The solemn celebration of this most holy night, in which we commemorate the institution of the Most Holy Eucharist and the ministerial priesthood, affords us the opportunity to recognize once again the great outpouring of love and grace which is the sacrifice of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. By participation in these sacred rites and in those of the coming days the Church invites us, her children, to enter into the mystery of the passion, death, and resurrection, in a more intense and renewed way, uniting ourselves to the perfect oblation of God the Son to God the Father in and through God the Holy Spirit. In the three days on which we have now embarked, the saving acts of the Lord are retold so that we might recognize what our God has done for us, and so strive to respond by lives oriented toward his eternal presence.
In our meditation on these things we are reminded by the gifts of the Most Holy Eucharist and the sacred priesthood that we are members of the mystical body of Christ, incorporated into his life; we the body, he the head. We are reminded that it is in the life of that body, that is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, we experience the outpouring of the fruits of his sacrifice in the grace that flows to us by means of the sacraments. In baptism we are forever joined to Christ; in confirmation we are strengthened as his soldiers in the battle to preserve that relationship; and in the Most Holy Eucharist we are fed with panis viatorum which is at once our sustenance on the pilgrimage to eternal life in his presence, and a foretaste of the banquet we hope there to enjoy. By this we are made aware of the supremely ecclesial nature of this night, in which the apostles gather around their master, as he bestows on them the gift of his priesthood and entrusts them with care of his sacred body.
This community of apostles, in which we are invited to have a share by our union with their successors and especially the successor of Saint Peter, is both a physical and a spiritual reality. Yet the physical and the spiritual are not distinct, but one; our external and visible relationship with the hierarchical communion of the Church is itself the authentic sign of our internal communion with Christ. Thus we can affirm: “the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race” (LG 1). Our outward communion with the Church, by means of ecclesiastical governance and obedience of her precepts, is an intrinsic sign of our inward communion with her, and thus with Christ. This is shown most beautifully on this day, when we recognize the fundamental relationship between the unity of the Church and the gifts of the Most Holy Eucharist and the ministerial priesthood; a unity which is emphasized by the day’s dual celebration; of the Mass of Chrism offered by the diocesan bishop, and the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in which the institution of those gifts is recalled.
Nevertheless membership of and outward participation in the life of the Church by a merely external “activism” is no membership at all. This approach is as damaging to the communion of Christ’s body as an interior life of faith that is separated from the institutional Church, and particularly from the successor of Saint Peter. By failing to live the life of Christ in the way of virtue and grace which he offers, we damage the relationship with him begun in us at the font, and cut ourselves off from the fruits of his sacrificial and salvific offering.
In a most striking way this choice is presented to us in the traditional Collect of the Mass this night: “O God, author alike of the punishment that befell Judas for his guilt, and of the penitent thief’s reward, grant us thy clemency, so that our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his passion gave to each a different recompense according to his deserts, may set us free from our ancestral guilt and bestow upon us the grace of rising up again with him”.
On the one hand we are shown the deceitful Judas, who though privileged to be present in the upper room with the Lord and the apostles nevertheless betrayed his master for his own gain. And on the other hand we see the penitent thief, whose life was led in sin but who in the hour of his death acknowledged the Lord for who he really is. That paradox risks being ours also. We are united in what Cardinal Newman dared to call “the one true fold of the redeemer”—the full communion of the Catholic Church. We are gathered with Christ in the cenacle which is that Church, in union with his chosen twelve and their successors, and in the place where his sacrificial love is outpoured in the bread and wine that will become his very self. And yet how often do we pay him empty homage with lukewarmness and acedia? How often do we embrace him and kiss him with a false love, not in adoration of his divine person but seeking to satisfy our own sense of mere obligation? Truly it would be better for us in those moments never to have been born!
These days, then, are a chance for that interior participation in the life of grace to be renewed, that no difference may be found in what we profess with our lips and what we believe in our hearts. By this we become one with Christ, on the cross and in the tomb, yes; but also in the resurrection life won for us by his sacrifice. This is the gift offered us this night; let us grasp it, and so be brought into a more profound communion with the life of the Most Holy Trinity, that we may be one in him now and for eternity, that we may be saved and the world may believe (Jn 17: 21).