Sermon for Holy Thursday

Bishop Hugh Gilbert OSB delivers his sermon at the Mass of the Last Supper celebrated online.


Isn’t it strange to be keeping the Last Supper like this?

Here we are, very like the Israelites, locked down in our households and houses as the destroying angel of a plague passes us by – hopefully.

Here we are recalling the familiar gestures and words of our Lord over the bread and the cup. Here he is, saying to his disciples, take this all of you and eat of it, take this chalice and drink from it. And yet only a few of us can. And so it seems to be over great tracts of the world. A great Eucharistic fast. It is extraordinary. The whole current experience is extraordinary. More than extraordinary, it’s mysterious. But if it’s mysterious – with the hand of God over it – there must be a goodness here.

Perhaps we’ve needed this distance, this discipline. Perhaps we have under-appreciated. Perhaps we have not, as St Paul says, “discerned the Body” (1 Cor 11:29). Perhaps we have seen Holy Communion as something of a token or badge, or an endorsement of whatever we choose to be. Perhaps we have forgotten that Christ is in the host so that he can be in our hearts, and that he comes to our hearts to fill our lives. Perhaps we have forgotten St Augustine’s phrase that it’s we ourselves who are on the altar: that the bread becomes the Body so that we become the Body. Perhaps we have forgotten to wash each other’s feet.

Now, in a strange way, it is as if the world’s pause button has been pressed, and the Church’s too.

I like to imagine we’ve been given this different fast and abstinence in order that a new hunger will come awake in us. When we can return to normal sacramental life, it could be like making a new First Communion, a new beginning. There will be postponed Baptisms to celebrate, Confirmations to catch up with – personal Pentecosts. I suspect there will be confessions coming from a new depth. I think priests will feel reborn when they see a flesh and blood congregation in front of them. Can’t we dream of a new birth, new beginning for all of us? So, perhaps our houses and households are like wombs. Perhaps they are what their houses were for the Israelites that night of the full moon in Egypt: the beginning of an exodus to a better place, to a fresh freedom. The night Jesus was betrayed, the night they came together in someone’s upstairs room in Jerusalem, was a night of new things. Jesus made the Jewish Passover something new by replacing the Passover Lamb with himself, by becoming the Sacrifice, and by making himself the Bread and Wine, the food and drink for the journey. The old yields to something new, as St Thomas said: novo cedat ritui. A surprising ancient name for the Lord’s Supper was “the birthday of the chalice”. “The cup of salvation I will raise; I will call on the Lord’s name” goes tonight’s Psalm. The birthday of the chalice means the birthday of the Church’s Eucharist. There is a new presence of God in the world. And with that birthday coincides the birthday of the ministerial priesthood. Jesus included the apostles in his own future when he offered himself and told them to do what he had done. So he made them priests of the New Covenant. This is another novelty. It’s another paradoxical form of Christ’s presence in the world. Then, there’s the new commandment: “love one another as I have loved you”. A new mindset, a new ethic, a new way of human living springs forth from the water Jesus used to wash the disciples’ feet. Humble love is being born; Dostoevsky called it the most powerful thing of all. It is the truest sign of Christ.

Somehow these things come together: Israel’s Passover on the eve of the Exodus, the Upper Room, the strange world we’re in at the moment.

The blood on the lintels, the destroying angel, the silence around closed airports and the waning of pollution, the numbers dying, the spirit of service, Judas like a virus going about his murky background business, sealing Jesus’ fate, all of us variously confined. Will it all go back to business as usual afterwards? Not impossible. But wouldn’t that be worse than sad? And what about us Christians? Can we change? Can we be reborn?

The Anglo-Saxons called these days of the Triduum the “still days” – still because the Lord was going down into the silence, into the dust of death: an end of all things. But they knew that in those still days something else was happening, something was shifting in the womb, something stirring in a tomb, the cosmic egg was hatching Easter. They knew – we know – that in this quiet time something else rises up before us. It rises up in the Upper Room and towers over everything: nature and history, sin and death, life and the world, and each one of us. “Jesus knew that the Father had put everything into his hands”, and into those hands, he, the God-man, takes the bread of creation and humanity and lifts the human cup of sorrow and joy. This is the ultimate newness and the beginning of everything. This is what rose and rises tonight, in the long night of human history. It is the humble love of Christ: his body given for us, his blood poured out, the gift of his divine-human life. It is his “love to the end”. This is what holds the world in being and the Church and our families and ourselves. It is before and within and beyond all words, all sacraments. It is greater than everything. It is always there. “Take and eat.”

(Aberdeen in Lockdown)


RC Diocese of Aberdeen Charitable Trust.
A registered Scottish Charity Number SC005122