Entry 0348: Homilies delivered during the Celebration of
the Mass of the Lord’s Supper
by Pope Benedict XVI throughout His Pontificate
On seven occasions during his Pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI delivered reflections during the celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, on 13 April 2006, 5 April 2007, 20 March 2008, 9 April 2009, 1 April 2010, 21 April 2011, and 5 April 2012. Here are the texts of seven homilies delivered on these occasions.
was never to forget that God had personally taken the history of his People in hand
and that this history was based permanently on communion with God. Israel
must not forget God.
St John begins his account of how Jesus washed his disciples’ feet
with an especially solemn, almost liturgical language. “Before the feast of the
Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to
the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end”
(Jn 13: 1). Jesus’ “hour”, to which all his work had been directed since the outset,
had come. John used two words to describe what constitutes the content of this hour:
passage (metabainein, metabasis) and agape - love. The two words
are mutually explanatory; they both describe the Pasch of Jesus: the Cross and the
Resurrection, the Crucifixion as an uplifting, a “passage” to God’s glory, a “passing”
from the world to the Father. It is not as though after paying the world a brief
visit, Jesus now simply departs and returns to the Father. The passage is a transformation.
He brings with him his flesh, his being as a man. On the Cross, in giving himself,
he is as it were fused and transformed into a new way of being, in which he is now
always with the Father and contemporaneously with humankind. He transforms the Cross,
the act of killing, into an act of giving, of love to the end. With this expression
“to the end”, John anticipates Jesus’ last words on the Cross: everything has been
accomplished, “It is finished” (19: 30). Through Jesus’ love the Cross becomes metabasis,
a transformation from being human into being a sharer in God’s glory. He involves
us all in this transformation, drawing us into the transforming power of his love
to the point that, in our being with him, our life becomes a “passage”, a transformation.
Thus, we receive redemption, becoming sharers in eternal love, a condition for which
we strive throughout our life.
Lastly, we must also pay attention to the content of Jesus’ prayer on the
Mount of Olives. Jesus says: “Father, for you all things are
possible; remove this cup from me; yet not what I want, but what you want” (Mk 14:36).
The natural will of the man Jesus recoils in fear before the enormity of the matter.
He asks to be spared. Yet as the Son, he places this human will into the Father’s
will: not I, but you. In this way he transformed the stance of Adam, the primordial
human sin, and thus heals humanity. The stance of Adam was: not what you, O God,
have desired; rather, I myself want to be a god. This pride is the real essence
of sin. We think we are free and truly ourselves only if we follow our own will.
God appears as the opposite of our freedom. We need to be free of him – so we think
– and only then will we be free. This is the fundamental rebellion present throughout
history and the fundamental lie which perverts life. When human beings set themselves
against God, they set themselves against the truth of their own being and consequently
do not become free, but alienated from themselves. We are free only if we stand
in the truth of our being, if we are united to God. Then we become truly “like God”
– not by resisting God, eliminating him, or denying him. In his anguished prayer
on the Mount of Olives, Jesus resolved the false
opposition between obedience and freedom, and opened the path to freedom. Let us
ask the Lord to draw us into this “yes” to God’s will, and in this way to make us
truly free. Amen!
MASS OF THE LORD’S SUPPER
HOMILY OF HIS HOLINESS BENEDICT XVI
Basilica of St John Lateran, Holy Thursday, 13 April 2006
Dear Brothers in the Episcopate and in the Priesthood,
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (Jn 13: 1).
God loves his creature, man; he even loves him in his fall and does not leave him to himself. He loves him to the end. He is impelled with his love to the very end, to the extreme: he came down from his divine glory.
He cast aside the raiment of his divine glory and put on the garb of a slave. He came down to the extreme lowliness of our fall. He kneels before us and carries out for us the service of a slave: he washes our dirty feet so that we might be admitted to God’s banquet and be made worthy to take our place at his table - something that on our own we neither could nor would ever be able to do.
God is not a remote God, too distant or too great to be bothered with our trifles. Since God is great, he can also be concerned with small things. Since he is great, the soul of man, the same man, created through eternal love, is not a small thing but great, and worthy of God’s love.
God’s holiness is not merely an incandescent power before which we are obliged to withdraw, terrified. It is a power of love and therefore a purifying and healing power.
God descends and becomes a slave, he washes our feet so that we may come to his table. In this, the entire mystery of Jesus Christ is expressed. In this, what redemption means becomes visible.
The basin in which he washes us is his love, ready to face death. Only love has that purifying power which washes the grime from us and elevates us to God’s heights.
The basin that purifies us is God himself, who gives himself to us without reserve - to the very depths of his suffering and his death. He is ceaselessly this love that cleanses us; in the sacraments of purification - Baptism and the Sacrament of Penance - he is continually on his knees at our feet and carries out for us the service of a slave, the service of purification, making us capable of God.
His love is inexhaustible, it truly goes to the very end.
“You are clean, but not all of you”, the Lord says (Jn 13: 10). This sentence reveals the great gift of purification that he offers to us, because he wants to be at table together with us, to become our food. “But not all of you” - the obscure mystery of rejection exists, which becomes apparent with Judas’ act, and precisely on Holy Thursday, the day on which Jesus made the gift of himself, it should give us food for thought. The Lord’s love knows no bounds, but man can put a limit on it.
“You are clean, but not all of you”: What is it that makes man unclean?
It is the rejection of love, not wanting to be loved, not loving. It is pride that believes it has no need of any purification, that is closed to God’s saving goodness. It is pride that does not want to admit or recognize that we are in need of purification.
In Judas we see the nature of this rejection even more clearly. He evaluated Jesus in accordance with the criteria of power and success. For him, power and success alone were real; love did not count. And he was greedy: money was more important than communion with Jesus, more important than God and his love.
He thus also became a liar who played a double game and broke with the truth; one who lived in deceit and so lost his sense of the supreme truth, of God. In this way, he became hard of heart and incapable of conversion, of the trusting return of the Prodigal Son, and he disposed of the life destroyed.
“You are clean, but not all of you”. Today, the Lord alerts us to the self-sufficiency that puts a limit on his unlimited love. He invites us to imitate his humility, to entrust ourselves to it, to let ourselves be “infected” by it.
He invites us - however lost we may feel - to return home, to let his purifying goodness uplift us and enable us to sit at table with him, with God himself.
Let us add a final word to this inexhaustible Gospel passage: “For I have given you an example” (Jn 13: 15); “You also ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn 13: 14). Of what does “washing one another’s feet” consist? What does it actually mean?
This: every good work for others - especially for the suffering and those not considered to be worth much - is a service of the washing of feet.
The Lord calls us to do this: to come down, learn humility and the courage of goodness, and also the readiness to accept rejection and yet to trust in goodness and persevere in it.
But there is another, deeper dimension. The Lord removes the dirt from us with the purifying power of his goodness. Washing one another’s feet means above all tirelessly forgiving one another, beginning together ever anew, however pointless it may seem. It means purifying one another by bearing with one another and by being tolerant of others; purifying one another, giving one another the sanctifying power of the Word of God and introducing one another into the Sacrament of divine love.
The Lord purifies us, and for this reason we dare to approach his table. Let us pray to him to give to all of us the grace of being able to one day be guests for ever at the eternal nuptial banquet. Amen!
MASS OF THE LORD’S SUPPER
HOMILY OF HIS HOLINESS BENEDICT XVI
Basilica of St John Lateran, Holy Thursday, 5 April 2007
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Reading from the Book of Exodus
which we have just heard, the celebration of the Passover of Israel is described,
just as in Mosaic Law it found its definitive form.
At the outset, it might have been a spring feast for nomads. For
Israel, however, it was transformed
into a commemorative feast of thanksgiving and, at the same time, hope.
The centre of the Passover meal, regulated by specific liturgical provisions, was the lamb as the symbol of
from slavery in Egypt.
For this reason the paschal haggada was an integral part of the Passover meal based on lamb: the narrative commemoration of the fact that it had been God himself who set
free by “stretching out his hand”.
He, the mysterious and hidden God, had shown himself to be stronger than Pharaoh, in spite of all the power that Pharaoh could muster.
The words of the commemoration were surrounded by words of praise and thanksgiving taken from the Psalms. Thanking and blessing God reached its culmination in the berakah, which in Greek is eulogia or eucaristia: praising God becomes a blessing for those who bless him. The offering given to God comes back blessed to man.
All this built a bridge from the past to the present and toward the future:
Israel had not yet been liberated. The
nation was still suffering, like a small people, in the sphere of tension between
the great powers.
Thus, remembering with gratitude God’s past action became at the same time supplication and hope: Bring to completion what you have begun! Grant us freedom once and for all!
It was on the eve of his Passion that Jesus together with his disciples celebrated this meal with its multiple meanings. This is the context in which we must understand the new Passover which he has given to us in the Blessed Eucharist.
There is an apparent discrepancy in the Evangelists’ accounts, between John’s Gospel on the one hand, and what on the other Mathew, Mark and Luke tell us.
According to John, Jesus died on the Cross at the very moment when the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the temple. The death of Jesus and the sacrifice of the lambs coincided.
However, this means that he must have died the day before Easter and could not, therefore, have celebrated the Passover meal in person - this, at any rate, is how it appears.
According to the three Synoptic Gospels, the Last Supper of Jesus was instead a Passover meal into whose traditional form he integrated the innovation of the gift of his Body and Blood.
This contradiction seemed unsolvable until a few years ago. The majority of exegetes were of the opinion that John was reluctant to tell us the true historical date of Jesus’ death, but rather chose a symbolic date to highlight the deeper truth: Jesus is the new, true Lamb who poured out his Blood for us all.
In the meantime, the discovery of the [Dead Sea] Scrolls at
has led us to a possible and convincing solution which, although it is not yet accepted
by everyone, is a highly plausible hypothesis. We can now say that John’s account
is historically precise.
Jesus truly shed his blood on the eve of Easter at the time of the immolation of the lambs.
In all likelihood, however, he celebrated the Passover with his disciples in accordance with the Qumran calendar, hence, at least one day earlier; he celebrated it without a lamb, like the
Qumran community which did not recognize Herod’s
temple and was waiting for the new temple.
Consequently, Jesus celebrated the Passover without a lamb - no, not without a lamb: instead of the lamb he gave himself, his Body and his Blood. Thus, he anticipated his death in a manner consistent with his words: “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (Jn 10: 18).
At the time when he offered his Body and his Blood to the disciples, he was truly fulfilling this affirmation. He himself offered his own life. Only in this way did the ancient Passover acquire its true meaning.
In his Eucharistic catecheses, St John Chrysostom once wrote: Moses, what are you saying? Does the blood of a lamb purify men and women? Does it save them from death? How can the blood of an animal purify people, save people or have power over death? In fact, Chrysostom continues, the immolation of the lamb could be a merely symbolic act, hence, the expression of expectation and hope in One who could accomplish what the sacrifice of an animal was incapable of accomplishing.
The Lamb and
Jesus celebrated the Passover without a lamb and without a temple; yet, not without a lamb and not without a temple. He himself was the awaited Lamb, the true Lamb, just as John the Baptist had foretold at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1: 29).
And he himself was the true
Temple, the living Temple where God dwells and where we can encounter
God and worship him. His Blood, the love of the One who is both Son of God and true
man, one of us, is the Blood that can save. His love, that love in which he gave
himself freely for us, is what saves us. The nostalgic, in a certain sense, ineffectual
gesture which was the sacrifice of an innocent and perfect lamb, found a response
in the One who for our sake became at the same time Lamb and Temple.
Thus, the Cross was at the centre of the new Passover of Jesus. From it came the new gift brought by him, and so it lives on for ever in the Blessed Eucharist in which, down the ages, we can celebrate the new Passover with the Apostles.
From Christ’s Cross comes the gift. “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord”. He now offers it to us.
The paschal haggada, the commemoration of God’s saving action, has become a memorial of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ - a memorial that does not simply recall the past but attracts us within the presence of Christ’s love.
Thus, the berakah,
prayer of blessing and thanksgiving, has become our Eucharistic celebration in which
the Lord blesses our gifts - the bread and wine - to give himself in them.
Let us pray to the Lord that he will help us to understand this marvelous mystery ever more profoundly, to love it more and more, and in it, to love the Lord himself ever more.
Let us pray that he will increasingly draw us to himself with Holy Communion. Let us pray that he will help us not to keep our life for ourselves but to give it to him and thus to work with him so that people may find life: the true life which can only come from the One who himself is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Amen.
MASS OF THE LORD’S SUPPER
HOMILY OF HIS HOLINESS BENEDICT XVI
Basilica of St John Lateran, Holy Thursday, 20 March 2008
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
This essential process of Jesus’ hour is portrayed in the washing of the feet in a sort of prophetic and symbolic act. In it, Jesus highlights with a concrete gesture precisely what the great Christological hymn in the Letter to the Philippians describes as the content of Christ’s mystery. Jesus lays down the clothes of his glory, he wraps around his waist the towel of humanity and makes himself a servant. He washes the disciples’ dirty feet and thus gives them access to the divine banquet to which he invites them. The devotional and external purifications purify man ritually but leave him as he is replaced by a new bathing: Jesus purifies us through his Word and his Love, through the gift of himself. “You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you”, he was to say to his disciples in the discourse on the vine (Jn 15: 3). Over and over again he washes us with his Word. Yes, if we accept Jesus’ words in an attitude of meditation, prayer and faith, they develop in us their purifying power. Day after today we are as it were covered by many forms of dirt, empty words, prejudices, reduced and altered wisdom; a multi-facetted semi-falsity or falsity constantly infiltrates deep within us. All this clouds and contaminates our souls, threatens us with an incapacity for truth and the good. If we receive Jesus’ words with an attentive heart they prove to be truly cleansing, purifications of the soul, of the inner man. The Gospel of the washing of the feet invites us to this, to allow ourselves to be washed anew by this pure water, to allow ourselves to be made capable of convivial communion with God and with our brothers and sisters. However, when Jesus was pierced by the soldier’s spear, it was not only water that flowed from his side but also blood (Jn 19: 34; see I Jn 5: 6-8). Jesus has not only spoken; he has not left us only words. He gives us himself. He washes us with the sacred power of his Blood, that is, with his gift of himself “to the end”, to the Cross. His word is more than mere speech; it is flesh and blood “for the life of the world” (Jn 6: 51). In the holy sacraments, the Lord kneels ever anew at our feet and purifies us. Let us pray to him that we may be ever more profoundly penetrated by the sacred cleansing of his love and thereby truly purified!
If we listen attentively to the Gospel, we can discern two different dimensions in the event of the washing of the feet. The cleansing that Jesus offers his disciples is first and foremost simply his action - the gift of purity, of the “capacity for God” that is offered to them. But the gift then becomes a model, the duty to do the same for one another. The Fathers have described these two aspects of the washing of the feet with the words sacramentum and exemplum. Sacramentum in this context does not mean one of the seven sacraments but the mystery of Christ in its entirety, from the Incarnation to the Cross and the Resurrection: all of this becomes the healing and sanctifying power, the transforming force for men and women, it becomes our metabasis, our transformation into a new form of being, into openness for God and communion with him. But this new being which, without our merit, he simply gives to us must then be transformed within us into the dynamic of a new life. The gift and example overall, which we find in the passage on the washing of the feet, is a characteristic of the nature of Christianity in general. Christianity is not a type of moralism, simply a system of ethics. It does not originate in our action, our moral capacity. Christianity is first and foremost a gift: God gives himself to us - he does not give something, but himself. And this does not only happen at the beginning, at the moment of our conversion. He constantly remains the One who gives. He continually offers us his gifts. He always precedes us. This is why the central act of Christian being is the Eucharist: gratitude for having been gratified, joy for the new life that he gives us.
Yet with this, we do not remain passive recipients of divine goodness. God gratifies us as personal, living partners. Love given is the dynamic of “loving together”, it wants to be new life in us starting from God. Thus, we understand the words which, at the end of the washing of the feet, Jesus addresses to his disciples and to us all: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (Jn 13: 34). The “new commandment” does not consist in a new and difficult norm that did not exist until then. The new thing is the gift that introduces us into Christ’s mentality. If we consider this, we perceive how far our lives often are from this newness of the New Testament and how little we give humanity the example of loving in communion with his love. Thus, we remain indebted to the proof of credibility of the Christian truth which is revealed in love. For this very reason we want to pray to the Lord increasingly to make us, through his purification, mature persons of the new commandment.
In the Gospel of the washing of the feet, Jesus’ conversation with Peter presents to us yet another detail of the praxis of Christian life to which we would like finally to turn our attention. At first, Peter did not want to let the Lord wash his feet: this reversal of order, that is, that the master - Jesus - should wash feet, that the master should carry out the slave’s service, contrasted starkly with his reverential respect for Jesus, with his concept of the relationship between the teacher and the disciple. “You shall never wash my feet”, he said to Jesus with his usual impetuosity (Jn 13: 8). His concept of the Messiah involved an image of majesty, of divine grandeur. He had to learn repeatedly that God’s greatness is different from our idea of greatness; that it consists precisely in stooping low, in the humility of service, in the radicalism of love even to total self-emptying.
And we too must learn it anew because we systematically desire a God of success and not of the Passion; because we are unable to realize that the Pastor comes as a Lamb that gives itself and thus leads us to the right pasture.
When the Lord tells Peter that without the washing of the feet he would not be able to have any part in him, Peter immediately asks impetuously that his head and hands be washed. This is followed by Jesus’ mysterious saying: “He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet” (Jn 13: 10). Jesus was alluding to a cleansing with which the disciples had already complied; for their participation in the banquet, only the washing of their feet was now required. But of course this conceals a more profound meaning. What was Jesus alluding to? We do not know for certain. In any case, let us bear in mind that the washing of the feet, in accordance with the meaning of the whole chapter, does not point to any single specific sacrament but the sacramentum Christi in its entirety - his service of salvation, his descent even to the Cross, his love to the end that purifies us and makes us capable of God. Yet here, with the distinction between bathing and the washing of the feet, an allusion to life in the community of the disciples also becomes perceptible, an allusion to the life of the Church. It then seems clear that the bathing that purifies us once and for all and must not be repeated is Baptism - being immersed in the death and Resurrection of Christ, a fact that profoundly changes our life, giving us as it were a new identity that lasts, if we do not reject it as Judas did. However, even in the permanence of this new identity, given by Baptism, for convivial communion with Jesus we need the “washing of the feet”. What does this involve? It seems to me that the First Letter of St John gives us the key to understanding it. In it we read: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1: 8ff.). We are in need of the “washing of the feet”, the cleansing of our daily sins, and for this reason we need to confess our sins as
spoke of in this Letter. We have to recognize that we sin, even in our new identity
as baptized persons. We need confession in the form it has taken in the Sacrament
of Reconciliation. In it the Lord washes our dirty feet ever anew and we can be
seated at table with him.
But in this way the word with which the Lord extends the sacramentum, making it the exemplum, a gift, a service for one’s brother, also acquires new meaning: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn 13: 14). We must wash one another’s feet in the mutual daily service of love. But we must also wash one another’s feet in the sense that we must forgive one another ever anew. The debt for which the Lord has pardoned us is always infinitely greater than all the debts that others can owe us (see Mt 18: 21-35). Holy Thursday exhorts us to this: not to allow resentment toward others to become a poison in the depths of the soul. It urges us to purify our memory constantly, forgiving one another whole-heartedly, washing one another’s feet, to be able to go to God’s banquet together.
Holy Thursday is a day of gratitude and joy for the great gift of love to the end that the Lord has made to us. Let us pray to the Lord at this hour, so that gratitude and joy may become in us the power to love together with his love. Amen.
MASS OF THE LORD’S SUPPER
HOMILY OF HIS HOLINESS BENEDICT XVI
Basilica of St John Lateran, Holy Thursday, 9 April 2009
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Qui, pridie quam pro nostra omniumque salute pateretur, hoc est hodie, accepit panem: these words we shall pray today in the Canon of the Mass. “Hoc est hodie” – the Liturgy of Holy Thursday places the word “today” into the text of the prayer, thereby emphasizing the particular dignity of this day. It was “today” that He did this: he gave himself to us for ever in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. This “today” is first and foremost the memorial of that first Paschal event. Yet it is something more. With the Canon, we enter into this “today”. Our today comes into contact with his today. He does this now. With the word “today”, the Church’s Liturgy wants us to give great inner attention to the mystery of this day, to the words in which it is expressed. We therefore seek to listen in a new way to the institution narrative, in the form in which the Church has formulated it, on the basis of Scripture and in contemplation of the Lord himself.
The first thing to strike us is that the institution narrative is not an independent phrase, but it starts with a relative pronoun: qui pridie. This “qui” connects the entire narrative to the preceding section of the prayer, “let it become for us the body and blood of Jesus Christ, your only Son, our Lord.” In this way, the institution narrative is linked to the preceding prayer, to the entire Canon, and it too becomes a prayer. By no means is it merely an interpolated narrative, nor is it a case of an authoritative self-standing text that actually interrupts the prayer. It is a prayer. And only in the course of the prayer is the priestly act of consecration accomplished, which becomes transformation, transubstantiation of our gifts of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. As she prays at this central moment, the Church is fully in tune with the event that took place in the Upper Room, when Jesus’ action is described in the words: “gratias agens benedixit – he gave you thanks and praise”. In this expression, the Roman liturgy has made two words out of the one Hebrew word berakha, which is rendered in Greek with the two terms eucharistía and eulogía. The Lord gives thanks. When we thank, we acknowledge that a certain thing is a gift that has come from another. The Lord gives thanks, and in so doing gives back to God the bread, “fruit of the earth and work of human hands”, so as to receive it anew from him. Thanksgiving becomes blessing. The offering that we have placed in God’s hands returns from him blessed and transformed. The Roman liturgy rightly interprets, therefore, our praying at this sacred moment by means of the words: “through him, we ask you to accept and bless these gifts we offer you in sacrifice”. All this lies hidden within the word “eucharistia”.
There is another aspect of the institution narrative cited in the Roman Canon on which we should reflect this evening. The praying Church gazes upon the hands and eyes of the Lord. It is as if she wants to observe him, to perceive the form of his praying and acting in that remarkable hour, she wants to encounter the figure of Jesus even, as it were, through the senses. “He took bread in his sacred hands …” Let us look at those hands with which he healed men and women; the hands with which he blessed babies; the hands that he laid upon men; the hands that were nailed to the Cross and that forever bear the stigmata as signs of his readiness to die for love. Now we are commissioned to do what he did: to take bread in our hands so that through the Eucharistic Prayer it will be transformed. At our priestly ordination, our hands were anointed, so that they could become hands of blessing. Let us pray to the Lord at this hour that our hands will serve more and more to bring salvation, to bring blessing, to make his goodness present!
From the introduction to the Priestly Prayer of Jesus (see Jn 17:1), the Canon takes these words: “Looking up to heaven, to you his almighty Father …” The Lord teaches us to raise our eyes, and especially our hearts. He teaches us to fix our gaze upwards, detaching it from the things of this world, to direct ourselves in prayer towards God and thus to raise ourselves. In a hymn from the Liturgy of the Hours, we ask the Lord to guard our eyes, so that they do not take in or cause to enter within us “vanitates” – vanities, nothings, that which is merely appearance. Let us pray that no evil will enter through our eyes, falsifying and tainting our very being. But we want to pray above all for eyes that see whatever is true, radiant and good; so that they become capable of seeing God’s presence in the world. Let us pray that we will look upon the world with eyes of love, with the eyes of Jesus, recognizing our brothers and sisters who need our help, who are awaiting our word and our action.
Having given thanks and praise, the Lord then breaks the bread and gives it to the disciples. Breaking the bread is the act of the father of the family who looks after his children and gives them what they need for life. But it is also the act of hospitality with which the stranger, the guest, is received within the family and is given a share in its life. Dividing (dividere), sharing (condividere) brings about unity. Through sharing, communion is created. In the broken bread, the Lord distributes himself. The gesture of breaking also alludes mysteriously to his death, to the love that extends even to death. He distributes himself, the true “bread for the life of the world” (see Jn 6:51). The nourishment that man needs in his deepest self is communion with God himself. Giving thanks and praise, Jesus transforms the bread, he no longer gives earthly bread, but communion with himself. This transformation, though, seeks to be the start of the transformation of the world – into a world of resurrection, a world of God. Yes, it is about transformation – of the new man and the new world that find their origin in the bread that is consecrated, transformed, transubstantiated.
We said that breaking the bread is an act of communion, an act of uniting through sharing. Thus, in the act itself, the intimate nature of the Eucharist is already indicated: it is agape, it is love made corporeal. In the word “agape”, the meanings of Eucharist and love intertwine. In Jesus’ act of breaking the bread, the love that is shared has attained its most radical form: Jesus allows himself to be broken as living bread. In the bread that is distributed, we recognize the mystery of the grain of wheat that dies, and so bears fruit. We recognize the new multiplication of the loaves, which derives from the dying of the grain of wheat and will continue until the end of the world. At the same time, we see that the Eucharist can never be just a liturgical action. It is complete only if the liturgical agape then becomes love in daily life. In Christian worship, the two things become one – experiencing the Lord’s love in the act of worship and fostering love for one’s neighbour. At this hour, we ask the Lord for the grace to learn to live the mystery of the Eucharist ever more deeply, in such a way that the transformation of the world can begin to take place.
After the bread, Jesus takes the chalice of wine. The Roman Canon describes the chalice which the Lord gives to his disciples as “praeclarus calix” (the glorious cup), thereby alluding to Psalm 23 , the Psalm which speaks of God as the Good Shepherd, the strong Shepherd. There we read these words: “You have prepared a banquet for me in the sight of my foes … My cup is overflowing” – calix praeclarus. The Roman Canon interprets this passage from the Psalm as a prophecy that is fulfilled in the Eucharist: yes, the Lord does indeed prepare a banquet for us in the midst of the threats of this world, and he gives us the glorious chalice – the chalice of great joy, of the true feast, for which we all long – the chalice filled with the wine of his love. The chalice signifies the wedding-feast: now the “hour” has come to which the wedding-feast of
mysteriously alluded. Yes indeed, the Eucharist is more than a meal, it is a wedding-feast.
And this wedding is rooted in God’s gift of himself even to death. In the words
of Jesus at the Last Supper and in the Church’s Canon, the solemn mystery of the
wedding is concealed under the expression “novum Testamentum”. This chalice
is the new Testament – “the new Covenant in my blood”, as Saint Paul presents the
words of Jesus over the chalice in today’s second reading (1 Cor 11:25).
The Roman Canon adds: “of the new and everlasting covenant”, in order to express
the indissolubility of God’s nuptial bond with humanity. The reason why older translations
of the Bible do not say Covenant, but Testament, lies in the fact that this is no
mere contract between two parties on the same level, but it brings into play the
infinite distance between God and man. What we call the new and the ancient Covenant
is not an agreement between two equal parties, but simply the gift of God who bequeaths
to us his love – himself. Certainly, through this gift of his love, he transcends
all distance and makes us truly his “partners” – the nuptial mystery of love is
In order to understand profoundly what is taking place here, we must pay even greater attention to the words of the Bible and their original meaning. Scholars tell us that in those ancient times of which the histories of
Israel’s forefathers speak, to “ratify
a Covenant” means “to enter with others into a bond based on blood or to welcome
the other into one’s own covenant fellowship and thus to enter into a communion
of mutual rights and obligations”. In this way, a real, if non-material form of
consanguinity is established. The partners become in some way “brothers of the same
flesh and the same bones”. The covenant brings about a fellowship that means peace
(see ThWNT II, 105-137). Can we now form at least an idea of what happened
at the hour of the Last Supper, and what has been renewed ever since, whenever we
celebrate the Eucharist? God, the living God, establishes a communion of peace with
us, or to put it more strongly, he creates “consanguinity” between himself and us.
Through the incarnation of Jesus, through the outpouring of his blood, we have been
drawn into an utterly real consanguinity with Jesus and thus with God himself. The
blood of Jesus is his love, in which divine life and human life have become one.
Let us pray to the Lord, that we may come to understand ever more deeply the greatness
of this mystery. Let us pray that in our innermost selves its transforming power
will increase, so that we truly acquire consanguinity with Jesus, so that we are
filled with his peace and grow in communion with one another.
Now, however, a further question arises. In the Upper Room, Christ gives his Body and Blood to the disciples, that is, he gives himself in the totality of his person. But can he do so? He is still physically present in their midst, he is standing in front of them! The answer is: at that hour, Jesus fulfils what he had previously proclaimed in the Good Shepherd discourse: “No one takes my life from me: I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down and I have power to take it again …” (Jn 10:18). No one can take his life from him: he lays it down by his own free decision. At that hour, he anticipates the crucifixion and resurrection. What is later to be fulfilled, as it were, physically in him, he already accomplishes in anticipation, in the freedom of his love. He gives his life and he takes it again in the resurrection, so as to be able to share it for ever.
Lord, today you give us your life, you give us yourself. Enter deeply within us with your love. Make us live in your “today”. Make us instruments of your peace! Amen.
HOMILY OF HIS HOLINESS BENEDICT XVI
Basilica of St John Lateran, Holy Thursday, 1st April 2010
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In his Gospel,
Saint John, more
fully than the other three evangelists, reports in his own distinctive way the farewell
discourses of Jesus; they appear as his testament and a synthesis of the core of
his message. They are introduced by the washing of feet, in which Jesus’ redemptive
ministry on behalf of a humanity needing purification is summed up in this gesture
of humility. Jesus’ words end as a prayer, his priestly prayer, whose background
exegetes have traced to the ritual of the Jewish feast of Atonement. The significance
of that feast and its rituals – the world’s purification and reconciliation with
God – is fulfilled in Jesus’ prayer, a prayer which anticipates his Passion and
transforms it into a prayer. The priestly prayer thus makes uniquely evident the
perpetual mystery of Holy Thursday: the new priesthood of Jesus Christ and its prolongation
in the consecration of the Apostles, in the incorporation of the disciples into
the Lord’s priesthood. From this inexhaustibly profound text, I would like to select
three sayings of Jesus which can lead us more fully into the mystery of Holy Thursday.
First, there are the words: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3). Everyone wants to have life. We long for a life which is authentic, complete, worthwhile, full of joy. This yearning for life coexists with a resistance to death, which nonetheless remains inescapable. When Jesus speaks about eternal life, he is referring to real and true life, a life worthy of being lived. He is not simply speaking about life after death. He is talking about authentic life, a life fully alive and thus not subject to death, yet one which can already, and indeed must, begin in this world. Only if we learn even now how to live authentically, if we learn how to live the life which death cannot take away, does the promise of eternity become meaningful. But how does this happen? What is this true and eternal life which death cannot touch? We have heard Jesus’ answer: this is eternal life, that they may know you – God – and the one whom you have sent, Jesus Christ. Much to our surprise, we are told that life is knowledge. This means first of all that life is relationship. No one has life from himself and only for himself. We have it from others and in a relationship with others. If it is a relationship in truth and love, a giving and receiving, it gives fullness to life and makes it beautiful. But for that very reason, the destruction of that relationship by death can be especially painful, it can put life itself in question. Only a relationship with the One who is himself Life can preserve my life beyond the floodwaters of death, can bring me through them alive. Already in Greek philosophy we encounter the idea that man can find eternal life if he clings to what is indestructible – to truth, which is eternal. He needs, as it were, to be full of truth in order to bear within himself the stuff of eternity. But only if truth is a Person, can it lead me through the night of death. We cling to God – to Jesus Christ the Risen One. And thus we are led by the One who is himself Life. In this relationship we too live by passing through death, since we are not forsaken by the One who is himself Life.
But let us return to Jesus’ words – this is eternal life: that they know you and the One whom you have sent. Knowledge of God becomes eternal life. Clearly “knowledge” here means something more than mere factual knowledge, as, for example, when we know that a famous person has died or a discovery was made. Knowing, in the language of sacred Scripture, is an interior becoming one with the other. Knowing God, knowing Christ, always means loving him, becoming, in a sense, one with him by virtue of that knowledge and love. Our life becomes authentic and true life, and thus eternal life, when we know the One who is the source of all being and all life. And so Jesus’ words become a summons: let us become friends of Jesus, let us try to know him all the more! Let us live in dialogue with him! Let us learn from him how to live aright, let us be his witnesses! Then we become people who love and then we act aright. Then we are truly alive.
Twice in the course of the priestly prayer Jesus speaks of revealing God’s name. “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world” (v. 6). “I have made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (v. 26). The Lord is alluding here to the scene of the burning bush, when God, at Moses’ request, had revealed his name. Jesus thus means to say that he is bringing to fulfilment what began with the burning bush; that in him God, who had made himself known to Moses, now reveals himself fully. And that in doing so he brings about reconciliation; that the love with which God loves his Son in the mystery of the Trinity now draws men and women into this divine circle of love. But what, more precisely, does it mean to say that the revelation made from the burning bush is finally brought to completion, fully attains its purpose? The essence of what took place on
was not the mysterious word, the “name” which God had revealed to Moses, as a kind
of mark of identification. To give one’s name means to enter into relationship with
another. The revelation of the divine name, then, means that God, infinite and self-subsistent,
enters into the network of human relationships; that he comes out of himself, so
to speak, and becomes one of us, present among us and for us. Consequently, Mount Horeb Israel
saw in the name of God not merely a word steeped in mystery, but an affirmation
that God is with us. According to sacred Scripture, the Temple is the dwelling-place of God’s name. God
is not confined within any earthly space; he remains infinitely above and beyond
the world. Yet in the Temple
he is present for us as the One who can be called – as the One who wills to be with
us. This desire of God to be with his people comes to completion in the incarnation
of the Son. Here what began at the burning bush is truly brought to completion:
God, as a Man, is able to be called by us and he is close to us. He is one of us,
yet he remains the eternal and infinite God. His love comes forth, so to speak,
from himself and enters into our midst. The mystery of the Eucharist, the presence
of the Lord under the appearances of bread and wine, is the highest and most sublime
way in which this new mode of God’s being-with-us takes shape. “Truly you are a
God who is hidden, O God of Israel”, the prophet Isaiah had prayed (45:15). This
never ceases to be true. But we can also say: Truly you are a God who is close,
you are a God-with-us. You have revealed your mystery to us, you have shown your
face to us. You have revealed yourself and given yourself into our hands… At this
hour joy and gratitude must fill us, because God has shown himself, because he,
infinite and beyond the grasp of our reason, is the God who is close to us, who
loves us, and whom we can know and love.
The best-known petition of the priestly prayer is the petition for the unity of the disciples, now and yet to come. The Lord says, “I do not ask only on behalf of these – that is, the community of the disciples gathered in the Upper Room – but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me, and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (v. 20ff.; see vv. 11 and 13). What exactly is the Lord asking for? First, he prays for his disciples, present and future. He peers into the distance of future history. He sees the dangers there and he commends this community to the heart of the Father. He prays to the Father for the Church and for her unity. It has been said that in the Gospel of John the Church is not present – and it is true that word ekklesia is not used by John – and yet she appears here in her essential features: as the community of disciples who through the apostolic preaching believe in Jesus Christ and thus become one. Jesus prays for the Church to be one and apostolic. This prayer, then, is properly speaking an act which founds the Church. The Lord prays to the Father for the Church. She is born of the prayer of Jesus and through the preaching of the Apostles, who make known God’s name and introduce men and women into the fellowship of love with God. Jesus thus prays that the preaching of the disciples will continue for all time, that it will gather together men and women who know God and the one he has sent, his Son Jesus Christ. He prays that men and women may be led to faith and, through faith, to love. He asks the Father that these believers “be in us” (v. 21); that they will live, in other words, in interior communion with God and Jesus Christ, and that this inward being in communion with God may give rise to visible unity. Twice the Lord says that this unity should make the world believe in the mission of Jesus. It must thus be a unity which can be seen – a unity which so transcends ordinary human possibilities as to become a sign before the world and to authenticate the mission of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ prayer gives us the assurance that the preaching of the Apostles will never fail throughout history; that it will always awaken faith and gather men and women into unity – into a unity which becomes a testimony to the mission of Jesus Christ. But this prayer also challenges us to a constant examination of conscience. At this hour the Lord is asking us: are you living, through faith, in fellowship with me and thus in fellowship with God? Or are you rather living for yourself, and thus apart from faith? And are you not thus guilty of the inconsistency which obscures my mission in the world and prevents men and women from encountering God’s love? It was part of the historical Passion of Jesus, and remains part of his ongoing Passion throughout history, that he saw, and even now continues to see, all that threatens and destroys unity. As we meditate on the Passion of the Lord, let us also feel Jesus’ pain at the way that we contradict his prayer, that we resist his love, that we oppose the unity which should bear witness before the world to his mission.
At this hour, when the Lord in the most holy Eucharist gives himself, his body and his blood, into our hands and into our hearts, let us be moved by his prayer. Let us enter into his prayer and thus beseech him: Lord, grant us faith in you, who are one with the Father in the Holy Spirit. Grant that we may live in your love and thus become one, as you are one with the Father, so that the world may believe. Amen.
HOMILY OF HIS HOLINESS BENEDICT XVI
Basilica of St John Lateran, Holy Thursday, 21 April 2011
Dear Brothers and Sisters!
“I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Lk 22:15). With these words Jesus began the celebration of his final meal and the institution of the Holy Eucharist. Jesus approached that hour with eager desire. In his heart he awaited the moment when he would give himself to his own under the appearance of bread and wine. He awaited that moment which would in some sense be the true messianic wedding feast: when he would transform the gifts of this world and become one with his own, so as to transform them and thus inaugurate the transformation of the world. In this eager desire of Jesus we can recognize the desire of God himself – his expectant love for mankind, for his creation. A love which awaits the moment of union, a love which wants to draw mankind to itself and thereby fulfill the desire of all creation, for creation eagerly awaits the revelation of the children of God (see Rom 8:19). Jesus desires us, he awaits us. But what about ourselves? Do we really desire him? Are we anxious to meet him? Do we desire to encounter him, to become one with him, to receive the gifts he offers us in the Holy Eucharist? Or are we indifferent, distracted, busy about other things? From Jesus’ banquet parables we realize that he knows all about empty places at table, invitations refused, lack of interest in him and his closeness. For us, the empty places at the table of the Lord’s wedding feast, whether excusable or not, are no longer a parable but a reality, in those very countries to which he had revealed his closeness in a special way. Jesus also knew about guests who come to the banquet without being robed in the wedding garment – they come not to rejoice in his presence but merely out of habit, since their hearts are elsewhere. In one of his homilies Saint Gregory the Great asks: Who are these people who enter without the wedding garment? What is this garment and how does one acquire it? He replies that those who are invited and enter do in some way have faith. It is faith which opens the door to them. But they lack the wedding garment of love. Those who do not live their faith as love are not ready for the banquet and are cast out. Eucharistic communion requires faith, but faith requires love; otherwise, even as faith, it is dead.
From all four Gospels we know that Jesus’ final meal before his passion was also a teaching moment. Once again, Jesus urgently set forth the heart of his message. Word and sacrament, message and gift are inseparably linked. Yet at his final meal, more than anything else, Jesus prayed. Matthew, Mark and Luke use two words in describing Jesus’ prayer at the culmination of the meal: “eucharístesas” and “eulógesas” – the verbs “to give thanks” and “to bless”. The upward movement of thanking and the downward movement of blessing go together. The words of transubstantiation are part of this prayer of Jesus. They are themselves words of prayer. Jesus turns his suffering into prayer, into an offering to the Father for the sake of mankind. This transformation of his suffering into love has the power to transform the gifts in which he now gives himself. He gives those gifts to us, so that we, and our world, may be transformed. The ultimate purpose of Eucharistic transformation is our own transformation in communion with Christ. The Eucharist is directed to the new man, the new world, which can only come about from God, through the ministry of God’s Servant.
From Luke, and especially from John, we know that Jesus, during the Last Supper, also prayed to the Father – prayers which also contain a plea to his disciples of that time and of all times. Here I would simply like to take one of these which, as John tells us, Jesus repeated four times in his Priestly Prayer. How deeply it must have concerned him! It remains his constant prayer to the Father on our behalf: the prayer for unity. Jesus explicitly states that this prayer is not meant simply for the disciples then present, but for all who would believe in him (see Jn 17:20). He prays that all may be one “as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, so that the world may believe” (Jn 17:21). Christian unity can exist only if Christians are deeply united to him, to Jesus. Faith and love for Jesus, faith in his being one with the Father and openness to becoming one with him, are essential. This unity, then, is not something purely interior or mystical. It must become visible, so visible as to prove before the world that Jesus was sent by the Father. Consequently, Jesus’ prayer has an underlying Eucharistic meaning which Paul clearly brings out in the First Letter to the Corinthians: “The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:16ff.). With the Eucharist, the Church is born. All of us eat the one bread and receive the one body of the Lord; this means that he opens each of us up to something above and beyond us. He makes all of us one. The Eucharist is the mystery of the profound closeness and communion of each individual with the Lord and, at the same time, of visible union between all. The Eucharist is the sacrament of unity. It reaches the very mystery of the Trinity and thus creates visible unity. Let me say it again: it is an extremely personal encounter with the Lord and yet never simply an act of individual piety. Of necessity, we celebrate it together. In each community the Lord is totally present. Yet in all the communities he is but one. Hence the words “una cum Papa nostro et cum episcopo nostro” are a requisite part of the Church’s Eucharistic Prayer. These words are not an addendum of sorts, but a necessary expression of what the Eucharist really is. Furthermore, we mention the Pope and the Bishop by name: unity is something utterly concrete, it has names. In this way unity becomes visible; it becomes a sign for the world and a concrete criterion for ourselves.
Saint Luke has preserved for us one concrete element of Jesus’ prayer for unity: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Lk 22:31). Today we are once more painfully aware that Satan has been permitted to sift the disciples before the whole world. And we know that Jesus prays for the faith of Peter and his successors. We know that Peter, who walks towards the Lord upon the stormy waters of history and is in danger of sinking, is sustained ever anew by the Lord’s hand and guided over the waves. But Jesus continues with a prediction and a mandate. “When you have turned again…”. Every human being, save Mary, has constant need of conversion. Jesus tells Peter beforehand of his coming betrayal and conversion. But what did Peter need to be converted from? When first called, terrified by the Lord’s divine power and his own weakness, Peter had said: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Lk 5:8). In the light of the Lord, he recognizes his own inadequacy. Precisely in this way, in the humility of one who knows that he is a sinner, is he called. He must discover this humility ever anew. At Caesarea Philippi Peter could not accept that Jesus would have to suffer and be crucified: it did not fit his image of God and the Messiah. In the Upper Room he did not want Jesus to wash his feet: it did not fit his image of the dignity of the Master. In the
he wielded his sword.
He wanted to show his courage. Yet before the servant girl he declared that he did
not know Jesus. At the time he considered it a little lie which would let him stay
close to Jesus. All his heroism collapsed in a shabby bid to be at the centre of
things. We too, all of us, need to learn again to accept God and Jesus Christ as
he is, and not the way we want him to be. We too find it hard to accept that he
bound himself to the limitations of his Church and her ministers. We too do not
want to accept that he is powerless in this world. We too find excuses when being
his disciples starts becoming too costly, too dangerous. All of us need the conversion
which enables us to accept Jesus in his reality as God and man. We need the humility
of the disciple who follows the will of his Master. Tonight we want to ask Jesus
to look to us, as with kindly eyes he looked to Peter when the time was right, and
to convert us. Garden
After Peter was converted, he was called to strengthen his brethren. It is not irrelevant that this task was entrusted to him in the Upper Room. The ministry of unity has its visible place in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. Dear friends, it is a great consolation for the Pope to know that at each Eucharistic celebration everyone prays for him, and that our prayer is joined to the Lord’s prayer for Peter. Only by the prayer of the Lord and of the Church can the Pope fulfill his task of strengthening his brethren – of feeding the flock of Christ and of becoming the guarantor of that unity which becomes a visible witness to the mission which Jesus received from the Father.
“I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you”. Lord, you desire us, you desire me. You eagerly desire to share yourself with us in the Holy Eucharist, to be one with us. Lord, awaken in us the desire for you. Strengthen us in unity with you and with one another. Grant unity to your Church, so that the world may believe. Amen.
HOMILY OF HIS HOLINESS BENEDICT XVI
Basilica of St John Lateran, Holy Thursday, 5 April 2012
Dear Brothers and Sisters!
Holy Thursday is not only the day of the institution of the Most Holy Eucharist, whose splendor bathes all else and in some ways draws it to itself. To Holy Thursday also belongs the dark night of the Mount of Olives, to which Jesus goes with his disciples; the solitude and abandonment of Jesus, who in prayer goes forth to encounter the darkness of death; the betrayal of Judas, Jesus’ arrest and his denial by Peter; his indictment before the Sanhedrin and his being handed over to the Gentiles, to Pilate. Let us try at this hour to understand more deeply something of these events, for in them the mystery of our redemption takes place.
Jesus goes forth into the night. Night signifies lack of communication, a situation where people do not see one another. It is a symbol of incomprehension, of the obscuring of truth. It is the place where evil, which has to hide before the light, can grow. Jesus himself is light and truth, communication, purity and goodness. He enters into the night. Night is ultimately a symbol of death, the definitive loss of fellowship and life. Jesus enters into the night in order to overcome it and to inaugurate the new Day of God in the history of humanity.
On the way, he sang with his Apostles Israel’s psalms of liberation and redemption, which evoked the first Passover in
the night of liberation. Now he goes, as was his custom, to pray in solitude and,
as Son, to speak with the Father. But, unusually, he wants to have close to him
three disciples: Peter, James and John. These are the three who had experienced
his Transfiguration – when the light of God’s glory shone through his human figure
– and had seen him standing between the Law and the Prophets, between Moses and
Elijah. They had heard him speaking to both of them about his “exodus” to Jerusalem. Jesus’ exodus to
Jerusalem – how
mysterious are these words! Israel’s
exodus from Egypt
had been the event of escape and liberation for God’s People. What would be the
form taken by the exodus of Jesus, in whom the meaning of that historic drama was
to be definitively fulfilled? The disciples were now witnessing the first stage
of that exodus – the utter abasement which was nonetheless the essential step of
the going forth to the freedom and new life which was the goal of the exodus. The
disciples, whom Jesus wanted to have close to him as an element of human support
in that hour of extreme distress, quickly fell asleep. Yet they heard some fragments
of the words of Jesus’ prayer and they witnessed his way of acting. Both were deeply
impressed on their hearts and they transmitted them to Christians for all time.
Jesus called God “Abba”. The word means – as they add – “Father”. Yet it is not
the usual form of the word “father”, but rather a children’s word – an affectionate
name which one would not have dared to use in speaking to God. It is the language
of the one who is truly a “child”, the Son of the Father, the one who is conscious
of being in communion with God, in deepest union with him.
If we ask ourselves what is most characteristic of the figure of Jesus in the Gospels, we have to say that it is his relationship with God. He is constantly in communion with God. Being with the Father is the core of his personality. Through Christ we know God truly. “No one has ever seen God”, says
Saint John. The one “who is close to the Father’s
heart … has made him known” (1:18). Now we know God as he truly is. He is Father,
and this in an absolute goodness to which we can entrust ourselves. The evangelist
Mark, who has preserved the memories of Saint Peter, relates that Jesus, after calling
God “Abba”, went on to say: “Everything is possible for you. You can do all things”
(see 14:36). The one who is Goodness is at the same time Power; he is all-powerful.
Power is goodness and goodness is power. We can learn this trust from Jesus’ prayer
on the Mount of Olives.
Before reflecting on the content of Jesus’ petition, we must still consider what the evangelists tell us about Jesus’ posture during his prayer. Matthew and Mark tell us that he “threw himself on the ground” (Mt 26:39; see Mk 14:35), thus assuming a posture of complete submission, as is preserved in the Roman liturgy of Good Friday. Luke, on the other hand, tells us that Jesus prayed on his knees. In the Acts of the Apostles, he speaks of the saints praying on their knees: Stephen during his stoning, Peter at the raising of someone who had died, Paul on his way to martyrdom. In this way Luke has sketched a brief history of prayer on one’s knees in the early Church. Christians, in kneeling, enter into Jesus’ prayer on the
Mount of Olives.
When menaced by the power of evil, as they kneel, they are upright before the world,
while as sons and daughters, they kneel before the Father. Before God’s glory we
Christians kneel and acknowledge his divinity; by this posture we also express our
confidence that he will prevail.
Jesus struggles with the Father. He struggles with himself. And he struggles for us. He experiences anguish before the power of death. First and foremost this is simply the dread natural to every living creature in the face of death. In Jesus, however, something more is at work. His gaze peers deeper, into the nights of evil. He sees the filthy flood of all the lies and all the disgrace which he will encounter in that chalice from which he must drink. His is the dread of one who is completely pure and holy as he sees the entire flood of this world’s evil bursting upon him. He also sees me, and he prays for me. This moment of Jesus’ mortal anguish is thus an essential part of the process of redemption. Consequently, the Letter to the Hebrews describes the struggle of Jesus on the
Mount of Olives as
a priestly event. In this prayer of Jesus, pervaded by mortal anguish, the Lord
performs the office of a priest: he takes upon himself the sins of humanity, of
us all, and he brings us before the Father.
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