Receiving the Holy Eucharist: sermon on Maundy Thursday

“Whilst we are judged, we are chastised by the Lord, that we be not condemned with this world.”

Our Lord, in the cenacle on Maundy Thursday, accomplished two things. First, He brought the ceremonies of the Old Law to an end, by celebrating the last Passover meal with His disciples. That done, He instituted a new covenant, as the prophets had foretold. This is the change that St Thomas Aquinas refers to in the Eucharistic hymn that we shall soon sing, when we have carried the sacred body of Christ to the place where we shall keep watch with Him: Et antiquum documentum novo cedat ritui — “types and shadows have their ending, for the newer rite is here”. At the foot of mount Sinai, the Israelites had made a covenant with God: He promised to bring them into the holy land, and they promised to live there as His people. In the upper room, the Son of God, Jesus Christ, makes a covenant with the twelve apostles, and with all who would believe through their preaching. He promises to bring us to a better holy land, of which the land of Canaan was only a figure, namely into the kingdom of His Father. “Amen, I say to you,” He tells the apostles, “I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine, until that day when I shall drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

It is because the Holy Eucharist began a new covenant that it had to be a sacrifice. When the Israelites were at the foot of mount Sinai, after Moses had read to them the Law, they took the blood of the calves that they had sacrificed, and Moses sprinkled it upon the altar and upon the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you.” So, when our Saviour instituted the new covenant, which would not be limited to a single people, but which is open to all the nations, provided they have faith, He also began with a sacrifice. When He spoke the words over the bread and wine, He did not only convert these things into His own body and blood, He also made them a sacrificial offering to His Father, saying as He held the chalice, “This chalice is the new covenant in my blood.” That is why, at the same time as instituting this new sacrifice, He also instituted a new priesthood, since you cannot have sacrifice without priests. He made the apostles into the priests, in fact the high priests, of the new covenant.

Now, the purpose of the former covenant, the one made through Moses, was to prepare the Jewish people for the coming of their Messiah. That was the vocation for which the Jews were chosen. That’s why that covenant came to its natural end once the Messiah had made Himself known. As our Lord said just before He died, “It is consummated.” What then is the purpose of the new covenant? It is to prepare us for the return of the Messiah. St Paul explicitly draws the connexion between our new sacrifice and the return of Christ in glory, “As often as you shall eat this bread and drink the chalice, you shall show the death of the Lord, until he come.” This is what we are doing when we go to Mass: we are getting ready for the second coming. Perhaps this is why St John says about our Lord, just before He instituted the Holy Eucharist, that “he loved them to the end”; to the end of the world. 

Now, if by coming to Mass we were simply witnessing the sacrifice of the new covenant, offered on the altar for the forgiveness of our sins, that would already be something very great. It would already be something too great, for our comprehension, if not for our needs. But in fact, there is more. We are allowed also to receive from the altar; if we have been washed in baptism, we are permitted to eat of the sacrificial food. Why is this? In the ancient world, it would have been understood that by eating from an altar, a person was uniting himself to the god to whom the sacrifice was offered: this is why St Paul is horrified at the idea of Christians eating at a pagan shrine. As he puts it, “The things which the heathens sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God.” We, on the other hand, by receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord, are being united to the true God. And the purpose of Holy Communion, like the purpose of the Mass itself, is also to prepare us for the return of Christ in glory. “Abide in him,” says St John, “so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming.”

On this Maundy Thursday, then, we can ask ourselves the question: do my Holy Communions help to detach me from this world, from its desires and standards and ambitions? Those words of St Paul may startle us, when he says to the Corinthians, “Many of you are weak and ill, and some have died”, because they had been receiving Communion thoughtlessly. But after all, how would it be possible to receive the true God and be unchanged? Not to speak of those who receive like Judas, defiantly set on sinning, it is possible to receive without mortal sin, but without much desire for holiness. If we do this, we may expect that God may use some means to “chasten” us, as St Paul says, and so to reawaken our first love. But all of us, I hope, will receive in a different spirit. As one early fragment of Catholic liturgy says, “May grace come and may this world pass away.” That is the spirit in which our Lord desires us to receive Him.