'We proclaim the death of the Lord' - Mass of the Lord's Supper

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Home > Archbishop > Homilies > 'We proclaim the death of the Lord' - Mass of the Lord's Supper

My brothers and sisters,

Tonight we celebrate what is entitled the Mass of the Lord’s Supper’. What these words indicate is that tonight the liturgy in a particular way focuses on the event of the Last Supper. The Collect Prayer at the beginning of Mass spoke of an invitation to “participate in this most sacred Supper”. We are being invited to join the apostles on a night and in a celebration replete with meaning.

While every Mass takes us to the events of the Last Supper, as we recall the words and actions at the Last Supper, this Mass on Holy Thursday invites us to enter into the historical event and to savour its many dimensions.

Firstly, this supper would be the final time the Lord would be able to speak freely with his disciples. It was a culmination of some three years of forming them as his disciples. And in St John’s account, there is a lengthy final teaching session. This will mark the end of a time of direct and personal discipleship. From now on, the relationship will be different.

For Christ himself it was a deeply significant moment. He had been with his disciples for three years. A deep bond had been established between himself and them. He had spoken to them, guided them, explained things to them. And he had much to convey and so he would use this time of the Last Supper to set the way things were to be from this time on.

So we can understand why Jesus says, recorded by St Luke, “I’ve longed to each this Passover supper with you”. (Lk 22:15) So for Jesus this final meal with his disciples was very very important. It was his moment, his opportunity to prepare his disciples for the future. A future at this stage they could not in any way comprehend. At the heart of this purpose was that Jesus was going to establish a new and sacramental dimension to his relationship with all his disciples over all of time. On the Lord’s part, there is much serious and deliberate intention built into everything that he would say and do at this Last Supper.

Secondly, this final teaching session was to be accompanied by a powerful symbolic act as the Lord washed his disciples’ feet. He showed by action one of his most important teachings – and clearly one that he wanted to impress in his last opportunity to be with them. Simply that service was to be the hallmark of those who were to exercise authority in his name. So often the Lord had emphasised the need for the first to learn to be the last. He had emphasised on many occasions the importance of humility. He warned his disciples never to lord it over the people. In fact he urged them to learn to become like little children. The Lord wanted his disciples to be motivated by a genuine spirit of service, especially to the poor and the needy. This was to be the Christian way. This was to be characteristic of the nature of the church and a defining quality in the life of every Christian. 

Thirdly, the night was a celebration of the Jewish Seder meal - the meal prescribed in the Book of Exodus, as we read tonight, which was to commemorate the liberation of the people of Israel from the oppression of the Egyptians.

The meal commemorated the passing over of the angel who was to slay the first born of the Egyptians. And it would be the blood of a sacrificed lamb that would save the Jewish people from this act of judgement. Now the time was approaching when this ancient sovereign act of God to save his people would be eclipsed by an even more extraordinary act. The sacrificial lamb would now be the very Son of God, and the salvation would not just be from physical enemies but would free humanity from the power of evil and from the power of death. This Seder meal would in turn become the Catholic Mass, the commemoration of this definitive act of our salvation.

Fourthly, it was the night in which the Lord entrusted to his disciples the liturgical act by which his impending death and resurrection was not only to be recalled but to be made effective in the lives of believers. The words, “Do this in memory of me,” would be faithfully embraced by the Church. From its very beginning, the Christians gathered on the day of the resurrection to celebrate what they called then the “Breaking of Bread”. They knew that this was to be central to living the Christian life. On this night this great sacrament of the sacrifice of Christ was born.

Finally, it was the night on which the Lord ordained that his apostles were to take up a priestly role in imitation of what he did at the Last Supper. The apostles were entrusted with the priestly task of offering sacrifice, now the new sacrifice. The priests of the old dispensation offered bulls and goats, priests of the new dispensation would offer the one sacrifice, making present at every Mass the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary.

On this night, the Mass was ordained as the means by which believers are taken up into the sacrifice of Christ. They are given a means of ongoing communion with the saving action of Christ on Calvary. We heard tonight St Paul reminding the Christians at Corinth that “every time you eat this bread and drink this cup you are proclaiming his death”.  At every Mass we proclaim the death of Christ and profess his resurrection until he comes again in glory. This is what we declare after the consecration.

The Mass is in fact the summit and the source of the Christian life, as the Vatican Council taught. Tonight we celebrate this extraordinary gift offered by Christ to his Church.

The Mass is for us central to being disciples of the Lord. It is the means given to us by the Lord to be drawn every time we attend Mass into the mystery of salvation and we are enabled to be nourished by his Body and Blood.

As Christians we do not just look back to the past. We are not merely followers of an historic person, living by the memory of his person and his teaching. We live now in a direct and personal communion with him as the Risen and Glorious Lord, and this is mediated to us every time we attend Mass.

Christians are invited into this living relationship at every Mass, and this relationship is captured most purely when we approach the altar to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord. This is a most privileged moment of communion, of deep and personal intimacy with the Lord whom we love and follow and desire to be united with forever in eternity. For this is the moment of encounter with a love that defies human imagination.

My brothers and sisters, tonight at this Mass – the Mass of the Last Supper – we are in awe of what Christ has in fact provided for us. Let us never take lightly the meaning of this remarkable gift, because we are being made partakers of his saving grace. Tonight, as we ponder the events of the Last Supper, we are humbled to be given such a great gift.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Thursday, 29 March 2018

To listen to an audio recording of Archbishop Julian's homily, click here: