Tonight we begin the journey of the Paschal Triduum: our journey, Christ’s journey, a journey to the Cross and beyond, to the empty tomb; a journey with Christ, to Christ and through Christ to the Father. A journey we make together, with each other, with our catechumens, with the Church throughout the world. We go with Mary, with John the beloved disciple – there they are behind me! – with Peter, with the holy women. We go in the silent power of the Holy Spirit. This is our Passover from sin to grace, from this world to the Father.
And tonight, we begin in an upstairs room in Jerusalem. This is what is our cathedral is tonight. This is where we are. That Upper Room in Jerusalem has a claim to be the first Christian church – the mother church of all subsequent churches. In the early Christian times, in fact, it was used as such and called the church of Mount Zion. Let’s think what Jesus did there tonight, what we’re recalling and reenacting. Jesus had the room prepared, brought his disciples together, his new family, kept the Jewish Passover with them, and transformed it into the Eucharist. On this night he was betrayed, he instituted the Eucharist, as we heard from St Paul, and with it the priesthood: ‘Do this in memory of me’. Tonight he washed the feet of his disciples. Tonight Peter promised too much and was reminded of his frailty, and Judas disappeared into the night on his traitorous business. But Jesus did not stop. He knew his hour had come. He gave the new commandment: love one another as I have loved you. He comforted his disciples, promising they would see him again. He promised the Holy Spirit. And finally, he prayed to his Father: the great priestly prayer of John ch. 17, the Eucharistic Prayer par excellence. ‘Father, the hour has come.’ He prayed he himself might glorify the Father. He prayed for his disciples and then, widening the circle, he prayed for all who ‘through their word would believe in me…that they may be one’ as he and the Father were one. In other words, he prayed for us. He thought of us, embraced and included us, all generations of believers. He drew us into his consecrating love, into the power of his Death and Resurrection, into his Church. ‘I am the vine, you are the branches.’ All this tonight. All this recalled and reenacted here. All this in that upstairs room, that first church, that mother church.
On Monday afternoon and night, weren’t all of us – in a sense – in Paris, watching one of Christendom’s most beautiful churches, Notre Dame de Paris, being ravaged by fire? S’il y a ici parmi nous ce soir des francaises ou francais, je voudrais vous assurer de notre solidarité et, plus encore, de notre admiration profonde pour la réponse de votre pays, un feu d’amour et de genérosité plus fort qu’aucun feu dévorant. Who wasn’t shocked and moved by the disaster by seeing such a genuinely iconic building devastated? But who wasn’t moved too by the bravery of the firefighters, by the French President’s call to rebuild, by the silent people, some praying, some singing hymns, children saying the rosary, the sudden unity of one of our fragmented European societies? Who wasn’t struck by the fact that the two great towers and the substance of the fabric were saved, in one decisive half hour? No one said, ‘It’s just a building.’ Suddenly, we realized what a cathedral can be for a city, for a country, for people all over the world. Doesn’t St Paul talk somewhere of ‘being saved, but only as through fire’ (1 Cor 3:15)? All this at the beginning of Holy Week
And once the fire was conquered, how not be moved by that shot – under the open roof – of the glowing undamaged cross, still hanging? How not be moved by how the Blessed Sacrament and the cathedral’s most precious relic, the Crown of Thorns, was saved? The Blessed Sacrament and the Crown of Thorns: Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Saved by a priest, Fr. Jean-Marc Fournier. This man had been a chaplain in the French Army, serving a term in Afghanistan. When in Paris in 2015, at the rock concert at the Bataclan, terrorists wrought human destruction, he was there tending the injured and praying for the dead. And on Monday, as chaplain to the Paris Fire Brigade, he led some firefighter colleagues into the burning church, retrieved the Blessed Sacrament, formed a human chain and rescued the Crown of Thorns and other relics. A member of the emergency services said: ‘He showed no fear at all…He deals with life and death every day and shows no fear.’ Brothers and sisters, there’s the priesthood. If what a few priests have done can shame us – we can always be Judas – what others do can swell our hearts. Here’s the priesthood. Here’s the real thing. Given us tonight, in that upstairs room, that first church, that mother.
So really, we could reflect, couldn’t we, on all these things: the Crown of Thorns, the glowing Cross, the Sacrament of the living and life-giving Christ? “All time belongs to him, and all the ages”, as we say beside the Easter fire.
Tonight, Jesus brought his life to its climax, loving to the end. He looked through and beyond his suffering, death and resurrection, beyond his Passover to ours. He looked to, thought of, included and embraced all who would believe in his name, us, each and all of us. And he responded to our unconscious desire for intimacy with God and unity among ourselves. He knew our capacity for love to the end, for humble, patient, humble forgiving love like his. And he gave us the Eucharist, his Body and Blood under the form of bread and wine, his Presence in Person, the power of his Death and Resurrection, the medium of the Holy Spirit. He gave us the real thing. He gave us the true Bread, the Bread from heaven, the real manna, the flesh of the true Passover Lamb, our viaticum. He gave us the sacrament of unity, the bond of charity, the paschal banquet. He gave us what can carry us through the fire and water of life, and make us together one body, one spirit in him. He gave us himself. All this from the upstairs room, all recalled and reenacted tonight.
So, brothers and sisters, let’s pray we can “get” it, have at least some inkling of insight, here tonight in this Cathedral of our Lady (Notre Dame). Let’s believe in the Eucharistic Gift. Let’s never profane it, never approach with unforgiven mortal sin on our conscience, never eat it unworthily – St Paul is fierce about this. Let’s not be casual or distracted; let’s be deeply, fearfully reverent. Let’s love and appreciate. Let’s give the Gift pride of place in our lives, not let such a Sacrament die, as it were, in our intestines, in loveless, self-centred lives. Let it root and fruit in us. May It change us into what it is, into the Body of the living Christ, into Christ’s Cathedral where we are on fire with love, ready to wash each other’s feet and lay down our lives for our friends.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 18 April 2019)