark weeks of Lent.

 

Also, throughout the Sundays of Easter, in the Liturgy of the Word at Mass we hear only readings from the New Testament. Whereas at all other times we hear a first reading from the Old Testament, such as the prophets, or the books of the Law, or of the history of God’s people before the coming of Christ, at this time we only hear the Acts of the Apostles. This is because the Acts describes not only events in the lives and missions of the Apostles, but also gives a picture of life in the earliest generation of the life of the Church. So it is that we hear, for instance, that whatever the trials of the early Church, the first Christians were united in heart and mind and in the prayers and the ‘breaking of the bread’, which is the name St Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, gives to the Mass.

 

And in today’s reading, Luke tells us about Saul, who had now been converted from persecuting the Church to preaching the risen Christ, and would soon be known as Paul, how he was arousing the hatred of his erstwhile friends because he had now become a follower, indeed a powerful preacher, of the risen Christ. Yet even so, St Luke tells us that the church in Judaea, Galilee and Samaria were at peace, building themselves up, living in the fear of the Lord, and filled with the consolation of the Holy Spirit.

 

In this way, St Luke largely tells us about the way the Church coped with persecutions from without, whilst making references to the inner life which sustained the first Christians with a profound joy and confidence in Christ. The secret of this confidence and joy must surely have been the spiritual life generated and nourished by the Mass, for in the Mass Christ Himself, the risen Lord, continues to make Himself present to the Church, just as He had done to the disciples at Emmaus, or to the Apostles in the Upper Room.

 

This is the newness of life prophesied by the psalmist as we sang ourselves in the introit: ‘O sing a new song to the Lord’. The Church says to us: ‘rejoice, for the new life of Christ is living in you! Show this joy, give expression to it, by singing a new song.’ St Augustine speaks of this new song as well, when he comments on these words of the psalmist: ‘we are admonished,’ he says, ‘to sing a new song to the Lord. A new man,’ he goes on, ‘sings a new song. For singing is a sign of exhilaration, and, when we look even closer, a new song is a sign of love.’ He continues in this way: ‘the person who knows how to love the new life, knows the new song that is to be sung’, or to put it another way, ‘he knows how to sing that new song.’ For the new song belongs to the New Testament, and the New Testament in turn belongs to the person who is made new in the risen Christ.

 

Nobody expresses this better than St John, as we so often hear him both when the second reading is taken from one of his letters, and in the words of our Lord as John records them for us in His Gospel, as we have heard today. Love is the inspiration for our singing the new song of the resurrection, which fills the life of grace with joy. St John summed this up for us in the second reading this morning when he told us that our love must not be mere words, but something real and active, namely, that we believe in Christ as the risen Saviour, and that we love one another as He told us to do. This is not to be understood as some kind of moral code, like the Ten Commandments. This commandment to love one another is the foundation of all morality. When we are filled with the love of God and put it into practice, then we find that obeying the commandments is the expression of that love in us, and that love in us means God lives in us and we live in God, and that we know that this is so because the Holy Spirit is the divine Person who gives us knowledge of the Father and the Son within us.

 

This is how we can understand the idea that grace transforms us from within. Grace is not something that merely comes to us on particular occasions, nor is it only the power and goodness of God, but it is first and foremost the living presence of God in us, and we recognise it for what it is by the enlightenment of the Spirit who was first given to us at our baptism – the first Easter Sacrament, and the gateway to all the other Sacraments, especially Holy Communion.

 

This can help us to understand what our Lord is telling us in the Gospel, namely that He is the vine, and we are His branches. A branch of a vine can have no life in it if it is cut off from its roots, and that life in it is the sap, which eventually produces the fruit of the vine, the grape from which comes the wine that, as the psalmist says, ‘gladdens the heart of man.’ We, as the branches, can only produce the fruit if we live in the vine and the vine lives in us. His blood must course through our veins, and this can only happen if we receive Him in Holy Communion. Communion with Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and in the Holy Mass are the means whereby He lives in us and we in Him, for cut off from Him we can do nothing. Hence, once again, the central importance of Sunday Mass in the life of the Catholic.

 

It is this life, the true life of the vine within us, that gives us our true spiritual identity, which cannot be something we construct for ourselves. Invented spirituality, though very popular these days, is dead if not rooted in Christ the vine. The only spirituality which gives life is the Holy Spirit we receive in the sacraments of the Church. This life is that which enables us to live as members of Christ, as His branches. This is the life about which we sing in Eastertide, the new life which inspires the new song. And this new song doesn’t mean something that was written yesterday or the day before, but something which has been given us to sing by the Holy Spirit, something which He first poured out on the Apostles on the Day of Pentecost, and has been pouring out on those who are baptised, and on those who receive Holy Communion, ever since that first Pentecost Sunday. For the Holy Spirit and the life which He gives never grows old. It is always fresh and new, and inspires new members of the body in every successive generation to sing His new song.

 

This new song, then, is the song of God’s love within us. It is the song of Christ the lover for us, His beloved. He has poured out His life for us on the cross, and now He pours that life into us in the Mass and in Holy Communion. That same love, that same blood, ever new, ever fresh, ever living, is what fills our heart when we sing the new song of Eastertide, expressed most perfectly in the Church’s own chant, which fills our liturgy with the equivalent of light in sound. For the chant is quite unlike any earthly song. It is quiet and gentle, and expresses not so much an exuberance as does much music we think of as ‘joyful’, but rather the vibrancy of still life which we sometimes see in pictures of natural beauty, such as is found in flowers. But the beauty which inspires the Church’s chant is no natural beauty, it is entirely supernatural, and it cannot be more exquisitely summed up than in the word ‘alleluia’, the song of the redeemed which, by God’s grace and our faithfulness to His love, we will sing ever new for all eternity in heaven.

Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B

Posted on 8th May, 2024

 

I have mentioned before that one of my favourite words in the Latin tongue, and one of the loveliest, is ‘misericordia’. It is a composite word, from the two words ‘miser’, meaning pity, (as in ‘miserere’, or ‘have mercy’), and ‘cor’, meaning the heart, (as in ‘cordial’, meaning heartfelt). Together they mean ‘pity-ful (that is, merciful) heart’ It is the very first word of the introit of today’s Mass in Latin: ‘Misericordia Domini plena est terra’ which we sang in translation as ‘the merciful love of the Lord fills the earth.’ There can surely be no more fitting way of beginning Mass on this Sunday, which is popularly known as Good Shepherd Sunday on account of the Gospel always coming from St John’s 10th chapter where Jesus describes Himself as the Good Shepherd. But how does this quality of misericordia so specially fit the person of our Good Shepherd?

 

If you have ever visited the Roman catacombs and have seen some of the wonderful ancient wall paintings dating back over 1500 years, you may well remember that the oldest images, of which there are more than a hundred, are devoted to one particular portrayal of our Lord: as the Good Shepherd with His sheep clasped gently, yet firmly, over His shoulders. It is very striking that this image of the Saviour was by far the most common in the earliest centuries of the Church’s life in Rome. It was far more popular much earlier than any representation of the Crucifixion, which is certainly better represented in later art and so far more familiar to us today.

 

It is very significant that the ancient Roman Church recognised Christ in this image above all others. In the midst of times of persecution, poverty and contempt, it was the merciful, loving Lord who guided our Christian forebears through the vale of darkness and the shadow of death, of which we also hear in one of the most familiar and well-loved psalms, no. 22, which opens: ‘The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.’ It was the Good Shepherd who guarded His sheep from the wolves who wanted to attack and scatter the sheep. But of course, He did not do this by preventing violence being wrought on His own sheep. Those Christian artists who painted the Good Shepherd on the catacomb walls and ceilings knew only too well that many of those who lay buried down there in the darkness had been put to death for the faith, possibly savaged by wild beasts in the circus, or crucified and set alight as torches to illuminate imperial parties at night time. Had the Good Shepherd not then abandoned those sheep? They did not believe so. They lovingly and consistently portrayed Him standing firm and confident in the midst of his sheep, with one wrapped around his shoulders, firmly held in His protective grasp.

 

Of course, they must have had in mind the words of our Lord which we heard just now in the Gospel: ‘the good shepherd is one who lays down his life for his sheep.’ So they were acknowledging not only that this loving, merciful shepherd had shown His love for His sheep by laying down His life for them, but that there was more besides. What gave the persecuted Roman Christians confidence in the shepherd who had died, and was now pictured in the midst of the graves of those who had died for their faithfulness to Him? It was what our Lord went on to say that gave them such confidence in Him: ‘The Father loves me because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.’ The Good Shepherd surrendered to death not in order to be defeated by it, but to overcome it. ‘No one takes [life] from me’, He says, ‘I lay it down of my own free will, and as it is in my power to lay it down, so it is in my power to take it up again.’

 

Christ here claims something extraordinarily striking: not only was His death foreseen by Him, and willingly accepted by Him, but He freely chose to endure it entirely of His own accord. No one even had the power to take it off Him. Thus He told Pilate at His trial: ‘you would have no power over me if it had not been given you from above.’ Christ Himself, therefore, who came from above, had given Pilate this power, and Christ Himself had the power to return to life. In the resurrection, Christ our Lord is not simply passive; He does not lie dead in the tomb, utterly incapable of anything, but awaits the moment decreed by His Father, when He will freely rise from the dead; and in that moment, rising glorious and immortal, He will have overcome not only His own death, but the deaths of all those who follow Him faithfully. All those who have ever endured, or will ever in the future endure, a horrible death for the sake of their love of Christ, like the saints in the catacombs, or the martyrs of every age of history down to the present day and beyond, will receive back from Him on the last day a life greater than the one they have surrendered for love of Him. And then the truth of St John’s words in the second reading will become clear: ‘we are already the children of God, but what we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed; all we know is, that when it is revealed we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is.’

 

This ‘seeing Him as He is’ can be characterised as the perfection of knowledge. We cannot know Him perfectly in this life because we cannot yet see Him face to face. St John foresees that one day we shall indeed see Him face to face, and in that mutual vision, - my seeing Him just as He sees me, - will be found my entire eternal happiness and joy. This does most certainly not mean that we will not see anybody else. The sight of God does not exclude the sight of everyone else; rather the sight of God will be the illumination that makes all things and all other saints in heaven clear and joyful. The nearest analogy in this life that I can think of is the way that the sun illuminates everything it sheds its light on, and makes us all joyful in all that it lights up for us. Being seen by Him, and seeing Him, will be like the brightest light by which we can see everyone and everything God has made, for us to love just as He loves them.

 

So when our Lord says that He ‘knows His own and His own know Him’, this is something that is already true, but will be even more wonderfully fulfilled for us in heaven. St John never wants us to think that here and now does not matter, does not count. As our Shepherd already knows us now, so we have the wonderful privilege of knowing Him now too, even if it is not yet quite as we shall one day know Him face to face in heaven. But we do know Him now in the Mass and in the Sacraments. Here that presence is veiled, as it is in the Blessed Sacrament under the mere appearances of bread and wine. But, under those veiled signs, that presence is truly Himself. In the Eucharist, in the celebration of Mass, and in receiving Him in Holy Communion, He does not give us a mere symbolic knowledge of Himself, but a real knowledge, a real mutual companionship. That knowledge and companionship can lead us through all darkness, all suffering, into light. He is the shepherd who leads us, and accompanies us, over and over again through the valley of the shadow of death.

 

St John Henry, Cardinal Newman said that to live under the same roof as the Blessed Sacrament was such a blessing as to annihilate all sorrows. When we begin to appreciate who it is that comes to us in every Mass, then we can truly understand what it means to have a shepherd who has freely endured every darkness, in order to overcome it and bring us through that shadow into light. But we have to trust Him in order to know Him. We have to let our Shepherd lead the way. That is exactly what a shepherd does in the Middle East; he does not follow his sheep but leads them. As our Good Shepherd, Christ has gone before us through the worst we can know, and He goes through it again with us each time, whether we know it or not. We can therefore confidently trust Him, and in trusting Him we shall indeed truly know Him and understand with gratitude that we are known, that is, loved with infinite loving-kindness, or misericordia, by Him.

Third Sunday of Easter, Year B

Posted on 20th April, 2024

 

Once more in the Gospel we return to the first Easter Day. Last Sunday we heard St John’s account of the two appearances to the Apostles in the Upper Room: the first on Easter evening, and the second the following Sunday, bringing Thomas to faith. We have just heard another account of that first appearance in the Upper Room, which St Luke describes as taking place after Cleopas and his companion had rushed back to tell the Apostles about their astonishing experience on the walk to Emmaus, how Christ had revealed to them His risen self in the blessing and breaking of the bread, and had explained to them how the Old Testament Scriptures had been fulfilled in all that had happened to the Him on Calvary.

 

Now we hear of the Lord’s appearance quite suddenly and those reassuring words, ‘Peace be with you’. The Apostles, however, in a state of alarm and fright, believe that they are seeing some kind of disembodied spirit. It is impossible that the man who was just now killed in so abominably cruel a way could be alive. Yet He doesn’t seem to sympathise with their fears, instead upbraiding them, ‘why are you so agitated and why do these doubts rise in your hearts?’ This is a constant theme in these appearances after the Resurrection. In St John’s Gospel, too, last week, St Thomas was especially upbraided by our Lord for his obstinate refusal to believe his companions when they told him that they had seen the Lord, risen from the dead.

 

Yet both Thomas in St John’s Gospel, and all the Apostles in this one, are made to change their minds precisely by the sight, and the touch, of Christ’s wounded hands and feet. It must seem strange at first that this should be reassuring, that to see and touch his wounds should even cause those frightened men to rejoice exceedingly. Why should the palpable evidence of the crucifixion fill them with joy? It is surely because from now on those wounds are the evidence that even that terrible death has not destroyed Him. More than that, not only has death not destroyed him, but He has brought the marks of the nails and spear into His new life, carrying them in His living body as a sign that He has not simply passed through death and left it behind like an old garment, but has absorbed death into Himself in a way that totally annihilates its destructive power.

 

So, too, He takes a piece of fish and eats it so as to prove to them - not that He needs that kind of nourishment any longer - but that He can still eat. This is not only another way of proving to them the sheer physical reality of His risen state, but it points towards something hugely significant about the risen state: the possibility of still being able to enjoy real food. Our Lord is, I believe, suggesting to the Apostles that, although He has now overcome the physical limitations of the body before death, His body still has the ability to enjoy nourishment in company with others, and thus He teaches us that when He has finally raised our mortal bodies and made them like His own in glory, we will likewise be able to eat and drink with Him in His heavenly kingdom.

 

Yet even so, all this is still only part of what He wants to teach them. After showing them that He is truly alive, He goes on to do what He had also just done on the road to Emmaus: He opens their minds to understand the scriptures. All that we read and understand in the Old Testament finds its meaning in Christ. Indeed, we only see and read Scripture in this way because Christ Himself has showed us how to read it. As I put it on Easter morning, the ‘fulfilment of the Scriptures’ of which we speak in the Creed, means not that Christ was compelled to act in certain ways simply in order to prove His credentials, but rather that those texts were obscure until He gave them their true meaning in His Passion. I think that this way of understanding the ‘fulfilment of the Scriptures’ also helps us to make sense of something else we hear in today’s first reading. Maybe you have wondered how it was possible that the High Priest, the Sanhedrin, all the chief priests and the Scribes, and all those who were whipped up into a frenzy to persuade Pontius Pilate that Jesus must die, could have failed to see that the Old Testament texts they read every week in the synagogue were even then being fulfilled in their presence, and through their own efforts. While they were doing those things to Christ, how can they not have heard those words of the prophet Isaiah echoing in their ears: ‘I offered my back to those who struck me...I did not cover my face against insult and spittle’, and in the psalms: ‘they tear holes in my hands and my feet...they divide my clothing among them, they cast lots for my robe’, and in His words on the cross: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ And how did they not catch themselves saying some of those very words in mockery, like ‘He trusted in the Lord, let Him save him! Let him release him if this is his friend’? Yet Peter says to the people in the Temple that ‘neither you nor your leaders had any idea what you were really doing.’ They did not know at the time, for all those Old Testament prophecies were opaque, were without their true context, until they had been fulfilled in the person and sufferings of Christ. And in this way, says Peter, was God’s Will fulfilled.

 

Peter ends today’s first reading with this call to repentance: ‘Now you must repent and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out.’ And how does our Lord end today’s Gospel? With a call to repentance: ‘So you see how it is written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that, in His name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all the nations.’

 

In a world which no longer takes seriously the idea of sin, it is hard to get the urgency of this message across. Sin is not merely an infringement of the moral code, a breach of the Ten Commandments, serious enough as that is. Sin is far worse, it is an offence against the goodness and love of God and is a monstrous distortion of our true nature – so very horrid because we do not even necessarily realise just how much harm it does to us. Sin is at the root of all selfishness, the canker which blinds us to the horror of rebellion against God; and this can be nowhere more clearly and horribly seen than in the terrible things Christ endured solely for love of us and at our hands. All this ‘had to be fulfilled’ because of sin, and because God in His love and wisdom deemed that there was no other way to rescue us all from the stifling power of sin, and bring us back to the glorious image of the Creator, lost through sin.

 

A sense of sin is not morbid. It is a true sense of reality. It is like the sense of pain, without which we could do irreparable harm to ourselves. The denial of sin makes us unresponsive to God’s love. That is why the call to repent of our sins is central to the preaching of the resurrection. St John in the second reading says that he is writing to his children ‘to stop you sinning’. For St John, Christ’s sacrifice in us is not perfected until we have done with the corrosion of sin. Yet if anyone should sin, says St John, then we have our advocate with the Father, ‘Jesus Christ...[who] is the sacrifice that takes our sins away.’ Unless our sins are taken away, we cannot hope to share in Christ’s risen glory. It is by turning in repentance to our Advocate, Jesus our merciful Lord, and humbly acknowledging that, even though we had no idea what our sins were really doing, we, too were responsible for Christ’s sufferings, that we can find the way to life and glory. Simply put, we need to recover our love for our risen Saviour as He comes to us in confession, in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. In the words of a familiar Easter hymn; ‘Paschal triumph, paschal joy, only sin can this destroy. From the death of sin set free, souls reborn, dear Lord, in Thee!’ It is the death of the soul, as well as that of the body, which is overcome by Christ at Easter, and here and now He begins to share it with us, but He will bring it to perfection only when we, too, have passed beyond death and into eternal life, and see Him face to face for all eternity in glory.

Octave of Easter

Posted on 20th April, 2024

 

Dear Sisters, dear brethren, the words which ended the Gospel reading you have just heard seem originally to have been the closing words of St John’s account of all that he wanted to tell the Church about our Lord. At the end of this dramatic revelation of the risen Christ, first of all to the ten apostles without Thomas, then to the eleven with Thomas, our Lord commends Thomas’s words of faith, ‘My Lord and my God’ with these words: ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.’ Those would have been the final words spoken by our Lord in this Gospel until the 21st chapter was added to make a new and different end of this Gospel, and how wonderfully reassuring those words of our Lord’s are to us, none of whom has yet seen our Lord in His human form.

 

I want to reflect a little on the significance of these final words in the light of what St John goes on to say himself in the following sentence which brought our Gospel reading and this chapter to an end, namely: ‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book.; these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.’

 

This is the entire purpose for which St John has written down his Gospel; it is so that we may have faith in Jesus in two essential ways: first as the Christ, that is the ‘anointed one’ or Messiah, and secondly as the Son of God. As Christ, Jesus is a very special man: He is the one anointed by the Holy Spirit to be the Redeemer of the world. Being our Redeemer is described as a particular work Jesus was given to do, a work that was to bring us to faith in Him. Exactly what is so important about having faith in Him will become clear in a few moments. The work of being our Redeemer was carried out by Jesus in all His signs, or miracles, and in His teaching, but most of all in His Passion, Death and Resurrection which we have just been celebrating. Those events, the events of Holy Week and Easter, are the climax and fulfilment of his work. But there is more to this than literally meets the eye. For all that is visible in Jesus is the human element. He is truly man. But there is also that about Him which is not visible to us: He is truly God as well as man. He is, in fact, as St John says here: ‘the Son of God’. That is more than a merely honorific title. It is the essence of what Jesus is in Himself. He is Almighty God who has become man in order to become the Christ, the anointed Redeemer. He is uniquely the Son of the Eternal Father, equal to Him in all ways.

 

Now what is so important about having faith in Jesus Christ, about believing in Him? It is that by this faith in Him we may, as John puts it, ‘have life in His name’. So, according to John, faith in our Lord, and life, belong inseparably together. Faith is not just some kind of abstract mental act. Nor is it just speaking or thinking in a certain way. It is about a wholly new way of life, a wholly new way of living in God. Note that I am not saying living with God, but in Him. For St John, faith has begun a wholly new kind of existence for those who are privileged to have been given it, a life which begins here in this world, but which looks forward to, and will be fulfilled in, eternal life in heaven.

 

What does this mean? Life in Christ is for St John the entire purpose of our Lord’s having become Man, and having died and risen to new life. This new life is a spiritual life, the one for which we were created by God in the first place – a life which was lost to us because of the sin of our first parents, and a loss which is continued whenever we sin. But once we have been set free from sin, then we do truly begin to live the life which we hope to live fully in heaven.

 

In order to understand what St John means by faith and life here in the Gospel, we must turn back to the second reading, taken from St John’s first letter to those he addresses as his own children whom he has begotten in baptism. Here we heard these words: ‘Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ has been begotten by God, and whoever loves the Father that begot him loves the child whom He begets.’ In baptism we were born anew, and in that birth God became our Father, not just metaphorically, but in reality. It is only because of this new birth that we are able to address God as ‘Our Father’. Without the new birth of baptism we simply could not do so except in a sort of poetic way. But God is truly our Father and we are truly His children through the new birth of baptism, and it is to baptism that we must turn to understand all this yet more fully.

 

At the Easter Vigil throughout the world the sacrament of baptism was celebrated in which many men and women were given the new birth by which they, like us who have already been baptised, became God’s sons and daughters. But there is only one person who can by nature be called Son of God, and that is Christ Jesus. As St John said at the end of today’s Gospel reading: ‘these things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life in His name.’ Baptism, then, makes us into God’s sons and daughters by adoption, after the model of the Only Son of God by nature, Jesus Christ our Lord and Redeemer.

 

Now I have said that a new life has begun in us at our baptism. What sort of life is it, in fact? It is a life lived in unity with God and by leaving behind the old ways of sin and of the world. The world seems often to be very real and very enticing, but it is only full of empty promises and comes all to soon to an end in death. But the life we have been given in baptism endures to eternal life. Yet we would be very mistaken if we thought that this new life was something that made no demands on us. Leaving the ways of the world behind takes courage and something more: grace and love. St John emphasises constantly the power of God’s love to transform us into the ever greater likeness of Christ. He asks this question: ‘who can overcome the world?’ and he answers: ‘only the man who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.’ This is our new life: faith in Jesus and life in Him.

 

Life in Him. What does that mean? It means two things: first of all, obeying God’s commandments. These commands are not difficult for those who love God, says St John, because the difficulty comes from the world and Christ has overcome the world already by his death and resurrection. We share in the effects of that by our faith, which comes with baptism and becoming God’s children.

 

But there is something else which must not be missed. John says that Jesus the Son of God became man so that He might come to us ‘by water and blood’. What does he mean? He means that Jesus comes to us not only by His incarnation but by His death and resurrection. It is especially from His death and resurrection that He gives to us both the water of baptism and the blood of Holy Communion. The sacraments which we celebrate are the life of whoever believes that Jesus is the Son of God. For these sacraments are not empty rites, but the actual lifeblood of the Church, guaranteed as true and real by the Holy Spirit who has also been sent to the Church as a witness to the truth that Jesus is Son of God, Redeemer, and is the risen Saviour who raises us up to new life in baptism. The water of baptism planted in us a seed which is nourished by the food of Holy Communion. This food prepares us for our own bodily resurrection to eternal life with God our Father, with God the Son our brother, and with God the Holy Spirit who is the love of God poured into our hearts.

 

This is what Thomas came to believe when he beheld Christ’s wounds: not signs of death but of new life communicated to us in Christ’s body and blood. So too we can say at Mass: 'My Lord and my God’, looking forward to that day when we will behold with ecstatic joy those wounds, knowing that we have been made alive by them for ever. This is what it means to ‘have life in His name’.

Easter Sunday

Posted on 7th April, 2024

 

Think about these words from the Creed: “And [He] rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures”. The fulfilment of the Scriptures has been a constant theme of the events of Holy Week. The great psalms of the Passion, especially psalms 21 and 68, provide many of the texts we have heard in the Gospels: “they have pierced my hands and my feet”; “for my garments they cast lots”; “In my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink”; and most poignantly of all: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” Our Lord’s sufferings were very public. His enemies could stand before Him as He hung dying on the cross and they also used the words of psalm 21: “He trusted in God that He would deliver Him; let Him deliver Him then, if He delight in Him”.

 

Yet these psalms, although they are so full of anguish and loss, actually end in confident trust in God. They are written, not about the Suffering Saviour, but out of His own mouth, as though composed by Him. And so indeed, in a sense, they are. For the truth about the fulfilment of Scripture is not that Our Lord had to do certain things to prove His credentials, but that all the prophecies which were about Him remained obscure and mysterious until their proper and full meaning was at last revealed by Him. That is the way in which Our Lord Himself “expounded the Scriptures” to the disciples on the way to Emmaus on the evening of that first Easter Day, explaining to them how “it was necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and so enter into His glory.”

 

It is Our Lord’s victory over sin and death that we are celebrating today. And yet again, thanks to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the psalmist provides us with insight into this great and wonderful mystery. The Introit of today’s joyful Mass begins with words from an ancient Christian version of psalm 138, using the words as spoken by our Saviour: “I have risen, and I am with you still; You have laid your hand on me.” The Lord has been raised from the dead. He first descended to the realm of the dead to share in their fate, but in order to set them free. In yesterday morning’s Office of Readings there was a reading from an ancient homily for Holy Saturday, which describes with powerful imagination the scene when, after His death, the Lord went to our first parents who sit in darkness and the shadow of death. It reads: “The Lord goes in to them holding His victorious weapon, His cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees Him, He strikes His breast in terror and calls out to all: “My Lord be with you all.” And Christ in reply says to Adam: “And with your spirit.” And grasping his hand He raises him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.”

 

For all of us, like Adam, were doomed never to see the light again. The curse of sin had closed the gates of paradise. We were all condemned to the darkness and pain of eternal loss far from God. Yet Our Lord, taking psalm 138 as His theme, gives shape and meaning to the following mysterious words: “Whither shall I go from your Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, (the underworld of the dead,) You are there!.. … Even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.” This is the meaning Our Lord now breathes into those words: “I am your God, O man, who became your son, who for you and your kin now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise!” It is for this reason that He has had to die: to enter the world of the dead, not to be joined to them – but so that they might be joined to Him. He has already become man, He already shares our sinful nature, but not in order to share our everlasting shame; no – He has taken all this upon Himself to lead us out of darkness into light, in short, so that we might be able to share His life, who first for us endured our death.

 

This we also recalled last night at the Easter Vigil, during that surely most intoxicating moment in the whole Church year, when, out of the darkness of night, we heard proclaimed the resurrection of the Son of Man, by the light of the Candle which represents the risen Christ here on the Sanctuary for the next fifty days. For, yet again, in order to explain how the darkness of sin and death have been definitively shattered by Christ’s light, that Proclamation, known as the “Exsultet”, again uses more words from the same psalm 138, saying: “This is the night of which it is written: the night shall be as bright as the day”, for where Christ comes, darkness must simply give way. When Christ entered the realm of darkness, what did He do but shatter the darkness with His light? And then His resurrection is the fulfilment of this shattering of death and darkness. There can be no more eternal death from now on. For the Son of God says to His Father: “It was you who knit me together in my Mother’s womb”. It was by becoming Mary’s son that the Son of God became Adam’s son. It was only thus that He became Adam’s Saviour, and Saviour of all his descendants, ourselves included. Therefore Mary plays a special part in this great and joyful mystery of the redeeming resurrection of her son. This is why the Church in Rome where in ancient times the Pope celebrated Mass today is Our Lady’s principal Church, St. Mary Major. That is also why the Church has frequently interpreted the first words of today’s Introit as addressed to Our Lady: “I have risen, and I am still with you.” Often in ancient stained glass and artwork Our Lord is shown on this Easter morning greeting His blessed Mother with these same words.

 

On the Cross Our Lord had spoken to His Mother, but the words were hardly a comfort, for He was bidding her farewell, and giving her into St. John’s keeping. Today He speaks to her to tell her “I have risen, and I am still with you, Alleluia!” Now the Gospels do not tell us of an Easter appearance by Our Lord to His blessed Mother, but are we to assume from that silence that such a visit did not take place? It seems hardly credible. Yet why do we not then know of it? Perhaps it is because in all instances, we know only what the Holy Spirit judges to be necessary for our enlightenment. The words of our Lord to His Mother from the Cross were intended to let us all know that we now have His Mother for our own. What took place between them after his Resurrection was, perhaps something that we shall know only when we at last see Him face to face in the glory of the General Resurrection, when we shall be like Him, for we shall then see Him as He really is.

 

It is through Mary, then, that the Son of God can make the words of the psalmist His own. And so, then, can we. “Our birth would have been no gain, had we not been redeemed,” as we heard in the Exsultet. Had we been eternally lost in hell, we could hardly have said those words of ps. 138: “I thank you for the wonder of my being” to our Creator. It would surely have been better for us if we had never been born, had Christ not come as our Redeemer and given us His Mother as our very own. On Good Friday, our Lady must have been pierced with sorrow to be given care for us sinners whom she received and accepted at the foot of the cross. But now, in the light of her Son’s victory, and in the knowledge that He has come to her and exclaimed that joyful greeting, “I have risen, and I am still with you”, surely she rejoices as never before, and rejoices evermore. And why, therefore should we not rejoice too, that our Mother in heaven is rejoicing at her Son’s victory, for this victory is also her redemption as well as ours? And so we will greet her during throughout Eastertide with that lovely anthem, which we will so happily sing once again at the end of the Bidding Prayers: “Regina Caeli, laetare, alleluia… O Queen of heaven, rejoice, Alleluia! For He whom you were worthy to bear, Alleluia! Has risen as He said, alleluia!” Therefore with confidence we can ask her who is God’s mother and ours to: “Pray for us to God, Alleluia!”

Easter Vigil

Posted on 7th April, 2024

 

There is no other night like this night, the night where darkness becomes brighter than day, not by natural light, but by transcendent light; for this is the light of Christ rising in glory which shatters no ordinary darkness, but the hopeless darkness of the grave, of death and of sin. So on this wonderful night even ordinary candle light becomes extraordinary. For when we came into this darkened chapel, empty as though it were a tomb, we filled it with light and then listened to the ‘Exsultet’, the ecstatic announcement of the resurrection: ‘This is the night’, was the constantly repeated phrase, when God led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt by their passage through the Red Sea, the night when Christ broke the prison bars of death; a night so holy that it dispels wickedness, washes guilt away, restores both innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners; this truly blessed night is the one on which things of heaven are wedded to those of earth, and all that is divine to all that is human.

 

For Christ’s new life utterly surpasses the one He gave up on the cross, and yet wonderfully it is still His own. For it is as man, as son of Adam, that He died and was buried, and as Son of Man too that He has risen, glorious from the grave, incapable of ever dying again.

 

It is only once we had been enlightened by this light of the risen Christ, and after we had cast out the darkness with His light, that we turned back again to the pages of Scripture, to see how they have now been fulfilled, made perfect, only in that light. So we have heard how God made all things in the beginning, and made them all good, delighting in the work of His hands – and then saw that all this was finally to be made new in the resurrection. Then we heard how Abraham, our father in faith, offered his son Isaac in sacrifice at God’s command. But although God in His mercy saved Isaac, nevertheless, as we once again witnessed yesterday, God did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all. Then we heard of the origin of this Passover feast in the dramatic account of God’s leading his people out of Egypt under Moses. And after this we heard from the prophets that God would at last put His chosen People’s sufferings and infidelities behind them, and crown them with beauty and glory; that God would take away His people’s hunger and thirst by giving them heavenly food and drink, and would make a new and eternal covenant with them, pouring clean water over them to cleanse them of sin and renewing their hearts to be able to love Him in return for His undying love.

 

After all that, and having heard the Gospel account of the women at the empty tomb, what else can we do to celebrate this wonderful night? There is only one way we can improve on what we have already heard, and that is to give thanks as our Lord has taught us. Here again we are bringing something to a new perfection.

For if Christ’s priesthood was perfected on the cross, then the victim is perfected in the resurrection, and that holy victim is Christ’s Body and Blood which He has offered for us on the cross, and now offers to us in Holy Communion. For we do not consecrate and receive as Communion a dead body, nor blood poured out in death, but a living and immortal one. Whenever we receive Him, we receive Him as He is now, glorious and immortal, not dead and buried. His Resurrection brings about the transformation of His Sacrifice into a living reality, in which we are about to share once more in Holy Communion. For when He comes to dwell in us as the risen Lord, He brings us to a share in His resurrection here and now.

 

He is our perfect sacrifice, uniting us with the Father by atoning for our sins; He is our perfect priest, offering Himself to us just as He offers Himself to the Father, making us sharers in His risen Body; He is our perfect new life, the promise of immortality even after death may seem to have had the last word over all mankind – for it is not so. Indeed, Christ’s rising from the dead is the inauguration of a wholly new and glorious life not only for Him, but for all those who believe in Him and receive Him in His life-giving sacraments, as we will do shortly, thus sealing His victory within our own mortal bodies. So Easter is not only our greatest feast, it is the sign and pledge of our future glory. With this all in mind, we cannot stop repeating that cry of praise and joy which we have neither heard nor sung from the beginning of Lent until it was renewed just before the Gospel: ‘Alleluia!’

Good Friday

Posted on 7th April, 2024

 

‘It is accomplished.’ Having said this, Our Lord gave up His Spirit to His Father. Thus He returned to the One who had sent Him into the world to be our Redeemer. The hour for which He had prepared Himself throughout his life on earth, had now been fulfilled.

 

There is something that we should know about this word, this one word which Our Lord utters at the extremity of His life, at the very moment of death. First, it is only St John who tells us this word – St John who himself ‘saw these things’, and who personally guarantees their trustworthiness. St John wrote his Gospel in Greek, and in Greek there is just one word meaning ‘it is accomplished’: ‘tetelestai'. We can also translate this in English in several ways: ‘it is accomplished, it is finished, or, better still, it is perfected.’ Now I want to remind you of the beginning of last night’s Gospel, when John told us that Jesus had always loved His own in the world, and now He wanted to show how perfect His love was. The Supper was the means He chose to show how ‘perfect His love was’, where the word ‘perfect’ is in Greek the same word, ‘teloV’, which means ‘end’. Hence, according to another translation of St John, at the Last Supper Jesus ‘loved them to the end.’ Now ‘telos’ does not only mean ‘end’ in the sense we often use it in English, the conclusion of a series of events, closure, finality. It means ‘end’ in the sense of ‘purpose’, the fulfilment or completion of that for which a certain thing has begun.

 

The Last Supper was the ‘end’ of Jesus’s love, not in the sense that His love was now over and done with, but in the sense that it encapsulated the very purpose for which He had lived in the world. Think of it, - the Last Supper was not just a final meal with friends, it was the culmination of all that He had done in the way of signs of His true identity and of His infinite love for us. Yet even so, as we learned last night, the Supper was not even on its own the end, because without the cross it would have no completion, no fulfilment. The Last Supper in which He gave us His Body and Blood sacramentally, would not have been the beginning of the Mass had He not given up His Body and Blood sacrificially for us on this day. For, as I said last night, the Supper and the Cross are one. Today sees the fulfilment, the accomplishment, of what He gave us at the Supper.

 

Yet there is also another sense of ‘telos’, as a bringing something to perfection. In today’s second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews it was said that ‘Although He was Son, Jesus learned to obey through suffering; but having been made perfect, He became for all who obey Him the source of eternal salvation.’

 

In the Old Testament, the word ‘made perfect’ was used of priests being consecrated for their sacred duties, that is, to be mediators between God and man, by offering sacrifices to God. Well, that sense is surely contained deep within that word of our Lord’s, ‘it is fulfilled’, ‘tetelestai’.  His telos, the end or perfection He has now achieved at the end of His sufferings is the perfection of His priesthood. Now His Sacrifice is complete, and now the Church can begin to celebrate it after the manner He has instituted for us at the Last Supper – in the Sacrifice of the Mass.

 

Truly at that moment on the cross, at the end of all His sufferings, death perfects His priesthood. That is the meaning of that other scene which John especially emphasises: the piercing of our Lord’s side, from which pours Blood and Water. We should see in this outpouring of the last drops of Christ’s blood the sign of the perfection of His love. He did not need to shed more than a single drop as a perfect sacrifice, had that been all He wanted to achieve. But He wanted to show yet more, His love for all of us to the end, to completion, to perfection. God the Father does not demand a cruel fate for His Son out of anger, but that His Son should show in this way how complete, how total, how perfect is His love, and how it transforms us in the sacraments, fruit of His priesthood. In this spirit we will soon behold the cross, the instrument of Christ’s telos, His ‘tetelestai’, by which He has accomplished His perfection as our Priest, King and Redeemer unveiled before us. Come, let us adore such a great sign, such a marvellous instrument, by which Christ has fulfilled and brought to completion and perfection His work for us.

Maundy Thursday

Posted on 30th March, 2024

 

It may seem strange that we began tonight with an introit antiphon which did not mention the Last Supper, nor the Blessed Sacrament, nor the inauguration of the priesthood, nor the new commandment to love one another. The introit of Maundy Thursday is in many ways the introduction to the whole Triduum, the most sacred three days of the entire year. It is like the overture which leads us into the great mystery of these events which we are now reliving in the heart of Christ’s Body, the Church.

 

Here are the words we sang: ‘We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection, through whom we are saved and delivered.’ This is an introduction to all of the Passion, death and Resurrection of our Lord. Yet it is also an introduction to what in detail we celebrate this night. For in a short while we shall repeat that account of the events of the Last Supper which we do at every Mass, beginning: ‘On the day before He was to suffer...’ and so the events of this evening are told every day, and we have heard from St Paul’s account to the Corinthians. To make the point even clearer, that this is indeed the anniversary of that very day, the day before He suffered, the priest changes the words of the consecration, for the only time in the whole year, adding these: ‘on the day before He was to suffer, for our salvation and the salvation of all, THAT IS, TODAY.’ Of course, we do not mean that this is necessarily the anniversary in the sense that, for instance, September 8th is precisely the anniversary day of the accession of King Charles. After all, the priest says the same words every year on Maundy Thursday night, regardless of what date it falls. It is a liturgical anniversary, it is the day before we commemorate the Lord’s passion and death, and leading up to the Sunday of His resurrection, the greatest day of the year, every year.

 

Today is that day, whereon He showed us the fullness of the love that would take Him to the Cross and beyond – to the dawn of eternal life. As the Gospel we have just heard makes clear, Maundy Thursday has many aspects. The very name by which we in England know it, Maundy, comes from a form of the word ‘Mandatum’, that is, the ‘commandment’ which Our Lord not merely gives to His Apostles, but which He demonstrates in various ways. Note, first of all, that John introduces the Last Supper, an event which will take up fully five chapters of the entire book, with these words which give the key to understanding all that follows, and not only in the chapters dedicated to the Last Supper and our Lord’s teaching there, but to all that follows on Good Friday, and which we shall hear in John’s Passion tomorrow afternoon.

 

Note the first thing John says is that this was before the Passover, not the Passover itself. I will say more about that tomorrow. But also note what John says next, that Jesus knew that at last this was the hour, when He should pass, or cross, from this world to the Father. He had spoken many times of this ‘hour’, right from Cana when He said to His Mother, ‘my hour has not yet come’, to the event we heard on the Sunday before last, when His soul was troubled, and He even sought to pray, ‘Father, save me from this hour.’ Yet He knows that it is for this very hour that He has come into the world in the first place. This ‘hour’ is His Passover, and it comprises not just the Supper, but all that the Supper represents and all that it leads towards over the next twenty four hours.

 

I next want to bring to your attention a very important detail which is not clear in the translation of this passage from St John’s Gospel we have heard. St John summarises the entire Gospel so far in one small but highly significant phrase, saying, ‘He had always loved those who were His in the world’; that is the meaning of all He has done, all His signs of love and mercy have been proofs of His love, and now that the hour of His passing from this world has come, before He goes to the Father there is something He must do to bring everything He has ever done and said to a focus, and to make it the beginning of a new way of life for His Apostles, just as His own life on earth comes to an end. So, as our translation put it, ‘now He showed how perfect His love was.’ This sums up well the meaning of the Greek phrase, but it doesn’t help us to see an important key to understanding what happens on the morrow on the cross. For the exact words John actually uses here are that ‘He now showed them that He loved them to the end.’ I want to remind you of those words tomorrow afternoon, because they are a vital indication of how close this night’s events are to those of tomorrow afternoon – the Last Supper and the Crucifixion are totally united in this perfection of love, in this loving ‘to the end’ of our Lord for all His followers and for all mankind.

 

From this moment, all that our Lord did at the Last Supper can make sense to us in a new way. It is not only the institution of the Blessed Sacrament in memorial of Him, it is also the sign that this night will give us the means to make this continue to be a living presence in our lives; this night will provide both the key to the meaning of the Cross, and the means of its continued presence and power in the lives of everyone who will every live in union with Christ thereafter, including us here and now.

 

To turn briefly to St Paul’s familiar words in the 2nd reading, ‘on the night he was betrayed, [Jesus] took bread, and thanked God (i.e. the Eucharist), and broke it, (symbolising His approaching death), and gave it to His disciples saying, “This is my Body which is for you”.’ Likewise He took the chalice saying, “This chalice is the new covenant in my Blood.” This must have been difficult for the Apostles to understand. What was He saying about His Body and Blood, and about the Covenant between God and His chosen people? St Paul concludes this passage with an explanation: ‘every time you eat this bread and drink this cup you are proclaiming His death.’ The gift of Holy Communion, of the Lord’s Body and Blood, which is for us, given under those forms He took into His holy and venerable hands on this night, are the living continuation of His sacrifice which He would achieve once and for all, that is, bring to perfection or fulfilment, on the following day. Without the crucifixion, there would be no Holy Communion, no Holy Mass.

 

But, finally for now, we cannot forget the Maundy, i.e. the Commandment, which gives today its name in our tradition: ‘Maundy’ or ‘Commandment Thursday’. In fact, our Lord gives the Apostles not one commandment, but two: first He says, ‘love one another as I have loved you’, showing the Twelve what He means by washing their feet in true humility, and then He commands them to ‘do this in memory of me,’ not as a mere commemoration, like a re-enactment of an historical event. The Mass is not a historical reconstruction of the Last Supper, nor is it meant to be. Many of the details of how we fulfil the Command to ‘do this’ are not mere copies of what He did that night. It is the fulfilment, in one and the same celebration, both of the events of the Last Supper and of the Sacrifice of the Cross, by means of all of which our Lord returned to His Father, and gave Himself to us, that we do whenever we do ‘this’ in memory of Him.

 

This is why on this night, Mass does not actually come to an end in the usual way with a blessing and dismissal. Instead we will joyfully and reverently accompany our Lord’s precious Body to the Altar of Repose where we are invited to keep watch with Him in silence for one hour if possible; otherwise for a little while before going home, and then we will reassemble tomorrow afternoon for the completion of what we begin tonight, namely, the Liturgy of the Passion and Cross. And as tonight’s liturgy has no ending, but in effect continues in silence through the night, so tomorrow’s liturgy has no normal beginning, for we will begin that in total silence. And from that opening silence we will go on to witness the completion, the fulfilment, the perfection of the love He has shown us in tonight’s sacred supper. For tonight and tomorrow are one.