“I Remain a Jew”: Cardinal Lustiger and the New Covenant | Holy Thursday 2019

Homily for Holy Thursday
18 March 2019

Cathedral of St. Raymond Nonnatus – Joliet, IL


Your excellency; Father Burke, Father Benedict, Father Nepi; Deacon Chris, Deacon John, Deacon Ed; honored guests; and you, the people of God, holy and chosen, brothers and sisters, all: good evening.

I am glad to be with tonight and to have been asked to preach on such an important occasion in the liturgical year and in the life of the whole Church. Tonight we remember, with a living memory as Jesus commanded, the passover of the Lord. This is the night when the body and blood of Jesus the Christ became for us the bread for all. It is the night on which he instituted this sacrament and the priestly order whose duty is the reverent, frequent, and fervent celebration of the sacrament. To be present here among you tonight not only as one whose heart burns with love for Jesus in this most holy sacrament of the altar, but to be among you for the very first time as a member of that priestly order, to be a priest who stands before you in the person of Christ, who is the new and eternal High Priest, is an experience that elicits untold and inexpressible gratitude in me.

Je suis né juif.

Devenu Chrètien par la foi et le baptême.

Je suis demeure juif comme le demeuraient les Apôtres.

J’ai pour saints patrons
Aron le Grand Prêtre, Saint Jean l’Apôtre, et Sainte Marie, pleine de grâce.

Rien n’est impossible á Dieu.

These are the words on the self-written epitaph on the grave of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the 139th Archbishop of Paris, who served there from 1981 to 2005. As a young Jewish boy named Aaron growing up in Paris at the beginning of the second World War, he was sent to the City of Orleans by his father to avoid any trouble when the Nazi occupation of Paris began. He lived with a family friend, a Christian woman, who treated Aaron as her own son. While in Orleans, Aaron had a chance to see first hand the Catholic faith of this woman and the role it played in her life and in the life of her friends. On August 21, 1940, he was baptized by the bishop of Orleans, to the great dismay of his father who tried to have his baptism annulled. In 1942, his mother was arrested and taken to Auschwitz where she was murdered a year later.

Even as a priest, Fr. Lustiger claimed his jewish identity as a major part not only of his private life, and of his ministry. He was often challenged about this by the media, and by members of both the Jewish and Christian communities in Paris. As a lasting testament to his firm commitment to his heritage, the epitaph on his tomb in the crypt of the living and resilient Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris reads, this time in English:

I was born a jew.
I became a Christian by faith and by baptism.

I remain a jew as the apostles remained Jews.
I have for my patron saints
Aaron the High Priest, St. John the Apostle, and Holy Mary, full of grace.
Nothing is impossible for God.

Passers-by, pray for me.

Why am I talking about Cardinal Lustiger?

He is one of the rare ones among us who is not only a convert, but a Jewish convert. What most of us have received by inheritance, he participated in by choice: the new and eternal covenant whose institution we celebrate tonight.

We are remiss if we view ourselves as completely non-Jewish. In his or her spiritual DNA, every Christian possesses at least a trace of the ancient Judaism out of which our faith has grown. We still call Abraham our “father in faith”; we revere the patriarchs – like Moses, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – as our forefathers; the prophets of the Old Testament are anointed precisely to prepare the way for the coming of the Mashiach, the Messiah, who would restore the Davidic kingdom and bring peace.

Each of us is, in this sense, Jewish, at least in our roots. The story of the Jewish people as told in the latter half of the book of Genesis, and in the books of Exodus, Deuteronomy, Leviticus, and Numbers is our story, too; the history of the twelve tribes of Israel found in 1 and 2 Chronicles, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Samuel is our history, too; the songs and poetry of the Book of Psalms and in the Song of Solomon are some of the most beautiful literature ever written, and they are the songs and poetry of our tradition.

These books and stories trace for us the develop of our spiritual family, the men and women of Israel with whom God entered into a relationship. He did not ratify contracts with them, and exchange of goods or services, which so many of our relationships are today. Rather, he instituted covenants with his people, not the exchange of goods or services but the exchange of persons; “you are my people, and I am your God.” “Return to me even now with your whole heart, and I will give you rest.”

And, for awhile, the people honored these covenants. But in the context of life after the advent of original sin, and even for us today, there exists in our hearts the longing, the desire to be gods; to take control; to make decisions we have no business making about the cosmos and way it goes. The temptation to sin, to abandon the covenant, was all around the Israelites and it is constantly for us; we are tempted to sin, in a word, we are tempted to take what is meant to be received.

We see it in:

Genesis (Noah)
Exodus (Moses, Mt. Sinai, and the Golden Calf)
Exodus (whining in the desert)

All throughout this time, and through the rest of the Israel’s history, God is appointing prophets who are preparing the way for the Messiah, the anointed one of God, who will come and restore what has been lost through so many centuries of disobedience. They are expecting a political ruler, a temporal king; they do not expect the Son of God. More than this, they certainly did not expect the Son of God to become a man like them, never mind be born in poverty. Imagine their shock when Jesus proclaims in their midst that the mission of the Messiah – to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, and a year of favor from the Lord – would be fulfilled by him in their hearing.

Could it be that God is up to something that we don’t understand? Could it be that God’s vision for life and for the movement of the cosmos is different than ours? Certainly not. I will control this situation, I will take charge of this, I will create and I will destroy, I will enact revenge, I will ignore the message of liberty, pardon, and favor; I will crucify him so that God’s will, which is surely what I intend it to be, can come to full fruition in my midst.

This is the narrative of the sinner.

What, in contrast, has been the narrative of God? What did Cardinal Lustiger understand and what can we learn from him tonight?

The narrative of God has been precisely this: “Behold I am doing a new thing; do you not perceive it?” I am fulfilling the old law so that I might institute something new. From now on, the greatest among you is the least; the first is the last; and those who mourn and suffer and are persecuted for my sake and who hunger and thirst for righteousness; those who are poor, they are the blessed ones.

The ones who are mighty in the eyes of this world which is passing away will be toppled from their thrones, and the lowly will be raised up.

No more covenants sealed in the blood of goats or rams or sheep. No more covenants sealed in the fallible and dirty blood on altars built by men. But as the serpent was lifted up by Moses in the desert and all who looked upon it were healed, so will the Son of Man be lifted up and by the sacrifice of God himself of the altar of the Cross, all who eat his flesh and drink his blood will be saved.

“This is my body that is for you.

Do this in remembrance of me.”

In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, 

“This cup is the new covenant in my blood.

Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Take this all of you and drink from it, for this is the cup of my blood; the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you. Do this is memory of me.

No more hereditary, Levitical priesthood. Now, one high priest.
No more sacrifice after sacrifice. Now, one sacrifice given for all.

And all of this instituted in the context of these words:
“Do you realize what I have done for you? …I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you also should do.”

What did he do? Where did he go? He washed the feet of his followers, he served them and fed them, and then he died for them. He leads us to the cross, always to the cross. A Christian who is not moving toward the cross, picking up the cross, being crucified on the cross, or having his lifeless body carried from the cross as he receives in faith and hope the love of God which has promised him that, through this cross, something new is happening…A Christian who avoids the cross is no Christian at all, but a coward; a sad man who is owned by the world.

It isn’t easy being Christian. It isn’t convenient being a Christian. Any of our spiritual cousins whose lives are detailed in the Old Testament could tell us that.

The question is whether or not we’ll stick with it long enough to see the new things of God come to fruition for us. The Church is in pain, the Church needs healing, and there are good reasons to leave everywhere we look. The Supper we’re about to share comes with some very serious ramifications. The new and eternal covenant in the blood of Jesus Christ is not exactly a walk through Eden.

So tonight, and at every Mass from here until eternity, let us remember that partaking in the one bread and one cup is an intentional act on our part; our “amen” is the means by which we choose Christ again, the means by which our participation in the covenant is renewed, the means by which we receive, again, the witness of Christ and the model to follow.

As prepare to watch and pray with the Lord as he goes to the cross; as we contemplate those many ways and many crosses he’s asking us to take up, and the many ways he’s asking us to leave ourselves behind in service to him and to our brothers and sisters, I wish to leave you with the words of Cardinal Lustiger that I put on my holy card at ordination, and which hang above above my desk:

Have you taken up Christianity or have you allowed Christ to take you over? Are Christians the masters of Christianity, deciding what it should be? Or is it Christ who, through his Spirit, takes hold you and leads you where you do not want to go?

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