MASS OF THE LORD'S SUPPER
HOMILY OF HIS HOLINESS BENEDICT XVI
Basilica of St John Lateran
Holy Thursday, 5 April 2012
Dear Brothers and Sisters!
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
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.
On the way, he sang with his Apostles Israel’s psalms of liberation and
redemption, which evoked the first Passover in Egypt, the night of liberation.
Now he goes, as was his custom, to pray in solitude and, as Son, to speak with
the Father. But, unusually, he wants to have close to him three disciples:
Peter, James and John. These are the three who had experienced his
Transfiguration – when the light of God’s glory shone through his human figure –
and had seen him standing between the Law and the Prophets, between Moses and
Elijah. They had heard him speaking to both of them about his “exodus” to
Jerusalem. Jesus’ exodus to Jerusalem – how mysterious are these words! Israel’s
exodus from Egypt had been the event of escape and liberation for God’s People.
What would be the form taken by the exodus of Jesus, in whom the meaning of that
historic drama was to be definitively fulfilled? The disciples were now
witnessing the first stage of that exodus – the utter abasement which was
nonetheless the essential step of the going forth to the freedom and new life
which was the goal of the exodus. The disciples, whom Jesus wanted to have close
to him as an element of human support in that hour of extreme distress, quickly
fell asleep. Yet they heard some fragments of the words of Jesus’ prayer and
they witnessed his way of acting. Both were deeply impressed on their hearts and
they transmitted them to Christians for all time. Jesus called God “Abba”. The
word means – as they add – “Father”. Yet it is not the usual form of the word “father”,
but rather a children’s word – an affectionate name which one would not have
dared to use in speaking to God. It is the language of the one who is truly a “child”,
the Son of the Father, the one who is conscious of being in communion with God,
in deepest union with him.
If we ask ourselves what is most characteristic of the figure of Jesus in the
Gospels, we have to say that it is his relationship with God. He is constantly
in communion with God. Being with the Father is the core of his personality.
Through Christ we know God truly. “No one has ever seen God”, says Saint John.
The one “who is close to the Father’s heart … has made him known” (1:18). Now we
know God as he truly is. He is Father, and this in an absolute goodness to which
we can entrust ourselves. The evangelist Mark, who has preserved the memories of
Saint Peter, relates that Jesus, after calling God “Abba”, went on to say: “Everything
is possible for you. You can do all things” (cf. 14:36). The one who is Goodness
is at the same time Power; he is all-powerful. Power is goodness and goodness is
power. We can learn this trust from Jesus’ prayer on the Mount of Olives.
Before reflecting on the content of Jesus’ petition, we must still consider what
the evangelists tell us about Jesus’ posture during his prayer. Matthew and Mark
tell us that he “threw himself on the ground” (Mt 26:39; cf. Mk 14:35), thus
assuming a posture of complete submission, as is preserved in the Roman liturgy
of Good Friday. Luke, on the other hand, tells us that Jesus prayed on his knees.
In the Acts of the Apostles, he speaks of the saints praying on their knees:
Stephen during his stoning, Peter at the raising of someone who had died, Paul
on his way to martyrdom. In this way Luke has sketched a brief history of prayer
on one’s knees in the early Church. Christians, in kneeling, enter into Jesus’
prayer on the Mount of Olives. When menaced by the power of evil, as they kneel,
they are upright before the world, while as sons and daughters, they kneel
before the Father. Before God’s glory we Christians kneel and acknowledge his
divinity; by this posture we also express our confidence that he will prevail.
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.
Lastly, 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.
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