(Sunday sermons, talks, and teaching)
‘Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ John 12:31-32
This evening we continue to explore the rites and liturgies that accompany our Easter celebration in the Easter Triduum. Yesterday we talked about Maundy Thursday and the institution of the Eucharist as the Sacrament in which the love of Christ for us is manifested ‘to the end’ (John 13:1); today I would like to share with you some thoughts about the Good Friday Liturgy. First of all we call it “liturgy” because it is not a Eucharist. We will indeed receive Holy Communion at the end of that service, but the sacrifice of praise of the Mass will not be celebrated; Communion will be administered from the reserved Sacrament consecrated on Maundy Thursday. This is the only day of the year in which Mass cannot be celebrated at any time. So in some church traditions a rather peculiar name for this service has come about, the “Mass of the Pre-Sanctified”; meaning that the liturgy looks a bit like a Mass – with readings, intercessions, and distribution of Communion – but the Sacrament has been “pre-sanctified”, that is consecrated in advance.
Central to this celebration will be the reading of the Passion of Our Lord according to John. On this sombre day, when the church building is deprived of ornaments, the priests prostrate themselves before the barren altar, and the sorrow of death is palpable, John’s passion offers a unique perspective into the mystery of Calvary. In John, Jesus remains in control of the situation even to the bitter end; he is the new Passover Lamb sacrificed for the sins of all; the One who willingly undergoes the suffering of the Cross as his glorification; the One who is willingly lifted up from the earth to draw everyone to himself. In this Passion reading the story of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness, so that those who looked on it found healing from snake poison, finds its right fulfilment (Cf. Numbers 21:8-9).
After the reading of the Passion and the homily, we will have a time of formal prayer, called the “General Intercessions”, for the needs of the world, the Church, and other faith communities. Sure, we pray for the world all the time; but at the Good Friday Liturgy we will make our prayers especially for those who do not know or who refuse Jesus Christ. Therefore, when we will get to that moment in the service, I ask you to pray earnestly, with all your heart, that unbelievers and lapsed Christians may turn to the Cross of Christ to find healing.
After this, we ourselves we will be invited to draw near the Cross of Jesus, as an image of it will be carried to the altar. We will be invited to go up to venerate the Cross, to kiss the wood, to genuflect or bow towards it so that the outward gestures of our bodies may inspire the inward motions of our hearts to turn anew to the Cross and find healing for ourselves.
The distribution of Holy Communion – under the form of bread alone – will conclude our liturgy and then the Church will be silent again in preparation for the Easter Vigil and the day of resurrection.
Look at Jesus on the Cross and be saved! Look at the Crucified Lord; approach, draw near to the Cross and be saved. This is the message of our Good Friday Liturgy. This we will do both by meditating on the Scriptures, and by venerating that instrument of death and torture, which through the death of Our Lord Jesus has become the instrument of salvation for all.
‘Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.’ John 13:1
Over these first three evenings of Holy Week I would like to share with you some thoughts about the liturgies which will mark our celebrations of Easter. These celebrations are spread over four days which will form a single unit of worship, arranged in two complementary parts; the first is what is called the “Easter Triduum” meaning the three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday; the second part will be the joyful celebration of Easter Day on Sunday.
On Maundy Thursday we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist in a special Mass that is traditionally named the “Mass of the Lord’s Supper”. This traditional name can create some confusion, because at every Eucharist we celebrate “the Lord’s Supper”. So, why this name? Because on Maundy Thursday we rehears an aspect of Jesus Last Supper which is not normally part of our liturgy; and this is the washing of the feet. The action of the Lord taking off his outer robe, girding himself with a towel, kneeling at the disciples feet (Cf. John 13:4), and performing a duty reserved only to servants is an integral part of the Eucharistic liturgy that follows it. Both the foot washing and the self-offering of Jesus in the Sacrament are a single act preceded in the gospel of John by the words, ‘Jesus… Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.’ (John 13:1) Jesus loves us with unsurpassable love, and in his love he stoops down to wash away our impurities, however little or great they might be, so that we may have part with him, so that we may share with him at the Easter feast, of which we are given a lasting pledge in the Eucharist. Not by chance then, these actions of Jesus also form the pattern for our Christian life; they inform us that we should be people who partaking of the holy food of the altar are also the ones who devote themselves to the service of others. At the foot washing, the priest – who stands in the congregation in the person of Jesus – takes off his outer vestment, called chasuble, puts on a towel, and washes the feet of those present who are invited to be followers of Jesus just like the first disciples were.
The Mass will be celebrated with joy, the Gloria will be sung, and the vestments will be white or golden; yet this will be a subdued joy, because this is the evening of the Passion of Our Lord. Soon after having eaten the Passover meal with his disciples, Christ is betrayed into the hands of his enemies while everyone escapes the scene. So after having received Communion we will move into the final part of the service, which is the Watch. We will go with Jesus into the garden, leaving the nave of the church for what is called the “altar of repose”. We will go with Jesus to stay with him for a while remembering his sufferings which began long before the beatings, his anxiety, and his tears for our sake. Jesus will be with us in the Sacrament on the altar and we will be with him in the silence of our contemplation. As we do this, the other altars will be stripped, and all music and noise will be hushed – because Good Friday will be upon us. The silence will be interrupted at times by readings from the Passion according to John. There will be no formal ending to the liturgy, so feel free to stay at the altar of repose for as long or as little as you wish.
Take your time during the celebration of the Easter events to meditate on the liturgy, on the signs and gestures of it all. Let God speak to your soul and nurture your faith through them. He is present and he invites you to love him through the liturgy – which, at the end of the day, is his own gift to the Church.
‘He had always loved those who were his in the world,
but now he showed how perfect his love was.’ (John 13:2)
Only this afternoon, whilst leading the Easter services for Thomas Whitehead Academy, I joined the children in singing,
Higher than the highest mountain,
deeper than the deepest deep blue sea,
stronger than the love of everyone
is the love of Jesus for me.
And indeed, yes, Jesus’ love for us is higher, deeper, and stronger that anything we can ever imagine. But it is not only those things. Jesus’ love is also perfect – perfect in the sense of being mature, grown-up love; forever unchanging; always preceding our actions; always more generous than what we expect or deserve, and always ready to welcome us; perfect in the sense that it is entirely selfless, and intentionally self-giving.
Tonight we begin to celebrate this perfect love by rehearsing the first chapter of the Easter story where the Lord “gives us the Eucharist as a memorial of his suffering and death”. But as we enter the upper room of the Passover meal with the disciples we see that Jesus does much more than simply sharing a meal with his friends. His love is perfect, so in that love Jesus also prepares us for this meal by washing away our spiritual dirt like he washed the disciples feet; he then feeds us and as food he gives us the gift of his own very self; and finally he makes the Eucharist as the central celebration of his love and as his enduring presence with us for all time.
Yet, so many Christians keep away from this most holy Sacrament; so many parishes have given up almost entirely on celebrating the Eucharist often and with regularity; and so many people seek true life and true love everywhere but here.
Saint Alphonsus in our Offertory hymn speaks of this Sacrament which Jesus establishes tonight as the bond of that perfect love which makes us one with Jesus, as the food of true life, and as the source of only lasting joy.
O Bond of love that dost unite
The servant to his living Lord;
Could I dare live and not requite
Such love? - then death were meet reward:
I cannot live unless to prove
Some love for such unmeasured love.
My hope and prayer is that tonight we will encounter afresh this perfect love in the celebration of the Mass and that we will hear the Lord’s encouragement to receive him in the Eucharist as often as possible.
‘Jesus had always loved those who were his in the world, but now he showed how perfect his love was’; or in a better translation, ‘Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.’ (John 13:1)
Oftentimes preachers speak about the love Jesus shows for us by focusing almost entirely on the Cross; this is because the Lord’s death on Calvary is the greatest thing anyone has ever done for each one of us. Yet, the Cross did not come out of the blue, it was the climax of a life lived in generous self-giving for us. And tonight as we enter once again in the mystery of the Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection we are greeted by that love. Behind the suffering, the bloodshed, the nails, and the tears what we ought to see is love – not a romantic, sentimental, butterflies-in-the-stomach-causing sort of love, but the unmeasured and self-giving love of Jesus for us.
So I would like to draw your attention to just one aspect of that love. On this night when Jesus washes the disciples’ feet and gives himself to us completely in the holy food of the Eucharist, he does not avoid Judas; Jesus does not say “in a few minutes you are going to betray me, so I don’t care about you…” Instead, Jesus washes Judas feet and feeds him with the sacrament of his Body and Blood. Why?
One could say that he did so in order to give Judas a moral slap – if Jesus, into whose hands the Father had put all things, was ready and willing to perform the work of a servant, then how could Judas be so arrogant and deceitful? But this interpretation wouldn’t quite work, because the gospel tells us that Jesus washed the disciples’ feet to show them love, not moral superiority. Also, in this case, Jesus could have then prevented Judas from taking part in the Eucharistic meal, but noticeably, he did not.
No, I believe that Jesus washed the feet of Judas and welcomed him at his table to show him that he was not going to give up on him that easily. Judas may betray Jesus and be condemned for it, but Jesus would not betray Judas. And this is truly unmeasured love.
So let us transpose this gospel reading into our lives. We all fall into sin, great or small, on a daily basis. We all are tempted from time to time to turn our backs on the Church. But every time we fall or find ourselves tempted to betray Christ in favour of something else, Jesus does not turn us away. He is in the sacrament of the Eucharist, he is in the absolution of Confession, he is there for us; he does not exclude us and does not give up on us. And this is, once again, truly unmeasured love.
If we understood just this one simple truth, then we could also understand the words of our offertory hymn and learn to sing them as if they were our own;
Could I dare live and not requite / such love
- then death were meet reward:
I cannot live unless to prove / some love
for such unmeasured love.
(from 'O Bread of Heaven, beneath this veil')