Given at the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Maundy Thursday, 29 March 2018, in Westminster Cathedral.
Some time ago now, when I was visiting a parish in North London, I asked a lady why she wanted to become a Catholic. She explained that for years she had been coming to church with her Catholic husband and now wanted to be fully part of what went on. I asked her what was it drew her in? Was it the sense of community? No. The singing? No. The sermon? Oh no! ‘Well, what then?’ I said. She answered in words I have never forgotten. 'I cannot explain it', she said, ‘but whatever it is that happens on that altar touches me very deeply.'
Yes, indeed, it touches us very deeply, and there is no better moment than this Maundy Thursday evening, this Mass of the Lord's Supper, to understand what it is that 'touches us so very deeply'.
We began our Liturgy of the Word with the account of the Passover Meal celebrated by the Chosen people, carried out in full and detailed obedience to the instructions of God. This was both a sacrifice and a meal. It was a sacrifice offered to God and a meal through which that sacrifice was shared by the people. Through this sacrifice and meal, the People of God were saved from the avenging angel and escorted to their promised land.
Then we heard from St Paul. He echoed that ancient obedience, saying that what he had received, he, in turn, was passing on, to us. He speaks to us of a new sacrifice, now made in the body and blood of Christ and shared in this Eucharistic meal, the Mass. He tells us that every time we take part in the Mass we are making real the sacrifice of Christ, 'proclaiming his death'. Through this one sacrifice, the work of our salvation is accomplished: no longer an escape from Egyptian slavery, but from the entrapment of sin; no longer an entry into a promised territory, given on trust to be a place of peace for all, but a promise of eternal life in the embrace of the tender mercy of God.
The power of this sacrifice of Christ depends on one thing, and on this one thing alone: that Jesus is truly God and man. If his sacrifice is the work of a human being alone, then it cannot result in a victory over death. No human being can accomplish that. If His victory is the work of God alone, then it is indeed remarkable, but it remains beyond our reach, inaccessible to us mere mortals. But, if it happens in the coming together of the divine and the human, then there is both the power to accomplish the victory and the basis on which the victory is truly ours, for Jesus is fully one of us and, in the same measure, he is fully divine. This is the divine and human synergy that is the hallmark of our salvation, the key fact of this Holy Week. Here, in the actions of the one who is truly God and truly man, a unique energy breaks forth, an energy capable of transforming our reality. It is the energy of the Holy Spirit, set loose in the world, poured into our nature, for those who will receive him.
This is what touches us every time Mass is celebrated. That good woman knew it in her heart even without the words with which to offer an explanation. In the celebration of Mass, we sense not only a backward glance towards something that happened long ago, but so much more. We sense that coming together of our humanity and the great power of the Holy Spirit, which filled the very being of Jesus and, at the command of the Father, raised him to new life. And we know that through this great action our lives are touched and transformed. Thanks be to God for this great gift.
There is another action that fits this same description of the remarkable synergy of the divine and human creating new life. It is the action of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. Here too the action of a human being, an action of humility, generosity and nobility, is only fully understood when we perceive that it is also an action of God. God stoops to wash our feet! Yes, it is God, showing to us his love, his compassion, his mercy for us, in an action that cannot be misunderstood!
Today, then, we rejoice in this message: that in both the service and sacrifice of Jesus our brother, the eternal and living God is in our midst, and our hearts are raised in wonder and awe at this miracle of truth. We pray that some part of the coming together of the divine and human, this remarkable synergy, will happen in our lives too, for the service of those around us and of those most in need.
This evening, during this Mass which recalls the beginning of every Eucharist, we ask that we again be filled with wonder, astonished that God really wants to serve us, that we are worthy in his sight, and that his love for us knows no limits, as we shall know, only too well, tomorrow, our true Good Friday.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols
Archbishop of Westminster.