Once again, we set out on this Triduum – the three most important days in the Churches liturgical calendar. Three days, but really a single drama in three acts. Tonight, therefore we gather with Jesus and the disciples to begin this encounter that will lead to an explosion of life and love. As I reminded us on Palm Sunday these ceremonies are no mere performance, certainly not empty ritual. We are not simply commemorating what Jesus undertook for our salvation – no we enter fully into this mystery. So, are you ready? I wonder?
In 1996 Fr Alejandro Pezet had finished saying Mass in the commercial district of Buenos Aires and was in the sacristy taking off his vestments. A parishioner came to inform him that she had gone to light a candle at the back of the Church only to find a eucharistic host that had been discarded in the candle stick. She had no idea if it had been consecrated but it certainly looked discolored. Fr Alejandro went to retrieve the host and to put it in a container of water and placed it in the tabernacle waiting for the host to dissolve.
Some ten days or more went by and Fr Alejandro remembered the host in the container of water. The host had not dissolved as expected and now contained reddish stains – a blooded substance that seemed to grow day by day. He naturally informed the Bishop who was then Jorge Mario Bergoglio who advised the priest to wait a little longer to see what would happen but meanwhile to have the host professionally photographed.
The photographs clearly shown that the host had become a fragment of blooded flesh and had grown in size. The host was transferred to distilled water and left for several years until 1999 it was subjected to scientific investigation locally which releveled that the reddish substance was human blood and to their great surprise there were white blood cells present that were active. From then until 2004 further scientific test were carried out that confirmed that it was human tissue. Then a sample was sent to a cardiac pathologist and forensic scientist in USA, Professor Frederick Zugibe.
It was not revealed to him where the sample came from, but he was requested to identify what it was. After studying it, he said, “The sample you brought me is a heart muscle, a myocardium, more precisely the left ventricle” He confirmed that the patient had suffered a great deal. Dr Zugibe was asked, why he said this? “Because your patient has some thrombus, at certain times preventing breathing, oxygen supply, tiring and making the patient suffer because every breath had to be painful. He probably suffered a blow to the chest. On the other hand, cardiac activity was high at the time you brought me the sample. The white blood cells were found intact and these are only transported by blood. Therefore, if there are white blood cells, it’s because at the time you took the sample, the heart was beating- in other words the person was alive”.
Professor Zugibe then asked whose sample it was, and when he was told that it was from a Consecrated host, he said, “How and why a consecrated host would change its character and become human flesh and blood will remain an inescapable mystery to science -what I cannot deny is what science has revealed, the sample you brought me was human flesh and blood, blood type AB and the heart from which it was taken was still alive when you took it!” This eucharistic miracles, like the many others throughout history, are merely visible confirmation of what Jesus himself told us; namely that he really does give us His gloried body and blood as spiritual food and drink.
Paul leaves us in no doubt in the second reading this evening: ‘What I received…I in turn pass on to you…every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, you are proclaiming his death’. As with the breaking of bread, so with the washing of feet. Jesus does not give us nice gestures but living signs – windows into his heart of love. The first reading at Mass also reminds us very clearly of the significance of the last supper – it was a Passover meal par excellence! Not only would the lamb chosen to celebrate this feast be killed and its blood smeared on the door posts, but it would be skinned and roasted. This was done each year to enable each generation to literally enter the saving events in Egypt.
By the first century A.D. the sacrifice was centered upon the temple and was performed by a priest. Two men would line up and then in groups go into the place of sacrifice. The throat of the lamb was slit and the blood caught in a bowl by the priest, some was thrown against the altar and then the lamb was skinned and skewered with two metal rods in the form of a cross so it could be carried on the shoulders back to the family of ten. Josephus tells us that about 255,600 lambs would be slaughtered between 3.00 p.m. and 5.00 p.m.
Here is the context of what Jesus then did on that last evening. How many other Passover meals had he already had with his followers but on this occasion, he digressed from the ritual. This bread was His body, this wine His very blood. Having first taught them service by washing their feet – making them ritually clean – brought them into a communion of hearts – he then feeds them with Himself – the true Passover lamb.
The words of Professor Zugibe still ring in my ears: “The sample you have brought me is a heart muscle undergoing agony”. Having fed them Jesus and the disciples go to a garden – Gethsemane – which means ‘oil press’. It is the place where the olives are pressed for oil. We are taken right back to another garden – Eden and to the two trees that were found in that garden. The tree of good and evil and the tree of life.
Ancient Jewish tradition understood that the tree of good and evil was not an apple tree!!! That is a western add on! The tree that Adam and Eve ate from was a fig tree. How do we know this? Well in Gen 3: 6-7 it says that after they eat from the tree, they realized their nakedness – their sin - and so they sowed fig leaves to cover their shame. This is confirmed in a text that I have referred to before a non-scriptural Jewish text called ‘The Life of Adam and Eve’.
If the fig tree is the tree of good and evil do you see the significance of why Jesus encountering the fig tree and curses it and says “may no one ever eat of you again? New David, new Solomon, new priest, new Adam. He comes to Jerusalem not simply to inaugurate the Kingdom of God, but to undo the fall and the effects of Adam and Eves curse.
So, let’s get back to the garden and the olive trees because if the fig tree is the symbol of the tree of good and evil then, yes the olive tree is the tree of life. Brethren I took you to this place on Ash Wednesday when I spoke already of the story of Adam’s last illness and the oil of mercy that came from the tree of life. The healing power of this tree has come down to us and is why the oil blessed at the Chrism Mass is olive oil. To get this oil, the olive must be crushed, which we will witness tomorrow.
The gift of the Eucharist, the gift of healing oil, the washing of our feet reveals in a beautiful way what John teaches us in tonight’s Gospel: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (Jn 13:1). Pope Benedict writes:
God is not a remote God. Too distant or too great to be bothered
with our trifles. Since God is great, he can also be concerned with
small things. Since he is great, the soul of man, the same man,
created through eternal love, is not a small thing but great, and
worthy of God’s love.’
Here is our hope. This is our faith. Each time we approach the Eucharist, we receive the heart of love made flesh. He washes us and anoints us to ennoble us. Let me conclude with these words of St Faustina from her Diary:
‘When you go to confession, to the fountain of My mercy, the blood
and water which came forth from My Heart always flows down
upon your soul and ennobles it’.
As we begin these days of grace let each of us open ourselves to the heart of Jesus, no matter how lost or disappointed or discouraged we may feel. Tonight, he invites you to come home. He invites us to sit at his table with him to be washed and healed by his oil of love and feed on his body and blood.
Abbot Robert Igo, OSB
Abbot of Ampleforth
1 April 2021