Benedict XVI’s sermon for Holy Thursday evening Lord’s Supper Mass – a theology of kneeling

The Pope’s sermon for Holy Mass evening “Supper” Mass.

Within this sermon there is a tremendous reflection on the posture of kneeling.

My emphases and comments:

Dear Brothers and Sisters!

Holy Thursday is not only the day of the institution of the Most Holy Eucharist, whose splendour bathes all else and in some ways draws it to itself. [Water image.  File that away.  Ratzinger is careful when he crafts his sermons.  He plants points at the beginning and comes back to them.  Let us see if he picks up on water again, down the line.] To Holy Thursday also belongs the dark night of the Mount of Olives, to which Jesus goes with his disciples; the solitude and abandonment of Jesus, who in prayer goes forth to encounter the darkness of death; the betrayal of Judas, Jesus’ arrest and his denial by Peter; his indictment before the Sanhedrin and his being handed over to the Gentiles, to Pilate. Let us try at this hour to understand more deeply something of these events, for in them the mystery of our redemption takes place.

Jesus goes forth into the night. Night signifies lack of communication, a situation where people do not see one another. It is a symbol of incomprehension, of the obscuring of truth. [He is picking up the theme of Truth from his Chrism Mass sermon in the morning.] It is the place where evil, which has to hide before the light, can grow. Jesus himself is light and truth, communication, purity and goodness. He enters into the night. Night is ultimately a symbol of death, the definitive loss of fellowship and life. Jesus enters into the night in order to overcome it and to inaugurate the new Day of God in the history of humanity.

On the way, he sang with his disciples Israel’s psalms of liberation and redemption, which evoked the first Passover in Egypt, the night of liberation. Now he goes, as was his custom, to pray in solitude and, as Son, to speak with the Father. But, unusually, he wants to have close to him three disciples: Peter, James and John. These are the three who had experienced his Transfiguration – when the light of God’s glory shone through his human figure – and had seen him standing between the Law and the Prophets, between Moses and Elijah. They had heard him speaking to both of them about his “exodus” to Jerusalem. Jesus’ exodus to Jerusalemhow mysterious are these words! Israel’s exodus from Egypt had been the event of escape and liberation for God’s People. What would be the form taken by the exodus of Jesus, in whom the meaning of that historic drama was to be definitively fulfilled? The disciples were now witnessing the first stage of that exodus – the utter abasement which was nonetheless the essential step of the going forth to the freedom and new life which was the goal of the exodus. The disciples, whom Jesus wanted to have close to him as an element of human support in that hour of extreme distress, quickly fell asleep. Yet they heard some fragments of the words of Jesus’ prayer and they witnessed his way of acting. Both were deeply impressed on their hearts and they transmitted them to Christians for all time. Jesus called God “Abba“. The word means – as they add – “Father”. Yet it is not the usual form of the word “father”, but rather a children’s word [But NOT “daddy”.  “Abba” is not “daddy”. I’ve written about that here at other times.  But let us not get bogged down.] – an affectionate name which one would not have dared to use in speaking to God. It is the language of the one who is truly a “child”, the Son of the Father, the one who is conscious of being in communion with God, in deepest union with him.

If we ask ourselves what is most characteristic of the figure of Jesus in the Gospels, we have to say that it is his relationship with God. He is constantly in communion with God. Being with the Father is the core of his personality. Through Christ we know God truly. “No one has ever seen God”, says Saint John. The one “who is close to the Father’s heart … has made him known” (1:18).  [As St. Hillary taught, the Son, the Word, was the perfect invisible image of the invisible Father.  Christ is the perfect visible image of the invisible Father.  In the Chrism Mass sermon, Benedict speaks about “translations” of the Word in our world.] Now we know God as he truly is. He is Father, and this in an absolute goodness to which we can entrust ourselves. The evangelist Mark, who has preserved the memories of Saint Peter, relates that Jesus, after calling God “Abba”, went on to say: “Everything is possible for you. You can do all things” (cf. 14:36). The one who is Goodness is at the same time Power; he is all-powerful. Power is goodness and goodness is power. We can learn this trust from Jesus’ prayer on the Mount of Olives.  [Counter-intuitive, no?  In human terms, power corrupts.  In divine terms, absolute power is absolute goodness.]

[Let liturgists pay attention to this next paragraph!] Before reflecting on the content of Jesus’ petition, we must still consider what the evangelists tell us about Jesus’ posture during his prayer. Matthew and Mark tell us that he “threw himself on the ground” (Mt 26:39; cf. Mk 14:35), thus assuming a posture of complete submission, as is preserved in the Roman liturgy of Good Friday. Luke, on the other hand, tells us that Jesus prayed on his knees. In the Acts of the Apostles, he speaks of the saints praying on their knees: Stephen during his stoning, Peter at the raising of someone who had died, Paul on his way to martyrdom. In this way Luke has sketched a brief history of prayer on one’s knees in the early Church. Christians, in kneeling, enter into Jesus’ prayer on the Mount of Olives. [Are you ready to say it aloud now?  “Let us KNEEL for Holy Communion!”] When menaced by the power of evil, as they kneel, they are upright before the world, while as sons and daughters, they kneel before the Father. Before God’s glory we Christians kneel and acknowledge his divinity; by that posture we also express our confidence that he will prevail.  [Clear enough?]

Jesus struggles with the Father. He struggles with himself. And he struggles for us. He experiences anguish before the power of death. First and foremost this is simply the dread natural to every living creature in the face of death. [Fear of death is described by Augustine as “our daily winter”. I have often used this as a starting point for my own liturgical reflections here and elsewhere.] In Jesus, however, something more is at work. His gaze peers deeper, into the nights of evil. He sees the filthy flood of all the lies and all the disgrace which he will encounter in that chalice from which he must drink. [Benedict doesn’t often invoke the image of “filth”, but when he does, he is profound.  Think of his 2005 Stations of the Cross, Jesus Falls the Third Time.] His is the dread of one who is completely pure and holy as he sees the entire flood of this world’s evil bursting upon him. [There’s the water image again.  And in his Stations reflection, he used the image of water swamping the boat of the Church even when talking about the “filth” of abuse, etc.] He also sees me, and he prays for me. This moment of Jesus’ mortal anguish is thus an essential part of the process of redemption. Consequently, the Letter to the Hebrews describes the struggle of Jesus on the Mount of Olives as a priestly event. In this prayer of Jesus, pervaded by mortal anguish, the Lord performs the office of a priest: he takes upon himself the sins of humanity, of us all, and he brings us before the Father.  [This is about the meaning of priesthood.  The Chrism Mass sermon in the morning, he dealt with priests who are disobedient.  They have forgotten that priesthood is inseparable from sacrifice.  Priests of Christ the High Priest are ordained for sacrifice, as all priests are, but they are also, like Christ, priest and victim.]

Lastly, we must also pay attention to the content of Jesus’ prayer on the Mount of Olives. Jesus says: “Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet not what I want, but what you want” (Mk 14:36). The natural will of the man Jesus recoils in fear before the enormity of the matter. He asks to be spared. Yet as the Son, he places this human will into the Father’s will: not I, but you. In this way he transformed the stance of Adam, the primordial human sin, and thus heals humanity. The stance of Adam was: not what you, O God, have desired; rather, I myself want to be a god. This pride is the real essence of sin. We think we are free and truly ourselves only if we follow our own will. God appears as the opposite of our freedom. We need to be free of him – so we think – and only then will we be free. This is the fundamental rebellion present throughout history and the fundamental lie which perverts life. [Again, I cannot help but think of his Chrism Mass sermon.] When human beings set themselves against God, they set themselves against the truth of their own being and consequently do not become free, but alienated from themselves. We are free only if we stand in the truth of our being, if we are united to God. Then we become truly “like God” – not by resisting God, eliminating him, or denying him. [This is a theme for his whole pontificate which he signaled at the close of his sermon at his inaugural Mass at the beginning of his pontificate in 2005.  I have quoted it time and again on this blog.] In his anguished prayer on the Mount of Olives, Jesus resolved the false opposition between obedience and freedom, and opened the path to freedom. Let us ask the Lord to draw us into this “yes” to God’s will, and in this way to make us truly free. Amen.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. This brings to mind the Corpus Christi sermon when he first started to distribute kneeling and on the tongue, where he talked about the kneeling being unique to Christians. Good to see Colombo, Sri Lanka and Kazakistan are listening to the Holy Father.

  2. irishgirl says:

    Another profound sermon from the Holy Father-thank you for your ’emphases’ and ‘comments’ that you put in, Father Z! They really help in ‘picking out’ what is being said!
    I tried watching the Mass via EWTN’s website, but stopped because the video was not ‘catching up’ to the audio…supposed to be ‘live streaming’…. more like ‘live DRIBBLING’. Very frustrating….drove me nuts!
    Oh, well…ANYWAY….a Blessed Holy Thursday to you, Father Z! Thank you for your priesthood!
    I especially prayed for you and for all the priests who are ‘dear to my heart’ at the end of my Rosary!

  3. THREEHEARTS says:

    Lets get it straight, the Hebrews who have a much more transcendental view of God than us had a very traditional posture before God, “ON THEIR KNEES WITH THEIR HEAD TOUCHING THE GROUND” . Somewhere due to pride we lost the absolute vortue of rligion and piety and find it no longer necessary to WORSHIP God

  4. Mariana says:

    Thank you, Father, for your emphases and comments, really helpful! The “tanta sporcizia” of the 2005 Via Crucis nearly made me jump (I didn’t know what it referred to, alas, now I know lots of things I’d prefer not to know), and here we have it again!

  5. EucharistLove says:

    Your analysis was very enriching and edifying, Fr. Z. Thank you so much for taking your time and feeding your sheep. I just wish our Holy Father would mandate kneeling and receiving on the tongue. But, he knows what he’s doing and the Holy Spirit is leading.

  6. JillOfTheAmazingWolverineTribe says:

    I could have sworn the Pope was the head of ALL the Catholic Rites. Apparently the Eastern Rite Catholics are wrong for ‘standing aright and in awe’ and they are inferior Catholics.

  7. Diane at Te Deum Laudamus says:

    In his anguished prayer on the Mount of Olives, Jesus resolved the false opposition between obedience and freedom, and opened the path to freedom.

    This is precisely what some do not understand. How many times have we encountered those who would say, “you need to think for yourself, rather than let the Church think for you”. Upon meditating on that, I came up with this response which I now use on a regular basis, and it is has been at the bottom of every blog post I make….

    The obedient are not held captive by Holy Mother Church; it is the disobedient who are held captive by the world!

    It is our attachment to the things of the world: Money, sex, power, etc., that imprisons us. Only a person who is truly detached from them, acting on the grace of God, is free to give their, “yes” to Him. His laws are then understood for what they are: Liberating, and as sweet as honey.

    Perhaps I should open up my own Cafe Press with that quote. I get a lot of emails with people asking me if they can use it. Is there interest?

  8. CatholicPhilosopher says:

    Pope Benedict takes up the theme of light and thus truth from the very beginning of his homily, making a certain unity with the homily at the Chrisam Mass . The phrase “whose splendour bathes all else” in reference to the Eucharist is an image of light rather than water. In English one of the meanings of “bathe” is “Suffuse with or as if with light”, which is what the translator must have been thinking of. In the Italian (irradia) and the German (überstrahlt — though I have no idea whether the German is actually based in any way on Pope Benedict’s own text, or if it is merely a translation made by someone else from the Italian) the image of light is clearer.

  9. Bender says:

    The stance of Adam was: not what you, O God, have desired; rather, I myself want to be a god. This pride is the real essence of sin. We think we are free and truly ourselves only if we follow our own will. God appears as the opposite of our freedom. . . . When human beings set themselves against God, they set themselves against the truth of their own being and consequently do not become free, but alienated from themselves.

    One of the best homilies the Holy Father has given is still the one he gave for Immaculate Conception 2005

    What picture does this passage show us? The human being does not trust God. Tempted by the serpent, he harbours the suspicion that in the end, God takes something away from his life, that God is a rival who curtails our freedom and that we will be fully human only when we have cast him aside; in brief, that only in this way can we fully achieve our freedom. . . .
    Dear brothers and sisters, if we sincerely reflect about ourselves and our history, we have to say that with this narrative is described not only the history of the beginning but the history of all times, and that we all carry within us a drop of the poison of that way of thinking, illustrated by the images in the Book of Genesis. . . .
    In a word, we think that evil is basically good, we think that we need it, at least a little, in order to experience the fullness of being. . . . We think that a little bargaining with evil, keeping for oneself a little freedom against God, is basically a good thing, perhaps even necessary. If we look, however, at the world that surrounds us we can see that this is not so; in other words, that evil is always poisonous, does not uplift human beings but degrades and humiliates them. It does not make them any the greater, purer or wealthier, but harms and belittles them.

  10. Supertradmum says:

    I think we need more meditation on Christ’s anguish. I love to kneel at Mass, and I was the only one is a congregation in England last night to kneel and receive Communion on the tongue. I hate drawing attention to myself, but it must be done.

  11. smmclaug says:

    Father, is there a link you can provide to your comments on “Abba”?

  12. aurora says:

    To CatholicPhilosopher,
    Could there be a bathing in light without the Spirit of God moving over the face of the waters ?
    (Gen 1). Even if bathed in light, there exists water.

  13. Sid says:

    Thank you, Father Z, for your fisk.

    I pray Holy Father’s emphasis on kneeling means that changes are in preparation for the Ordinary Form.


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