Rorate Caeli

Fontgombault Sermon for Maundy Thursday 2021: "Sacraments and Prayer are our sole strength against the apostasy of our times."

Sermon of the Right Reverend Dom Jean Pateau
Father Abbot of Our Lady of Fontgombault
Fontgombault, April 1, 2021

Dear Brothers and Sisters,
My dearly beloved Sons,

At the end of Lent, the Church seems to break with the austerity and bareness to which she has accustomed us since Ash Wednesday, and even since Septuagesima Sunday. 

The Chrism Mass and the Mass in Cœna Domini, or Mass of the Lord’s Last Supper, are liturgically very rich. The former was traditionally celebrated around the bishop in the cathedral churches, on the morning of Maundy Thursday. During this Mass, the oil of the infirm and the oil of catechumens are blessed, and the sacred chrism is consecrated. These holy oils are then taken to each parish, where they are normally kept in a small cavity closed by a door in the wall of the church. The oil of the infirm is used for the sacrament of extreme unction, which gives a special grace to bear a state of disease. The oil of catechumens grants to those who will be baptized the strength of the Holy Spirit for the fight of spiritual life. Lastly, the holy chrism, oil mixed with perfume, is used for the consecration anointing during baptism and confirmation, after episcopal and priestly ordinations, and during the dedication of churches and altars.

Anointing with holy chrism, and the presence of a perfume, is a symbol of the Godhead coming down on us through Christ and the Holy Spirit, so that we may pour out on others the fragrance of Christ. Today, the Chrism Mass is often celebrated earlier, in the first days of the Holy Week, and it often takes place during a day of prayer for the whole diocesan clergy, gathered around their bishop.

The Mass of the Lord’s Last Supper has kept its place in the afternoon or evening of Maundy Thursday. In it, is commemorated the institution of the sacraments of the Eucharist and holy Orders. The course of the Mass follows exactly the course of the Last Supper Jesus took with His disciples in the Cenacle, in Jerusalem. Therefore, the usual course of the Mass is suspended, while the rite of the Maundy, or Washing of the feet, is performed after the homily. This is an act of humble kindness towards a visitor, in a country where walking on a road under the sun can be exhausting. 

During the Passover meal, the Lord explains the sense of His gesture:

You call me Master and Lord. And you say well: for so I am. If then I being your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so you do also. (Jn 13:13-15)

As we are going to sing in a moment:

Where charity and love [Ubi caritas et amor...] are, God is there. Let us take heed, we be not divided in mind. […] Let malicious quarrels and contentions cease. And let Christ our God dwell among us.

How the life of our families, how our own lives, might change, if we paid attention to these words, and put them into practice!

As during each Mass, the sacrifice accomplished once for all during the Last Supper and at the Calvary is going to be made present at the moment of the consecration. The narrative of the institution of this sacrament, taken from the epistle to the Corinthians, has recalled the Lord’s words:

This is My body, which shall be delivered for you. This do for the commemoration of Me. […] This chalice is the new testament in My blood. This do ye, as often as you shall drink, for the commemoration of Me. (1 Cor 11:24-25)

These words are addressed to each priest, who cannot just carry out mere gestures. He is united with Christ, enmeshed in His mystery. These words are also addressed to each faithful. They, too, take part in Christ’s sacrifice, they receive Christ in proportion with the depth of their communion with Him, of their adoration of the mystery.

The end of the Mass also departs from the usual ceremonies. After the Last Supper, the disciples have left to go to the Mount of Olives. There, Jesus enters a deep prayer, He enters into His agony. Then Jesus will be arrested, stripped of His clothes, and it will be the Passion. “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn 15:13) As we walk towards the altar of repose, as we adore near the tabernacle, we wish to accompany the Lord, in a moment of deep loneliness, when He is bearing the burden of each of our lives. May each Communion go and meet this moment.

Lastly, tonight’s ceremony will end with the stripping of the altars, in the image of Christ stripped of His clothes. A Psalm verse will close the rite: “They parted my garments among them, and upon my vesture they cast lots.” What a contrast! On the one hand, the superabundance of the divine gifts, which Christ’s humanity has so profusely poured out; on the other hand, armed men, led by the traitor, Judas, who wish but to kill Him. Such is man’s answer to God’s goodness!

They will take Christ’s garments and share them between themselves. What do we receive from Christ? What do we do with His clothes? St. Paul invites us to put on Christ. We will do that by keeping the divine commandments, His words, the vocation of which is but to teach us to adore God, and to love our neighbor according to God. We disregard them so easily, while giving free rein to our own glorification. The garments of Christ that we squander are also the manifold divine gifts of the creation, and especially the gift of life. Let us learn to respect life, from the very first moment of its inception until its natural end.

What shall we say of Christ, Who willed to remain a food for us through the sacrament of the Eucharist, and Who remains present in the tabernacle? “Do this in remembrance of Me.” Remembering Christ means receiving Him in our lives, it means encountering Him, adoring Him. Do our lives spread the aroma of Christ for the men of our times? 

Today’s Mass presents us with two roads: a road leading us to adore the Lord, or a road leading us to despise Him. On the threshold of the Paschal triduum, we can ask ourselves which are the places still to be evangelized in our lives, our families, our communities, our society. Places where the Lord’s presence is put aside, places where the place He is entitled to is refused to Him. 

Let us draw from sacraments and prayer the strength of mission, which begins with the testimony of a life lived in a manner consistent with Him in Whom, and with what, we believe: this is our sole strength against the apostasy of our times. Let us generously enter into these days leading up to Easter, so that we may prepare our own Passover. May Mary, more than ever a Mother during these hours, remain close to us, as she was close to her Son.