A few years ago I participated in a remarkable journey. I was invited by the rabbis of two local synagogues in the town in which I was living to accompany them and their congregants to visit the Holy Land. Their hope was that I could be with them as they visited Christian sites and help them understand the significance of those sites and likewise for Christians who might sign up for the trip to learn from the rabbis the significance of sacred Jewish spots. I had never visited the Holy Land and so I readily agreed to accept this unique opportunity.
After an all-night flight from New York to Tel Aviv, we arrived and were quickly on a bus to Jerusalem, our first stop. The hotel was not yet ready to receive us, and so we commenced our journey immediately and the bus went to the Mount of Olives, in the Garden of Gethsemane. Once all 40 or so of us were within the Garden, the rabbis asked me to read from the gospel of Matthew the passage that recounts what happened in Gethsemane.
I was about half way through the narrative when I found myself becoming full of emotion, and I struggled to read on. Perhaps it could be explained that I was just excessively tired from the long trip, but I knew for me it was something else.
Standing there it occurred to me: This was the spot where Jesus prayed the night before he died. This was the spot where the disciples could not stay awake for him as he prayed.
This was the spot where he was betrayed and led off to ultimately be put to death. Even though I struggled to read on, the experience of reading out loud to all those present (believers and non-believers alike) is embedded in my mind and held as a cherished memory.
And tonight all of us are called to remember what happened right before Gethsemane, the Last Supper, the supper where Jesus gathered His disciples knowing full well what was about to transpire once He reached Gethsemane. And knowing that, He wanted to make sure His disciples then, and all believers for all time, would know how much God loved them.
We see evidence of God’s love in tonight’s first reading from Exodus. God demonstrates that love in the Passover feast meant for the Chosen People, remembering when in Egypt they were saved from destruction by sacrificing a lamb and putting the blood on the door so they would be passed over.
And yet tonight we observe God’s incredible gift of love when His only Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, knowing He was about to die, at this meal offers Himself as the new sacrifice. And so that we might never forget how much we are loved, He institutes this Eucharist as the most powerful sign He is still with us, that even His death on Good Friday will not keep him from us.
For tonight at the consecration the priests around this altar will recite the words He commanded us:
“Take and eat. This is my body.
Take and Drink. This is my Blood.
Do this in memory of me.”
And before we partake in this communion tonight, we will hear the words from the altar: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are we called to the Supper of the lamb.” The Lamb is no longer the lamb of sacrifice spoken of in tonight’s first reading from Exodus … no this is the Lamb of God, Jesus our Lord, and indeed how blessed are we to be called to the Supper of This Lamb.
The Gospel also this evening tells us one last thing Jesus did at this precious Supper before he went to Gethsemane. He puts a towel around Himself, and He humbly washes the feet of His disciples.
Even as He was instituting the most precious gift we could receive in the institution of the Eucharist, He managed to do that in the most humble way possible by literally and figuratively stooping to wash the feet of His disciples.
This priesthood He instituted was to be embodied not in power and majesty, but in humility and service. For at the conclusion of the meal, after washing the feet of His disciples, He tells us now go and “do as I do.” Indeed this is a message for us all to take to heart. “Do as I do.” Love as I loved; forgive as I forgave; serve as I served.
Our Holy Father Francis embodied this very act when several years ago he went to a hospice in Buenos Aires to wash and kiss the feet of AIDS patients thus “doing as He did,” loving and serving the other, and tonight he washed the feet of 12 incarcerated juveniles in Rome. What a great example this new pope has given us in a few short weeks about the call to serve as He served.
I began my reflection by recounting how overwhelming it was for me to be in that Garden some years ago. But my brothers and sisters, how overwhelming it should be for us this very night to realize what we commemorate, what we celebrate. After the meal, the disciples could not stay awake in the garden. Tonight after our meal, we do the opposite. We will adore the Eucharist as it is transposed to a different place away from the table.
Let us adore that Eucharist not only tonight, let us stay focused in these three sacred days, and let us most importantly allow ourselves to be touched so deeply by words of the Lamb of God – “Do this in memory of me” and “Do as I do” – that we never slide into the sleepiness of complacency but stay alert and awake. For Jesus is indeed our Lamb of God, the one who takes away the sins of the world, our Lord and our Savior. And the liturgies of this night and in the next two days might very well cause us to be just a bit overwhelmed by the awareness of how much we are loved.
Fr. Thomas J. O’Hara, C.S.C., is the Provincial Superior of the United States Province of Priests and Brothers. He professed Final Vows in the Congregation on September 3, 1977, and was ordained to the priesthood on June 10, 1978. Continue to enter into the Easter Triduum this year with homilies from Holy Cross religious on the Spes Unica Blog.