Sermon on Maundy Thursday

by a Dominican friar

“He hath made a remembrance of his wonderful works. He hath given food to them that fear him. He will be mindful for ever of his covenant.”

The psalmist says that the Lord “hath made a remembrance”or a memorial, “of his wonderful works”. When did He make this memorial? I think that He did it especially today, on Maundy Thursday. This memorial is the Blessed Sacrament, which He instituted today, after the last Passover with His Apostles. Christ Himself called the Blessed Sacrament, and the Mass, His memorial. After He had offered the first Mass, He said to them, “Do this in commemoration of me”, or, as we could also translate it, “Do this as My memorial.”

The Blessed Sacrament is therefore the memorial of Our Lord’s wonderful works. But of which works? First of all, I think it is a memorial of the Incarnation itself, by which the Word became flesh and dwelt among usThe Incarnation is the greatest of works, since by it the Creator entered His own creation. But at each Mass, by the miracle of transubstantiation, He comes to be in a new way part of His creation. Hence, the Mass is like an echo of the Incarnation. That must be why at the end of the Mass we read the prologue to the Gospel of St John. We hear in that prologue how the Word once became flesh, just as now bread has become the flesh of the Word, and wine has become His blood, to be our nourishment. And because this memorial of the wonderful work of the Incarnation is also our nourishment, the psalmist immediately goes on to speak of food. He says: “He hath made a remembrance of his wonderful works… He hath given food to them that fear him.” (Ps 110:4,5)

But the Blessed Sacrament is a memorial not only of the Incarnation, but also of another of Our Lord’s wonderful works. For above all, it is a memorial of His Passion. The Passion was a wonderful work, because by means of it He reconciled heaven and earth. He wanted to ensure that we would never forget His Passion, and so He instituted the Holy Eucharist to be its living memorial. In the Old Testament, this same word “memorial” was sometimes used to refer to certain offerings which the Jews had to make to God, for example the twelve loaves that the priests put out in the holy place of the temple each Sabbath. Speaking of these loaves, God said to Moses: “Thou shalt put upon them the clearest frankincense, that the bread may be for a memorial of the oblation of the Lord.” (Lev 24:7)

This was a figure of what Christ did in the cenacle on Maundy Thursday. By means of His prayer, like pure frankincense, He made the Eucharistic bread into a memorial of the oblation of the Lord, that is, of the offering that He was to make next day to His Heavenly Father from the Cross. For by consecrating first His Body and then His Blood, Jesus left us an image of the physical separation of His Body and Blood on Calvary.

But this raises a question: if the Blessed Sacrament is a memorial of the Passion of Our Lord, why did He institute it on the night before His Passion? Usually, a memorial comes into being later than the thing which it commemorates. For example, a war memorial is erected only once the war is over and peace has returned. So why did Our Lord institute this memorial before He suffered, rather than in the forty days during which He remained on earth after the Resurrection?  

I can think of several reasons. Perhaps He did it in the first place to show that, as God, all times are present to Him at once. Just as the prophets, speaking by the Spirit of God, sometimes speak of future events as if they had already happened, so He commemorates His Passion even before it has begun.

Another reason may be that He wanted to show the Apostles, and us, how voluntary His Passion was. It is true that on three occasions before entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, He had already foretold that He would be put to death by the chief priests and the pagans. But He wanted to teach them by deeds as well as by words that He knew about His Passion in advance, and freely accepted it. One who loves is always looking for new ways to prove his love to his beloved. And the great sign of Christ’s love for souls is that He did not only accept His Passion when it arrived, but that He accepted it in advance and as it were, went in search of it. Therefore, He instituted the memorial of His Passion even before He suffered, to show that He would suffer freely.

I think that there is a third reason, which concerns the Apostles. Our Lord knew that Satan was terribly active on that night. The devil had already taken control of Judas Iscariot, and he probably hoped to capture the other Apostles as well. Christ reveals something of this when He says, speaking of the Apostles, “Satan hath desired to have you that he may sift you.” This must be why He also says with such insistence to Peter, James, and John: “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation.” Therefore He wanted to strengthen the Apostles with every possible grace. He wanted to give them communion, and to fill them with the fruits of the Sacrifice of the Cross, even though it had not yet taken place.

Perhaps we can also say that He instituted the Holy Eucharist today because He wanted to institute the priesthood. By saying “Do this as My memorial”, Our Lord made the twelve Apostles into priests of the new covenant. This covenant is everlasting, and so the psalmist, having spoken of the wonderful works, and of the food, goes on: “He will be mindful for ever of his covenant.” Jesus wished to have His priests with Him in Gethsemane, to keep Him company during the time of His agony. Perhaps He signified in this way His wish for the priests of the new covenant to keep watch with Him until the end of time. He also willed that there should be at least one priest, St John, standing at the foot of the Cross. St John on Calvary represents all future priests: Christ wanted him to witness on their behalf the sacrifice that they will offer until He comes again.

Finally, some writers suppose that the Blessed Virgin Mary enjoyed the privilege that some saints have enjoyed, of reserving the Eucharistic species, and thus the real presence, within herself, from one communion to the next. If, as some believe, she was also present at the Last Supper and received Holy Communion, then what does this mean? It would mean that in some wonderful way, when He suffered, His Passion took place within her also; that when He died on the Cross, He died also in her. We can only speculate about this mystery. But the Lord knew how great His mother’s desire was to give her life in union with His for the sins of the world. So we can be sure that He associated His mother as closely as was possible with His own Passion.

Truly, the Blessed Sacrament is both a memorial of His wonderful works, and it is itself no less wonderful than they are.