Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster

Maundy Thursday


The depth and beauty of the Feast we celebrate this evening is well expressed in the phrases of the opening prayer. The moment which we live again in this liturgy is described there as Christ giving to us, the Church, ‘a sacrifice new for all eternity, the banquet of his love.’

This is the single reality we celebrate tonight: the gift of the total love of Jesus for us, His Body and His Blood, a love flowing from the deepest reality, from the very being of God, which Jesus, the Son of God, makes visible in our midst.

There are two great manifestations of his love in which we participate in this Mass. The first is his washing of the disciples’ feet. The second is his handing over to them His Precious Body and Blood in the supper they share in anticipation of his sacrifice on the cross. St John tells us about the first, in the Gospel. St Paul’s gives clear witness to the second, in the reading from the First Letter to the Corinthians.

Both these actions of Jesus are immersed in the things of the body. In the first, he washes the feet, the flesh and blood, of his disciples. In the second, he gives himself entirely. He gives his flesh and blood, his bodily reality, in death on the cross, in the sacrament of the altar. In this way, Jesus transforms our way of understanding our bodily reality.

Our bodies are precious; they are the work of God’s hands; they are the temples of the Holy Spirit. Yet we often experience our bodies as a source of trouble, of temptation, of pain and of suffering. Indeed at times we, as a people, have been tempted to distrust and even hate our bodily reality. In fact, in these days, it has been suggested to us that a large majority of young people in this country are dismayed and preoccupied by the shape of their bodies, struggling to accept themselves under the pressure of social conformity. Such thoughts and feelings can easily become lodged in our hearts and flow from there into our attitudes and actions. But to follow this pathway, to harbour such feelings in our hearts, is to fail to see the work of God and the gifts Christ brings. 

During these days of Holy Week, I am suggesting that the wonderful work of our redemption, accomplished by Christ in his passion and death, can be understood through the image of Moses striking the rock of Massah in the desert, and bringing forth from that rock great streams of water which quenched the thirst of both the people and their animals.

Tonight we can see in that rock the hardness and waywardness of our hearts, which in turn makes our bodies to be like stone. Instead of being central to loving God and one another, our bodies become barriers. Only when Christ strikes our hearts with the rod of his grace does that hardness break open, and our bodies become what God created them to be: channels of life-giving compassion and love.

What is that hardness of our hearts? 

Think of the store of past offences that we often harbour within our hearts. This is their hardness. How often we return to that store to refresh within us a sense of resentment and bitterness.

Think of the energy we can put into pondering our desire for revenge against those we believe have belittled us. We want to equal up the score and that desire coarsens and hardens our hearts.

Think of our habit of turning away from those in need, of averting our eyes least their need touch our hearts and we have to respond.

Think of the weariness of heart that we so often feel, saying to ourselves that we have done enough already and there is nothing more to be given.

Think, again, of the ways in which, from time to time, we view ourselves with disgust and literally lose heart about our own worthiness.

Think of all the other ways, which each of us knows well, in which are hearts have become hard, as hard as rock, and from which we are not really ready to depart.

This feast of the Lord’s love for us is the moment when we cry out to the Lord that he take away the heart of stone from within our bodies and give us a heart of flesh instead. 

And that is what the Lord does.

In washing his disciples’ feet he washes away our selfishness, our self-centredness. At first we are like St Peter, saying ‘Never, Lord, you shall never wash my feet.’ We are too proud, too attached to the comfort of our negativity. Yet the Lord insists. So let us welcome him like Peter: ‘Then Lord, not only my feet but my hands and my head as well!’

In offering us his Body and Blood, Jesus renews in us the flow of generous self-giving, inviting us to imitate him in our tireless service of others, especially of those closest by in whom we know every failure and every weakness.

In these ways we pray: ‘Lord, strike the rock of my heart with the rod of your love that living water may flow within me and that I may truly be your disciple.’

This he can do, both today and every day, through the power of his sacrifice which is, as the prayer made so clear, ‘a sacrifice new for all eternity.’ This sacrifice of Christ, the offering of His Body and Blood, never ceases. It is always available to us. Every time we find within ourselves a hardness of heart, we can return to him, open our hearts to him and allow him to restore in us the great gift of love.

Tonight’s Mass is such a moment of great grace because it is, like every Mass a moment of this ‘sacrifice new for all eternity, the banquet of love.’ May we draw from so great a mystery the fullness of love and know the lightness of a loving heart. May we draw from this mystery the fullness of life expressed and finding fulfilment in the generous service of all around us. Amen



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