Two papal homilies on Maundy Thursday

Pope Benedict XVI preached two homilies yesterday: one at the morning Chrism Mass, the other at the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper (both of which, by the by, were not at St Peter’s, but at his proper cathedral as Bishop of Rome, the basilica of St John Lateran). The homilies are united not just by their being preached on the same day, but by a thread that is central to Christianity. They should be read together.

At the Chrism Mass, which is traditionally an occasion for the expression of priestly unity with and under the bishop, the Pope had this to say to his priests (links and epmphases added):

He has consecrated us, that is to say, handed us over to God for ever, so that we can offer men and women a service that comes from God and leads to him. But does our consecration extend to the daily reality of our lives – do we operate as men of God in fellowship with Jesus Christ?  … Two things, above all, are asked of us: there is a need for an interior bond, a configuration to Christ, and at the same time there has to be a transcending of ourselves, a renunciation of what is simply our own, of the much-vaunted self-fulfilment. We need, I need, not to claim my life as my own, but to place it at the disposal of another – of Christ. I should be asking not what I stand to gain, but what I can give for him and so for others… Recently a group of priests from a European country issued a summons to disobedience… Is disobedience a path of renewal for the Church? … Do we sense here anything of that configuration to Christ which is the precondition for all true renewal, or do we merely sense a desperate push to do something to change the Church in accordance with one’s own preferences and ideas?

But let us not oversimplify matters. Surely Christ himself corrected human traditions which threatened to stifle the word and the will of God? Indeed he did, so as to rekindle obedience to the true will of God, to his ever-enduring word. His concern was for true obedience, as opposed to human caprice. … And finally: he lived out his task with obedience and humility all the way to the Cross, and so gave credibility to his mission. Not my will, but thine be done: these words reveal to us the Son, in his humility and his divinity, and they show us the true path.

Let us ask again: do not such reflections serve simply to defend inertia, the fossilization of traditions? No. Anyone who considers the history of the post-conciliar era can recognize the process of true renewal, which often took unexpected forms in living movements and made almost tangible the inexhaustible vitality of holy Church, the presence and effectiveness of the Holy Spirit. And if we look at the people from whom these fresh currents of life burst forth and continue to burst forth, then we see that this new fruitfulness requires being filled with the joy of faith, the radicalism of obedience, the dynamic of hope and the power of love. 

… it is clear that configuration to Christ is the precondition and the basis for all renewal. But perhaps at times the figure of Jesus Christ seems too lofty and too great for us to dare to measure ourselves by him. The Lord knows this. So he has provided “translations” on a scale that is more accessible and closer to us. For this same reason, Saint Paul did not hesitate to say to his communities: Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. For his disciples, he was a “translation” of Christ’s manner of life that they could see and identify with. Ever since Paul’s time, history has furnished a constant flow of other such “translations” of Jesus’ way into historical figures. … The saints show us how renewal works and how we can place ourselves at its service. And they help us realize that God is not concerned so much with great numbers and with outward successes, but achieves his victories under the humble sign of the mustard seed. 

All our preaching must measure itself against the saying of Jesus Christ: “My teaching is not mine” (Jn 7:16). We preach not private theories and opinions, but the faith of the Church, whose servants we are. … In this regard I am always reminded of the words of Saint Augustine: “what is so much mine as myself? And what is so little mine as myself?” I do not own myself, and I become myself by the very fact that I transcend myself, and thereby become a part of Christ, a part of his body the Church. … I do not seek to win people for myself, but I give myself. The Curé of Ars was no scholar, no intellectual, we know that. But his preaching touched people’s hearts because his own heart had been touched. 

… And as priests of Jesus Christ we carry out our task with enthusiasm. No one should ever have the impression that we work conscientiously when on duty, but before and after hours we belong only to ourselves. A priest never belongs to himself.

The Pope is issuing a clarion call to all priests, especially the (self-righteously?) rebellious: you are not your own, you are Christ’s and so His Church’s, every moment of your lives, and you are called to show forth Christ to the world that they might see and believe, not least to manifest the obedient Christ, the servant of His Father and of His people. If you advocate disobedience even to the most central doctrines of the faith, are you truly serving God and His people, or rather serving yourselves? The first sin, Adam’s sin, was disobedience; Christ, the second Adam, atoned for it by his obedience, even in the face of error and injustice. Can a priest’s disobedience ever manifest Christ, who was obedient even unto death?

Later yesterday, at the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the Pope moved on to talk about Jesus’ submission to the Father’s will in the darkness of the night in the garden, a submission not without interior struggle:

Holy Thursday is not only the day of the institution of the Most Holy Eucharist, whose splendour bathes all else and in some ways draws it to itself. To Holy Thursday also belongs the dark night of the Mount of Olives, to which Jesus goes with his disciples; the solitude and abandonment of Jesus, who in prayer goes forth to encounter the darkness of death; the betrayal of Judas, Jesus’ arrest and his denial by Peter; his indictment before the Sanhedrin and his being handed over to the Gentiles, to Pilate. Let us try at this hour to understand more deeply something of these events, for in them the mystery of our redemption takes place.

Jesus goes forth into the night. Night signifies lack of communication, a situation where people do not see one another. It is a symbol of incomprehension, of the obscuring of truth. It is the place where evil, which has to hide before the light, can grow. Jesus himself is light and truth, communication, purity and goodness. He enters into the night. Night is ultimately a symbol of death, the definitive loss of fellowship and life. Jesus enters into the night in order to overcome it and to inaugurate the new Day of God in the history of humanity. …

Jesus struggles with the Father. He struggles with himself. And he struggles for us. He experiences anguish before the power of death. First and foremost this is simply the dread natural to every living creature in the face of death. In Jesus, however, something more is at work. His gaze peers deeper, into the nights of evil. He sees the filthy flood of all the lies and all the disgrace which he will encounter in that chalice from which he must drink. His is the dread of one who is completely pure and holy as he sees the entire flood of this world’s evil bursting upon him. He also sees me, and he prays for me. This moment of Jesus’ mortal anguish is thus an essential part of the process of redemption. Consequently, the Letter to the Hebrews describes the struggle of Jesus on the Mount of Olives as a priestly event. In this prayer of Jesus, pervaded by mortal anguish, the Lord performs the office of a priest: he takes upon himself the sins of humanity, of us all, and he brings us before the Father.

… we must also pay attention to the content of Jesus’ prayer on the Mount of Olives. Jesus says: “Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet not what I want, but what you want” (Mk 14:36). The natural will of the man Jesus recoils in fear before the enormity of the matter. He asks to be spared. Yet as the Son, he places this human will into the Father’s will: not I, but you. In this way he transformed the stance of Adam, the primordial human sin, and thus heals humanity. The stance of Adam was: not what you, O God, have desired; rather, I myself want to be a god. This pride is the real essence of sin. We think we are free and truly ourselves only if we follow our own will. God appears as the opposite of our freedom. We need to be free of him – so we think – and only then will we be free. This is the fundamental rebellion present throughout history and the fundamental lie which perverts life. When human beings set themselves against God, they set themselves against the truth of their own being and consequently do not become free, but alienated from themselves. We are free only if we stand in the truth of our being, if we are united to God. Then we become truly “like God” – not by resisting God, eliminating him, or denying him. In his anguished prayer on the Mount of Olives, Jesus resolved the false opposition between obedience and freedom, and opened the path to freedom. Let us ask the Lord to draw us into this “yes” to God’s will, and in this way to make us truly free. Amen.

Pope Benedict sees in Jesus’ struggle and anguished prayer on Mount Olivet an exercise of his priesthood, offering Himself, bearing humanity’s sins, to the Father. Christ’s priesthood has its essence in his self-sacrifice in obedience to the Father’s will, a self-sacrifice that entails bearing in His person the sins of His people. Having, at the Chrism Mass, exposed the perversion of priesthood involved in the exercise of self-will and self-service and the abuse of freedom to disobey, the Pope now reveals an example of true priesthood in this scene of Christ in the garden, an example which lies not in disobedience to the religious authorities of the Jews, but in free submission to them. The true priest today submits even to what might appear to him as injustice, and in so doing manifests Christ to the world. If his cause be right, God will vindicate him as He did for Christ by raising Him from death. If his cause be wrong, he has the comfort and the blessing of knowing he has not preferred his own will, but sacrificed it even when he thought he was right. That is a true sacrifice, that is indeed love, and it will cover a multitude of sins (cf 1 Peter 4:8).

Needless to say, what the Pope is saying to priests applies to all Christians, for all Christians have a certain share in Christ’s priesthood through Baptism. Baptism enables them to offer the sacrifice of their own bodies and wills, with Christ, to the Father. All Christians, as well as priests, are called to manifest Christ to the world, that it might see and believe. And more often than not, it is Christ as the humble, obedient, self-sacrificing servant who wins the hearts of unbelievers, even more than Christ the King of glory. Let us pray that our lives might manifest this Christ to the world, and so bear much fruit to God’s glory.

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