Becoming the altar of repose

Published on 16 Apr 2019
An alter of repose with purple altar cloth.

Homily from Peter Gallagher SJ for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper

At the end of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday, the Blessed Sacrament is carried in procession to the altar of repose. Guarded overnight on that altar are the consecrated hosts which will be consumed on Good Friday at the solemn commemoration of the Lord’s passion. Is ‘repose’, however, a misnomer?  The vigil recalls the garden of Gethsemane. Here Jesus waits: he agonizes; he braces himself for betrayal and arrest; he prays for strength. What repose was there for Jesus in the garden?  In this place he experienced an agony. He contemplated an obedience to the will of the Father which would make him humbler yet.

Love one another as I have loved you

At the Last Supper he presented the new commandment, love one another as I have loved you, by washing the feet of his disciples. This new law would shortly be further explained by the passion.  Now he showed how perfect his love was. In the instituting of the eucharist comes the further command: do this as a memorial of me and every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are proclaiming my death. 

Far from encouraging rest, the Last Supper is a call to action both charitable and sacramental. We are summoned not to repose but to service and to the imitation of Christ. The phrase as I have loved you would reveal its most terrible meaning in the sufferings of Calvary. Christ’s agonized submission was neither rest nor  repose. The garden would soon be invaded by the arresting officers. The men of violence allow him no peace.

Suppose that we are the altar of repose?  

Could Jesus be brought to us to find rest?  He certainly entrusts himself to us.  The commandment of love is addressed to us.  I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.  Holy Communion and the commandment to love one another are certainly delivered to us.   The presence in our life of Jesus and his perfect charity is a source of energy for us The whole Church is built up by the outpouring of divine strength and encouragement which is taking place.  The Lord confers peace on us so that we can do the good work which he commands, and for which he energizes and strengthens us. 

An emptiness which only Jesus can fill

Amid the tumult, from where comes the rest and tranquility which properly surrounds the altar of repose that is us?  Principally our repose is from and in Jesus Himself. He was calm in the garden and he will be at peace amid everything he endures in the passion.  It is the Lord’s presence in our heart which gives us peace as he stirs us to action and generosity.  Without him we would be lost in anxiety or delusion.  On the altar of repose is a tabernacle which is empty until Jesus is placed there. We ‘altars’ each have an emptiness which only Jesus can fill.

Even the most eager disciples can be slumberous: the eye-lids of Peter, James and John are heavy.  The vigil at the altar of repose finds us weary.  Yet there can be in us a prayerfulness, an attention and a vigilance which are the architects of the repose we seek.  Our prayerful openness to God and his will for us sustains our many activities and good works. Jesus is handed over to us for safe-keeping.  Is there room in our life for a Lord who commands us to serve even as he renews us with his gifts?  We receive Jesus into our life and we find that He transforms us. 

We have our Gethsemane moment, however.  We tremble at the thought of the suffering of the morrow. Jesus knew what awaited him.  We can guess at the cost of our discipleship.  We are nervous, naturally, at the prospect of all sorts of renunciation or pain we can imagine might be asked of us.

We are the destination

As altars of repose, we could seem to be a temporary solution to an accommodation problem.  As the dwelling-place of the Lord do we lack solidity or permanence?  Imagine that the procession is approaching us. We are its destination. Jesus is being carried to us. On Good Friday he will be pushed roughly towards Calvary. 

On Holy Thursday his minders usher him towards us. He is venerated in us. Prayer and worship are our function now.  Adoration is our purpose.  The One who has been brought to us reassures us about our suitability. The now-filled emptiness has some beauty. We are bedecked by contemplation like beautifully arranged flowers, shining linen and bright candles. 

To such altars as us Jesus says, without irony or disappointment: take your rest now. We have been built for repose. We go in to the altar of God.  To the God who gives joy to our vigour and hope.

Peter Gallagher SJ