At the start of these three sacred days, known through the centuries as the Triduum Sacrum, the Church commemorates the institution of the Most Holy Eucharist and the Sacred Priesthood. Each time we come to the Mass we hear in the words of consecration uttered by the Priest of how “on the day before he was to suffer” the Lord took bread and wine, and offered it to his eternal Father before sharing it with his disciples. “In pronouncing the blessing over the bread and wine, [the Lord] anticipated the sacrifice of the Cross and expressed the intention of perpetuating his presence among his disciples” in his Real Presence in the Most Holy Eucharist. In the liturgy of this night we hear more specifically: “On the day before he was to suffer for our salvation and the salvation of all, that is today.” Today is thus the pre-eminent feast of the gift of the Most Holy Eucharist, the sacrament of unity in which we find not only our vocation to holiness—what Saint Thomas Aquinas calls “a pledge of future glory”—but also the very meaning of what it is to be the Church. As Christians we are baptised into the Mystical Body of Christ. We are, quite literally, incorporated in Christ. In the Most Holy Eucharist it is that one and the same Body that is offered and received. As Pope Benedict XVI put it: “The Eucharist is the mystery of the profound closeness and communion of each individual with the Lord and, at the same time, of visible unity between all.”
This is a very important, even essential point. What binds us together in the communion of the Church—what makes us one with each other and one with Christ—united to the Father through the Son, in and with the Holy Spirit—is our ability to offer and receive the Most Holy Eucharist. The Church is, as we have said, the Mystical Body of Christ, and it is Christ—the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity—who eternally offers himself to the Father in that perfect hymn of praise that is the life of heaven. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is “front and centre” of what we are about as Christians, and without it we cannot be fully one with the Lord.
It is of course for this reason that on this night we also commemorate the institution of the Sacred Priesthood. The Most Holy Eucharist, as we have said, is essential to the character and nature of the life of the Church. For that reason, at the same time as instituting the sacrament of the Eucharist the Lord also bestowed the gift of Priesthood on the apostles. This gift has been faithfully handed down through the laying-on of hands, from apostle and their successors, the bishops, so that it is still alive in the Church even today. The Eucharist is necessary for the Church, because it is the means by which the Lord continues to abide with us, in accordance with his promise. As such the Sacred Priesthood is also necessary, so that the Eucharistic sacrifice can be offered, and the life of the Church perpetuated. In short: without priests there is no Mass; without the Mass there is no Church.
But what is it that the Priest of Jesus Christ does? He is of course a pastor to his people; a familiar and (we pray) reliable encouragement to those entrusted to his care. But first of all—and essentially linked to this—he is the man who offers sacrifice on our behalf. The Priest of Jesus Christ stands in the very person of Jesus Christ and offers the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to God the Father. In the life of the Church the Priest is no mere functionary—the leader or administrator of a faith community. Rather he is a man who has been consecrated for the sacrifice of the temple: set aside from his own worldly desires in order that the void his “death to self” provides is filled by Christ. In his principal work of offering the Sacred Liturgy the Priest stands in the person of Christ and offers the work of Christ; what the Church’s eloquent theological tradition calls In persona Christi capitis—in the person of Christ, the head, presiding over the assembly as one of the Body albeit in a unique and distinct manner.
And what is it that a Priest requires to offer this work of sacrifice? An altar and a victim. Dear Friends: this is the heart of these three sacred days. It is in them that Christ reveals to us his eternal presence in the Church, and thus in our lives. In the cenacle, the Upper Room of Maundy Thursday, the Lord institutes the Priesthood; On Calvary, in the afternoon of Good Friday, he will show us that the victim is himself, and the altar is his own cross. As we will hear in the liturgy of the coming Easter season: “in the reality of the Cross… [he] showed himself the Priest, the Altar, and the Lamb of sacrifice.”
The Priest is essential to this sacrifice, but all those who are baptised into Christ—who are joined to Christ the Priest, the Altar, and the Victim—are also to united to it. That is why the Eucharist is the sacrament of unity, and why we are compelled by law and love to attend the Holy Mass and to receive Holy Communion at various times of the year; because the Eucharist is the most visible sign of our essential oneness with Christ. We are most the Church when we gather to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice; we are most Christian when we are united to Christ in that offering.
In this holy night in which we begin our final journey to the cross and grave, may become ever more conscious of the Lord’s abiding presence in the Most Holy Eucharist, and in coming to receive his very own Body and Blood may we be conformed ever more into his image and likeness.