Catholic Homily/Reflection
Maundy Thursday
March 20, 2008

The holy triduum that focuses on the Paschal Mystery of Christ begins in earnest in today’s liturgy. The pole of seeming gloom that capped last Palm Sunday’s liturgy with the reading of the Passion bounces back in this evening’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper, and takes on the spirit of joy and rejoicing as befit a celebration that gives way to sublime ideas of remembering, on the one hand, and doing, on the other. This evening’s Mass, the only other celebration allowed for today after this morning’s Chrism Mass at Cathedral churches presided over by local Bishops, ends not with a formal blessing, with nary a formal sign of closure, for this celebration only begins what is really a three-day long celebration that ends with all the pomp, funfare, and exultation possible, on Easter Sunday, the day of the Lord’s resurrection from the dead.

What do we remember? The entrance antiphon offers us a summation … “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, for he is our salvation, our life and our resurrection.” What more do we remember? … the glaring fact that “through him we are saved and made free!” Beginning this evening, we would do well to really remember. This is what we shall be doing all these three days … remembering and savoring the so-called “magnalia Dei,” the great deeds of God who wrought out our salvation. Good Friday, as the name suggests in English, is a good day for remembering the past of the Lord’s total self-giving – a past that made our present and future really worth celebrating about! Holy Saturday is a day of expectant remembering, a reliving of the disciples’ waiting in hope, as they awaited the full flowering of God’s dream, God’s marvelous design in Christ, temporarily sleeping the sleep of death only to rise once more in the full splendor of His salvific and loving power. “Destroy this temple, and in three days, I will build it up again!”

Remembering … the real, no-nonsense remembering of yore does not come easy to modern women and men of today. We moderns find it hard to remember. We find it hard to imagine and conjure up images of things and events past. We hardly speak now of remembering. In its place we speak more now of retrieval of data. We speak no more of events, but more of bytes in giga(ntic) proportions. In this digitally-crazed world populated by sound bytes and gigabytes, of digital images and “firewire” based fast transfer of data of whatever type, we find it hard to really remember. Our data bank, our “remembrances of things past,” more often than not, go the way of the unlamented dodo, an extinct bird one still speaks of but which one does not really remember anymore. We even forget persons just as easily as we can erase their names from our digital address books, as fast as we can reformat our hard disks and bury massive data in their digital tombs.

As an educator over the past 30 years, I am sometimes aghast at how poorly students and young people now remember things. Wary of, and allergic now to, meta-narratives, to long-winded stories that speak of on-going and protracted journeys and pilgrimages, young people and many from the ranks of the not-so-young postmoderns in our midst, now prefer to get by with the minimum – pithy text messages and short-cutted email missives that say things, but not quite; messages that communicate, but not fully.

In this world of instant messagings (IM), in this world marked with hedonism, materialism, and minimalism, three-day celebrations that focus on remembering may be a little too much to ask from people.

That is, if what we ask people to do beginning tonight, is to simply remember!

I would like to suggest that the liturgy does not simply ask us to retrieve data from our common memory bank. That is not what the entrance antiphon tells us. Instead, we are told to do. We are asked to do something in concrete. We are enjoined to “glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Nos autem gloriari oportet in cruce Domini nostri Jesu Christi). It behooves us to “glory” in Christ’s cross!

It is all too easy to “see” Christ’s suffering like one watches a movie. It is all too easy to be a mere “admirer” of Christ, but not to be a “follower.” It is easier to be a distant observer from afar, than it is to be a close-in disciple. An admirer just watches like one watches a movie. He is never fully and truly involved, but oftentimes “dissociated,” (to use a psychological term), always detached, cool, distant, and non-committal. An admirer and a distant watcher does not invest, does not offer, does not give of oneself. As a detached observer, he cannot do so much as react either positively, or negatively to what he or she sees. For him or her, the cross means nothing, the death of Christ implies nothing, and has no bearing on his or her life. The most one can do in this case is merely remember.

Bishop Fulton Sheen of old, once said in one of his talks that there are far too many people who do not get anything out of the Mass. They think the Mass has nothing good to offer them, nothing good to do to them. And what may be the reason why they don’t get anything? … Simple … For Sheen, it’s all because they bring nothing to it. They invest nothing in the Mass. They are mere attendees, mere admirers, mere watchers, not participants who are engaged both in the act of remembering … and doing at the same time.

Today, as we recall to mind the institution of two Sacraments that cannot do one without the other, the priesthood and the Eucharist, we do more than just remember. “This shall be a memorial feast for you, which all your generations shall celebrate with pilgrimage to the Lord, as a perpetual institution.” Like in all Masses, we go beyond mere commemoration. We are told to love one another, for one. In this Mass of Masses, furthermore, the celebration of the Lord’s supper, we enact, we make present, we make real, here and now, what God did – His “magnalia,” (great and marvelous deeds), the Passover that God made possible for us, by his own passing from suffering to death, to life once again. More than just retelling a story, we become God’s story, His story – history, a history of a beloved and redeemed people! And that story unfolded because of his self-offering, his self-immolation, his self-sacrifice, his showing himself in Christ as the great servant-leader-pastor who “lays down his life for his sheep.” Notice how Paul makes that story come alive in his account: “On the night he was handed over, he took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Remembering and doing … this is the only way we can make what we recall to mind real and concrete for us. There is no other way. We are either part of it or not at all. We are either admirers or followers, as Kirkegaard rightly puts it. We either love and serve others, or we don’t. We either simply call to mind, or we do it in memory of him who really suffered, died, and rose back to life.

Fulton Sheen was right on target. The Mass is something we do and offer together, not a stale and stiff lesson on history. You either have something to offer or you don’t do Eucharist at all. Soren Kirkegaard, too, was right. Christ, he says, “never asks for admirers, worshippers, or adherents. No, he calls disciples. It is not adherents of a teaching but followers of a life Christ is looking for.”

In this holy evening marked with effusive joy at the great gift of priesthood and Eucharist to God’s Church and people, we begin the three-day journey of memorial and action. Christ’s celebration spilled over into life. Passion bloomed into action. What he did to his disciples, he bids us do: “Love one another as I have loved you.” People who remember, are people who act upon their precious memories. They give thanks. They do Eucharist. They strive to live as Christ did. They strive to love as Christ loved. Christian life is as much about remembering as doing. Like Christ did. Like Christ asked of us: “Do this in remembrance of me.”