MEMORY AND SACRIFICE
Québec, June 17th 2008
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
When we start the celebration of the Eucharist, even before the sign of the cross, the priest bows to venerate the altar. This simple gesture plunges us into the abyss right away. Nobody can be indifferent to the importance of the event which is to be celebrated because the altar which he kissed is the table of Holy
Thursday, the Cross of Holy Friday and the tomb from which the risen Lord came out victorious on Easter morning. At each mass, indeed, we are becoming contemporaries of Jesus’s Paschal mystery. Every priest, when he makes this gesture, feels like I do, overcome by the adventure into which he is called with the gathered community. How can we read and translate the liturgy, prayer, preaching, the hymns, salutations, the very symbolic gestures, how can we express the joy of the Paschal meal, the tragedy of Golgotha and the mystery of the morning of the Ressurection? We are really at the side of Jesus, as were those who were with Him on the evening of Holy Thursday. It is a marvellous time of friendship, of service, of kindness, just as Jesus displayed by washing the feet of his disciples.
“I have given you this as an example so that you can do as I have done”. Yes, humility is the queen of all virtues and those who take part understand as they contemplate the example given by the Servant, that our vocation is to serve, whatever our station in life. We feel that the atmosphere of the Church is the atmosphere of a family, but the Eucharist also makes it a contemporary of Good Friday. It is the time of the Supreme Sacrifice where the Lord gave His life on the Cross for the remission of our sins. The apostles didn’t have the courage to follow Jesus, in spite of the promises they had made to be faithful to Him. Even though we are not better than they were, we remember the bitter tears that came to St. Peter after his betrayal, we ask for the grace of remaining faithful to Christ even in the hours of darkness. And finally, the celebration of the Eucharist is, above all, the mystery of Easter morning when, in spite of so much hatred and injustice, God’s love triumphs. The Body of Jesus, alive and risen, standing before us, still carries the marks of His wounds. The doors of the kingdom open and the Holy Spirit is given to us as the strength and source of forgiveness.
Even though He went back to the Father, Jesus assures us that His presence will always be there for us. “I will be with you even until the end of time”. From the Jews, our elderly brothers, we have inherited the notion of remorse. The Bible is not only a memory of the past, but is like a monument in our cities. I remember the motto of Quebec, a motto instituted by a government so that new generations would not lose the memory of the important events of history. For the Jews such a memorial is a gesture of faith in the active operating presence of God. Today, as in the past, from generation to generation, each of us has the duty to consider that he himself was taken out of Egypt. It is not only our fathers that the Holy One has blessed and freed but He has freed us too. The memorial in the Bible is opening the way to the New Testament and finds its summit when Jesus uses the same words in instituting the Eucharist. “Do this in memory of me”. The events of the Paschal mystery took place in Jerusalem at a given time for the Jewish people and the Roman Empire, but they transcend history.
They go across continents and centuries and come like an eternal gesture and touch every place where the Eucharist is celebrated in the memory of the Passover of the Lord. So even though the paschal mystery of Jesus took place two thousand years ago, the Christian’s duty is that, with each mass, they are like the witnesses of the apparitions of the risen Jesus. They believe, but some also have doubts. Jesus takes the time to strengthen their faith by affirming the truth of His resurrection the same way He did with His disciples ,by showing His wounds and by asking them to eat. It is right to teach the children to say in their hearts, at the time of elevation the very words St. Thomas said, finally expressing his belief, after so much hesitation eight days after, “My Lord and my God”. In Ireland, apparently these words are being spoken aloud. I dream that by paying attention to the structure of Chapter 20 of the gospel of John, we could teach the young girls to say in their hearts “Mary Magdalene” and teach the boys to say the beautiful words of St. Thomas. But who is celebrating this mystery? Let us remember the teaching of the Lord in his last speech. “It is not you that have chosen me, I have chosen you”. As a matter of fact, this sentence is extremely important. It concerns all our vocations as disciples of Christ and can be said in precise fashion about each sacrament. Marriage, for instance, even though this is a basic decision in the lives of men and women, they are not the ones joining themselves as contracted. It is God who will join them by sealing their union in God’s new and eternal covenant. In the sacrament of forgiveness, even though Christians are used to saying; “Well, I go to confession”, we are not earning a victory over our sins by confessing them. It is the Lord who forgives them and who gives us back the holiness of our baptism. As man is taking three or four steps, humbly, to confess his sins, to encounter God, the Lord is taking ten thousand steps to come down and bring His light to our darkness to heal and to save us.
For confirmation, very often I hear people say; “I want to confirm the commitment that my parents took at my Baptism”. Well, this is beautiful witness given by giving this commitment, but that is not the essential part of it. Jesus explains to the Apostles at Pentecost that it is God that will confirm them and He says: “You are to be given the power, you will be the witnesses when the Holy Spirit has come to you and you will be my witnesses here in Jerusalem and Samaria and to the end of the world”. So we see how this can apply to the sacrament of the Eucharist. The one who says “I’m going to ask” is expressing a free decision. He also gives an important witness of his belonging to the Church. But the truth of the Sacrament is that God is inviting us to display our faith and to teach us. He invites us to His table to feed us.
The Eucharist is both the bread of the journey and an invitation to take part in the banquet of the kingdom. Therefore, when the priest and the faithful feel overcome by the celebration of the Eucharist let them not lose faith. The true celebrant is Jesus Himself. The priest will say “I am not the one who is celebrating, it is Christ who is celebrating this Eucharist”. But, of course, we are celebrating mass every day as best we can. But at the same time we will never get used to it.
The celebration of the Eucharist is an adventure that will always be too great for us. It is the truth, we will never fully understand. It is also a place where I take care not to make mistakes, because it is Christ Himself who is inviting us to follow Him ,to live with Him and in Him the sacrifice He is presenting to the Father. There are different expressions of language used to talk about the Eucharist. We emphasize the meal of Thursday, the Last Supper. Others will talk about the day of Easter, of the kingdom, or of the Sacrament of the real presence. Others put us at the foot of the Cross, the Holy Sacrifice. At various times in history, the Protestant church and the various spiritual families have emphasized one of the three essential moments. But what is important is to keep a certain balance between them. The Resurrection is always seen as primordial because it is the heart, the center, the core of our faith. One should also deepen each panel of this tryptic. We should ask ourselves: “what is a sacrifice?”.
Very often when we were teaching children to do small sacrifices, we had a tendency to focus only on suffering and deprivation. But sacrifice does not exclude joy. It is describing an internal attitude of offering that is being lived in times of light as well as in times of darkness. In the Bible, in the liturgy for instance, we have expressions such as the sacrifice of the broken and contrite heart, or the sacrifice of praise. The offering hearts that praise and sacrifice are not parts of different worlds. Everything can be a sacrifice. All that is presented to God in an internal offering of love can be a sacrifice, because the main feature of a sacrifice is precisely love. In the temple, they were offering a sacrifice in time of worship, of adoration.
At times, the prophets got angry against these formalistic and external practices, empty of their original purity. You remember this testimony of Nicodemus: “I hate and I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your assemblies and offerings. I have justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream”. This warning of the prophets is also good for us. We are not assured of avoiding any hypocrisy or external demonstration in offering the Eucharistic sacrifice. Our only guarantee is surely, as I was saying, that the only celebrant is Jesus Himself, Jesus who is offering the perfect sacrifice.
United with Christ we contemplate the logics of His love to understand Him better. It is like an internal duty, a free obligation that tells us to find a way to express our trust, our gratitude to the One to whom we owe so much. We owe all. The obligation has nothing to do with constraint. In French, as in several other languages, in Portugese for instance, the words duty and obligation, “I’m obligated to you”, have kept this internal impulse and dimension of gratitude. We will not hesitate to sacrifice time or money to bring you joy. We will sacrifice an activity that we enjoy doing to help someone, and we will say; “I owe him something”. It is like a debt of love, of gratitude, of thanksgiving. All of that, even if it may be costly, all of this seems little in comparison to all we have received and contributes to increasing our joy and the joy of others.
A characteristic of this offering is that Jesus offered Himself because He chose to. He wanted to find a distinctive mark of freedom. This love offering may be expressed as joy, but it will never be stopped by pain.
I will share with you a touching example that I lived early in my priestly experience in Paris. A lady organized a birthday party for her son’s birthday. She spent a great deal of time and money. Several children were invited and they played, sang, danced and ate. Everybody could see the love of that mother who had organized such a beautiful party. The time that is offered for the happiness of a child explains all this love, kindness and attention. But, six months later, the child, Stephane, had leukemia. And we saw the same mother ask for sick leave and renounce all her usual activities. She fought like a lioness for her child. She was fighting everything and losing a good part of her sleep to accompany her child in his fight, to be at his side trying to earn the victory against his illness. Was it a sacrifice? Well, she didn’t even think that and it was so obvious that this was her maternal love that was pushing her to be with him at every moment until exhaustion. From a human point of view it was crazy, or at least imprudent, but nobody could prevent her from doing that or try to reason with her. It is obvious that it was with the sustaining attitude of love that she experienced the joy of the birthday party.
By seeing her in these dramatic hours, the priest doesn’t know what to do but be present. I was thinking of the verse that begins the Paschal Mystery in the Gospel of John. Jesus realized that the time had come for Him to leave this world and return to the Father. Jesus had loved those who were with Him in this world and He loved them to the end. That the Lord lived is nothing else but the translation of the expression in the human heart that He, the Eternal Son, is living at the Heart of the Blessed Trinity. He gives back to His Father all that He received from Him. The Eucharistic Sacrifice finds its source in the Trinity. It is the same movement that we are experiencing ourselves as we offer to God all the gifts that we have received in thanksgiving. Following the chronological order ,we find ourselves saying the words that sum up the Eucharist and our faith: communion, sacrifice and presence. On Holy Thursday, we see that the Church and its family will receive communion. On Holy Friday, we look to Jesus crucified, His sacrifice, His salvation of the world. And at Easter, we manifest the presence of Jesus resurrected. Death did not win Him over. It didn’t keep Him captive.
In the liturgy we live these moments differently. We can say that the liturgical and theological order is reversed chronologically. Let me explain: The centre and the pillar of our faith is the Resurrection. Without the Resurrection, said St. Paul, our faith is empty, the message is null. All of our religious life is based on the Resurrection. The presence of Jesus resurrected, the certitude of His assistance to His Church, is for us very comforting. The basis of this assurance is what strikes the apostles throughout the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. If I have the grace of faith, the mercy of God will always triumph in the life of His children, as in the life of Jesus, His beloved Son. So I am ready to sacrifice everything to follow Christ and I have to be a saviour of the faith for a Church which is a servant of the faith. And we have to appreciate that man has been saved, and we must open the doors of our lives to Christ as John Paul II asked us to do. It is a magnificiant vocation. Whatever it costs, each one of us is ready to walk this road with Christ. The victory of Christ will give us the courage to follow Him in His sacrifice.
“Lord,” said the disciple,” since I know that your Father has not abandoned you to the power of death, so I also am ready to go all the way to the extreme of love”. A young person reflecting on the commitment of the rest of his life can guess what it will cost him because love is a fire which requires everything. Life makes us discover this experience. The Communion is the fruit, the result. When Jesus died on the Cross, those that condemned Him thought that they had triumphed, they thought that this business of Jesus was finished, but it was the opposite that happened. Just before dying, Jesus saw the doors of the Kingdom open. Finally, the Communion became possible between God and Man. Jesus, a pure heart saw that the good thief was to become his own beloved son. He said to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise”. The Communion is also the result of the redemption of Christ. It is also the work that we have to do in ourselves to obtain interior peace and to be seen around the world as the artisans of peace that we should all be.
Did you notice that after the liturgy of the Word, the Eucharist is according to this logic. When we hear it is the resurrected Jesus present in the middle of us, we can feel His presence in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is first and foremost a sacrament of the real presence, a real victory of the resurrection. Then it is the time of Sacrifice. Before we used to call it the Offertory, the presentation of the gifts. Now, since the liturgical reform, the Offertory is the moment which follows the Consecration.
The presence of Christ is not frozen in time… He is there, offered to His Father, delivered for us. His presence is life to God. In the Eucharist we beg God to consider the sacrifice of the Church and we offer it also to be in the Eucharistic movement of Christ. We say; “May the Spirit make us an eternal offering to His glory”. At the offertory no one can participate in Mass without entering into his inner self to feel the thrust of His holy and living offering, to live out the pure and Holy Sacrifice, the perfect Sacrifice. Led by Jesus to meet the Father, we pray with trust and confidence and we take up the words of Our Father. We are invited to take place at the table of Communion, the family table, to eat the bread which comes down from Heaven.
We form one body and we are eating the same bread. So let us sum up this moment…presence, sacrifice and communion. It is Christ’s resurrected presence among us that assures us we are united to His sacrifice, so that the body will be saved. God wants everyone to be saved in the communion. It is the result of this sacrifice which will never let us rest. All children of God must find interior unity. All children must be at peace within themselves and with their families. This is the object of communion, and our mission as artisans of peace in this world. When I explain this to you, each one knows the general orientation of his/her life, the fruits of his/her existence. Let us come back to the words with which Jesus presents the Sacrifice. He says: “This is My Body which is given for you, this is the cup of My Blood, the Blood of the covenant new and eternal”. If we participate actively in the Mass, it is to say to Jesus the very words we have just heard. Yes, Lord since Your life is offered completely for us, we also are to live our lives for you through the sacrifice of the New Convenant. Entering into the order of the Mass is to live together the Sacrifice of Jesus.
These words, brothers and sisters, sum up the life of Jesus. They correspond essentially to what each of the members of the assembly practice, starting with the priest. When he pronounces the invocation he speaks in the name of Christ. This priest, here before you, has given his entire life to you to serve you. He is committed to celibacy and he requires a lot of strength. When he says: “This is my Body given for you”, like you Lord, this priest who is celebrating this Mass for us has given his life for us. He is a living word for his brothers. It is good to look at this assembly and see that these words express the thoughts of each one of those present. For some, everything is joy, for others these words wake up in them a suffering. But for all, the Eucharist corresponds to the great adventure of love in our lives. Let us look at the woman who is carrying a child in her womb. She says to the Lord: “This is my body given for you”. We can think of the child; in the womb, the baby is beginning his life, taking her blood to form his body, to progress toward the day of his presence in the world. Let us look now at the family, a man and a wife attending Mass ,one beside the other, they hear these words which remind them of their marriage. This sacrament has delivered one to the other. In the offering of Christ we understand better that, through the years when we give love we give everything. The Eucharist tells them to put their lives on this basis.
I now want to talk about the youth. They did not choose to come into this world. They know, thanks to the words of Christ, that the gift of their body is a gift of their life to their spouse, if they are called to marriage, or to the Lord if they are called to the priesthood. We recognize the strength they need in the present context to be faithful to the call of Christ and we assure them of our prayers so that they can prepare with love, from their teen-age years, the offering of their lives. The youth of the new generation wait for a clear testimony which will stimulate their Christian life. We must not forget those for whom these words of offering and love mean suffering and pain. Those who want to get married and did not get the grace, those who doubt of their body and do not see to whom it could be given because they are handicapped or for another reason, widows and all those who have been left alone. I know that during the Mass when we proclaim this sentence; “This is My Body delivered for you”, they suffer a lot. During the years they have lived the Mass with their husbands, but they are gone and they don’t know to whom exactly their body is given. For all of us, in joy or in pain, the memorial of the Passion of the Lord is a sacrifice of love and an offering of our lives.
At the hour of the Supreme Sacrifice, Christ Jesus, says St. Paul, bore witness before Pontius Pilate with such a beautiful affirmation of love. We cannot forget our Christian brothers in many different countries who are living every day this extreme of love. In October 2003, I received from John Paul II my Cardinal’s ring.When I look at it I think of my brothers in Algeria, and particularly those in the Sudan. For them this ring is a testimony of their Christian life. They know that their life every day is a testimony given to Christ.
I would like to talk to you now about our brothers from Algeria, particularly the monks from the Cistercian Monastery of Tiberin, who were assassinated in the spring of the 1996. Their presence was an offering, simple, discreet and understood by all. Presenting Christianity without the Cross, without speaking about the Eucharistic Sacrifice, would be a lie.
Last year Bishop Henri Tessier, Bishop of Algiers, came to preach a retreat in the diocese of Lyon. He gave us a speech on the Eucharist and martyrdom. He spoke about the 19 victims of the Algerian Church which occurred during the Great Islamic violence. Certainly he was talking about others; sisters, brothers, priests and the monks who were assassinated. But we understood, while listening to him that he knew for the past 15 years that his life was in danger everyday. It was in this difficult climate that he celebrated the Eucharist every day. The Christian martyrs of Algeria gave their lives because of their evangelical fidelity to the people of the God who had sent them to serve. Christian de Thierry wrote: “If it happened to me one day to be a victim of terrorism, I would like my community and my church and my family to remember that my life was given to God and to this country, Algeria”. We can imagine he was often thinking of the Algerians when he pronounced the words of the consecration, “This is My Blood given for you”. Brother Luke, who was a monk and a doctor, took care of the sick in the region. The situation was very dangerous, but he chose to stay there. And this is what Bishop Calivre explained before his own death, before he was assassinated in October 1996.” If we want to overcome hatred we have to live our own lives in a daily struggle, a struggle from which Jesus Himself did not come out without being killed”. After the Bishop’s assassination, no religious, no lay people left their posts in the diocese of Oron. This was in conformity with what the Bishop said one day: “We have built a link with the Algerians, nothing will destroy it, not even death. We are disciples of Jesus”.
This reminds me of the teaching of St. Irenee.He said: “The Church is growing through its members where it finds all the integrity When we love a people, we continue to serve them in bad times and good times. This is the truth of love. It includes internal offering and sacrifice”. This attitude of the disciples, 20 centuries later, helps us to understand the Eucharist of the Lord. Jesus was drawing crowds, he was curing the sick, and the people listened to His every word when He talked daily in the Temple. Obstacles were put in His way, but nothing stopped Him…neither adversity, nor refusal, nor jealousy, these which finally lead Him to death on the Cross. A good shepherd stays with his sheep and gives the strength of his love when facing all difficulties.
In this contemplation St. Paul summed up the life of Christ by these words: “Jesus Christ was never “yes” and “no”. There was only “yes” in Him. Pained by the death of Jesus on the Cross, the disciples were even more completely overwhelmed by His Resurrection. This is the answer that God gives to the sins of man. He opened the doors of the Kingdom to His Son and He promised us that we are also expected in His house where Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us. In each Eucharist, filled with this hope, we announce the death of the Lord until He returns. As the Father has loved Me, I also love you, My beloved, says the Lord. At His sermon at the Last Supper, that we read in the New Testament, this sentence can be put in parallel with what Jesus said in front of His disciples on the eve of His death: “As the Father has sent Me so also I send you” and “As the Father has loved Me, so also I love you”. The word “send” and the word “love” are interchangeable. The truth is that God loves us and He associates us with the great adventure of the salvation of the word. What we learn from the life of Christ, the Eucharist of the Lord, particularly the sacrifice of His Eucharist, it is that our mission is to love…our mission is to love.