Thursday, April 13, 2006

Holy Thursday-The Paschal Mystery Made Present

(Holy Thursday-Year B;This homily was given 13 April, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Exodus 12:1-14, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

Tonight we begin the sacred Triduum, those holy three days in which we enter more deeply into the very mysteries of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. These days are always filled with inspiring and powerful moments. As we listen to the readings in these days, we can ask ourselves:

What must it have been like to be with Christ and the twelve Apostles in that upper room for the Last Supper?

To stand beneath the cross with Mary that Good Friday?

To come, with Mary Magdalene, to the tomb of Christ that first Easter morning . . . and find it empty?

In the Triduum we focus on these great events of Jesus’ life, the events of our own redemption. But somehow it is not enough for us to simply recall these events that occurred some 2,000 years ago. We need more than a memory, more than a remembrance of the redemption Christ won for us.

Jesus knew that. And for that reason, on the night before He died, at the Last Supper, Jesus takes the events of His own passion and death, and unites them once and for all to a meal.

It was the Passover meal, the one celebrated by the Jews each year to remember how God saved them from slavery and death in the land of Egypt. Jesus and the Apostles had celebrated that feast, that meal, all their lives. Yet, suddenly Jesus does something that had never been done before. We heard about it in that second reading from St. Paul.

He took the bread that was always used at that meal, and said, “This is my body” which will be given up for you. Then He took the cup and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”

The body that Christ will offer to the Father on the altar of the cross, and His blood that will be poured out on Good Friday for the forgiveness of sins, that gift of Christ Himself, is made present at that Last Supper in the form of bread and wine.

Christ then commands the Apostles to continue that sacrifice as He institutes the priesthood. He commands them to “Do this in memory of me.”

This is the gift we celebrate each Mass when we celebrate the Eucharist. It is the Passover fulfilled, the very sacrifice of Christ made present in every time and place. We truly believe as Catholics that the events of that first Triduum—Jesus’ sacrifice and death for us on the cross—are made present each time we celebrate the Mass.

Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia, refers to this very mystery when he says:

In this gift Jesus Christ entrusted to his Church the perennial making present of the paschal mystery. With it he brought about a mysterious “oneness in time” between that Triduum and the passage of the centuries.
—Ecclesia de Eucharistia, #5

That first Triduum and those events of our redemption are, in a certain sense, “brought forward,” here tonight, and wherever the Eucharist is celebrated. They are perpetuated throughout all of history, and there is never a time or place where the great sacrifice of Christ and the glory of His resurrection are not present.

There is a man named Walter Ciszek whose cause for canonization is now being put forward. He was a young Jesuit priest from Pennsylvania who wanted nothing else than to bring the Gospel of Christ to the people of Russia. Near the beginning of World War II, he finally got his chance and he slipped behind the Iron Curtain under the guise of a common laborer.

It wasn’t long before the KGB discovered that he was a priest, and he was arrested and tried as a Vatican spy! It was a ridiculous charge and he expected them to discover this soon enough and he would be set free. Instead, the more they interrogated him the more convinced they became that he was sent to Russia to bring back secrets to Rome.

Walter Ciszek spent 23 long years in the Soviet prisons and the labor camps of Siberia. In that time he began to see that his dream of bringing the Gospel to the Russian people was being fulfilled in a very different way than he had imagined. Time and time again he offered the sacrifice of the Mass—at the risk of being executed—making Christ and the paschal mystery of the Triduum present even in the midst of Siberia.

Finally, one cold spring morning, he was told that he would be released from the prison camp in Siberia. He was given a new place to live, though still in many ways a prisoner within communist Russia, and he was therefore forbidden to celebrate the Mass and exercise his ministry as a priest. He did it anyway.

In his book, “He Leadeth Me,” Ciszek describes one night when he celebrated the Easter Vigil in the small hut or bolok that doubled as his “chapel”. Word had gotten out that he was celebrating the Mass and hundreds of people had come from all over to attend.

There were so many that he was unable to move—even to lift his arms. Communion had to be distributed after Mass, at 3 am. It was six hours later, at 9 O’clock in the morning, when he finally finished. Collapsing on his bed that morning, one thought was fixed in his mind: That all this had taken place in communist Russia!

Obviously, an event like that became known almost immediately. He was brought before the KGB the next day and told that he would be relocated. They warned him never to celebrate the Mass again. Yet time and time again he continued to make Christ present in communist Russia through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Over and over again he would express the same sentiments: that it was worth the risk.

How many times has that same mystery been celebrated, in Russia, in Auschwitz, in a thousand forbidden places and in the midst of countless lives of faithful Christians from the time of Christ until this very day? How many dark and lonely places have been graced with the light of Christ made truly present in this holy sacrament of the altar through the hands of priests consecrated for that very purpose?

Tonight we celebrate that very mystery: the mystery of the Eucharist and the Sacrament of the priesthood whereby the Eucharist is perpetuated in every time and place.

But do the Eucharist and the priesthood mean the same to us as they did to Walter Ciszek and the people of Russia? This Holy Triduum we give thanks to God for the gift of Christ in the Eucharist and the gift of the priesthood that was instituted on that same first Holy Thursday night. May we spend the rest of our lives growing in these mysteries, and coming to recognize Christ’s paschal mystery present to us each time we celebrate the holy sacrifice of the Mass.