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Sacramentum and Exemplum: the Gift and the Task

April 10, 2017
The Mass of the Lord's Supper, Holy Thursday - April 13th, 2017
Holy Thursday formally concludes the Lenten season. On this night we enter into the three days that are the centre of our liturgical year, and indeed of the Christian faith. The scripture readings root us deeply in our Jewish past: celebrating the Passover with the Jewish people (Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14), receiving from St. Paul (1 Corinthians 11:23-26) that which was handed on to him, namely the Eucharist, and looking at Jesus square in the face as he kneels before us to wash our feet in humble service (John 13:1-15). Remembering is at the heart of this celebration.
On this night, Lord invites us to return with him to the Upper Room, to enable us to penetrate the depths of his Paschal Mystery. On the eve of his death, he gave us two signs that are renewed every year in the liturgy. First, the sign of the washing of the Apostles’ feet, through which Jesus left his friends an example of love that reveals itself in humble, concrete service. Second, Jesus consecrated bread and wine as the sacrament of his Body and his Blood, given in sacrifice for our salvation.
A night of remembering
Let us first consider the Eucharist as a memorial. In the Book of Exodus, we read: “God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (2:24). The book of Deuteronomy states: “You shall remember the Lord your God” (8:18), and “You shall remember what the Lord your God did” (7:18). The memory of God and men and women in the Bible is intimately linked together, and constitutes a fundamental component of the life of the people of God. However, this remembering is not a mere commemoration of something that happened long ago, but rather of a “zikkaron” (Hebrew), namely, a “memorial.” It is the proclamation of the mighty works that God has done for us throughout the ages and continues to do for us now. In the liturgical celebration of these events, they become in a certain way present and real (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1363). The memorial recalls a bond of the covenant that never fails: “The Lord has been mindful of us; he will bless us” (Psalm 115:12). Authentic biblical faith involves the fruitful remembrance of the wonderful works of our salvation.
In the Old Testament, the “memorial” par excellence of God’s works in history was the paschal liturgy of Exodus. Every time the people of Israel celebrated Passover, God offered them the gift of freedom and salvation. In the celebration of Passover, the two memories intersected, the divine and the human – saving grace and acknowledged faith: “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast of the Lord […] And it shall be to you as a sign on your hand and as a memory between your eyes, that the law of the Lord may be in your mouth; for with a strong hand the Lord has brought you out of Egypt” (Exodus 12:14; 13:9).
At the heart of the Eucharist: remembering
This meeting of the memory of God and of human beings lies at the centre of the Eucharist, which is the “memorial” of the Christian Passover par excellence. At the heart of the celebration of the sacrifice of Christ is the act of remembering. We remember the sacrifice of Christ, this unique event, fulfilled “once for all” (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12, 26; 10:12), whose graces we continue to receive throughout history. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). The Eucharist therefore is a memorial of the death of Christ, but it is also the presence of his sacrifice and anticipation of his glorious coming. We can certainly understand Paul’s exhortation to Timothy: “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David” (2 Timothy 2:8). This remembrance lives and works in a special way in the Eucharist.
To remember is to bring the heart back in memory and affection, but it is also celebration of a presence ever with us. The Eucharist arouses in us the memory of Christ’s love. In the Eucharist, Christians nourish the hope of their final meeting with their Lord. The Eucharist is a memorial in the fullest sense: the bread and the wine, through the action of the Holy Spirit, truly become the Body and Blood of Christ, who gives himself to be the food of men and women on their earthly pilgrimage. To stay faithful to this mandate, to abide in him like branches joined to the vine, and to love as he loved, it is necessary to be nourished with his Body and his Blood. In telling the Apostles: “Do this in memory of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24), the Lord bound the Church to the living memorial of his Passover.
The New Passover
In his masterful book “Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection” (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, USA, 2011), Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI explains very carefully and clearly what the Last Supper really was. He writes (p. 114):
One thing emerges clearly from the entire tradition: essentially, this farewell meal was not the old Passover, but the new one, which Jesus accomplished in this context. Even though the meal that Jesus shared with the Twelve was not a Passover meal according to the ritual prescriptions of Judaism, nevertheless, in retrospect, the inner connection of the whole event with Jesus’ death and Resurrection stood out clearly. It was Jesus’ Passover. And in this sense he both did and did not celebrate the Passover: the old rituals could not be carried out – when their time came, Jesus had already died. But he had given himself, and thus he had truly celebrated the Passover with them. The old was not abolished; it was simply brought to its full meaning.
The Washing of the Feet
Pope Emeritus Benedict also writes beautifully about the washing of the feet that is at the heart of the Holy Thursday Gospel (John 13:1-15). Benedict explains (p. 61):
Let us return to chapter 13 of Saint John’s Gospel. “You are clean,” says Jesus to his disciples. The gift of purity is an act of God. Man cannot make himself fit for God, whatever systems of purification he may follow. “You are clean” – in Jesus’ wonderfully simple statement, the grandeur of the mystery of Christ is somehow encapsulated. It is the God who comes down to us who makes us clean. Purity is a gift.
Yet an objection springs to mind. A few verses later, Jesus says: “If I, then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (Jn 13:14–15). Does this not after all suggest a purely moral conception of Christianity?
Sacramentum and exemplum
He continues (pp. 62, 65):
The Fathers expressed the difference between these two aspects, as well as their mutual relationship, using the categories of sacramentum and exemplum: by sacramentum they mean, not any particular sacrament, but rather the entire mystery of Christ – his life and death – in which he draws close to us, enters us through his Spirit, and transforms us. But precisely because this sacramentum truly “cleanses” us, renewing us from within, it also unleashes a dynamic of new life. The command to do as Jesus did is no mere moral appendix to the mystery, let alone an antithesis to it. It follows from the inner dynamic of gift with which the Lord renews us and draws us into what is his.
The gift – the sacramentum – becomes an exemplum, an example, while always remaining a gift. To be a Christian is primarily a gift, which then unfolds in the dynamic of living and acting in and around the gift.
Concluding his reflection on the washing of the feet, Benedict writes (pp. 74-74):
Looking back over the whole chapter on the washing of the feet, we may say that in this humble gesture, expressing the entire ministry of Jesus’ life and death, the Lord stands before us as the servant of God – he who for our sake became one who serves, who carries our burden and so grants us true purity, the capacity to draw close to God. In the second Suffering Servant Song from Isaiah, there is a phrase that in some sense anticipates the essence of John’s theology of the Passion: The Lord said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
Holy Thursday and the Ministerial Priesthood
Over my many years of ministerial priesthood, I have returned to the Holy Thursday Gospel countless times to draw strength and inspiration for what I strive to be each day: an ordained minister who keeps alive the memory of Jesus among the people, and who serves the community as foot-washer and servant. What an incredible model of priesthood we find in tonight’s Gospel: the Lord and Saviour of the world who kneels before us to wash our feet in a gesture of humility and service!
The very nature of the Eucharist implies a bond with God and with the community. Our destinies are intertwined. It is this “intertwining” that lies at the heart of the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and our priesthood. When we receive the Eucharist, we partake of the one who becomes food and drink for others. So must it be for us who receive the Lord’s Body and Blood: our lives, too, must become a feast for the poor. We too must become food and drink for the hungry.
Throughout his life, Jesus was a priestly model of compassion. He was a priestly person who lived for others, who offered up everyone and everything to the God who loved him. That’s the only kind of priesthood that makes a difference, and that matters – then and now. The very opposite of a priest is a consumer, one who buys and amasses things. A priestly person is one who spends himself or herself gladly for others. This evening’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper invites us to look at what we have done with our baptism, and how we are a Eucharistic and Priestly people. We must look at our own priesthood, whether it is the priesthood of the baptized or the ministerial priesthood, and ask ourselves for whom we really live and whom we really love. Do we spend ourselves gladly for others?
If I am an ordained priest and called “Father,” it is not simply because I have a prestigious academic background, a good formation, a title, or a place of privilege in society or in the Church. The crises facing the priesthood at present throughout the world remind us that there is no place for prestige, privilege, rank, or upward mobility. It is about humble service and intercessory prayer for those entrusted to us by the Lord.
One is a priest because one is ultimately a servant. This means that I try to lay down my life publicly for the community. The title “Father” reflects the relationship that exists between priests and the people they serve. It is an awesome, daunting, beautiful relationship that at its best generates life and communicates love. Jesus teaches us in the profound Gospel story for Holy Thursday that the true source of authority in the Church comes from living the life of a servant, from laying down our lives for our friends. The only authority and power found in the priesthood is Gospel authority that comes from living the Paschal mystery. Tonight in particular, I and all ordained ministers must ask ourselves: do we really function as one who keeps the memory of Jesus alive in the community; as one who elicits the act of faith from people; as one who builds up God’s community that is the Church? Are we foot-washers and servants? Do we pattern our living and dying on Jesus Christ, the eternal priest of compassion and service?
I give thanks to God in a very special way for the privilege granted to me to break open God’s Word through these weekly reflections. I pray that they may be helpful for all of us as we delve deeper into the mystery of Jesus Christ and follow the example he sets for us. Oremus pro invicem.
Holy Thursday in Summary
The following are some key points to remember about Holy Thursday from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
In what way did Christ offer himself to the Father?
620. The entire life of Christ was a free offering to the Father to carry out his plan of salvation. He gave “his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45) and in this way he reconciled all of humanity with God. His suffering and death showed how his humanity was the free and perfect instrument of that divine love which desires the salvation of all people.
How is Jesus’ offering expressed at the Last Supper?
621. At the Last Supper with his apostles on the eve of his passion Jesus anticipated, that is, both symbolized his free self-offering and made it really present: “This is my Body which is given for you” (Luke 22:19), “This is my Blood which is poured out...” (Matthew 26:28) Thus he both instituted the Eucharist as the “memorial” (1 Corinthians 11:25) of his sacrifice and instituted his apostles as priests of the new covenant.
What happened in the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane?
612. Despite the horror which death represented for the sacred humanity of Jesus “who is the Author of Life” (Acts 3:15), the human will of the Son of God remained faithful to the will of the Father for our salvation. Jesus accepted the duty to carry our sins in his Body “becoming obedient unto death” (Philippians 2:8).
What are the results of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross?
622-623. Jesus freely offered his life as an expiatory sacrifice, that is, he made reparation for our sins with the full obedience of his love unto death. This love “to the end” (John 13:1) of the Son of God reconciled all of humanity with the Father. The paschal sacrifice of Christ, therefore, redeems humanity in a way that is unique, perfect, and definitive; and it opens up for them communion with God.
[The readings for Holy Thursday are: Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; and John 13:1-15.]
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