Opening Mass for Forty Hours Devotion

Readings: Exodus 12:21-27 | 1 Peter 1:17-21 | Mark 14:12-16,22-26

Brothers and sisters in Christ, it is truly an awesome privilege to be here tonight as we begin this Forty Hours Devotion. We are a people blessed and graced by our God with nothing less than the very Real Presence of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who has saved us from our sins and takes away the sting of our death by giving us the promise of eternal life. So it is with great joy that we look forward to these forty hours of Eucharistic adoration and worship, knowing not what graces we will receive individually and as a community during this time, but confident that those graces will be much more than we could ever hope for or imagine.

This evening's Liturgy of the Word speaks to us very eloquently of the Eucharist in terms of God's saving work throughout time. Even back to the Israelite captivity in Egypt, God was looking out for his people, hearing the cry of their distress, and planning to save them in every way. These readings then speak of a people marked by their being elected as God's chosen people. The ancient Israelites were chosen to be saved from their captivity and we have been chosen to be saved from our sins. These readings also define us all as a people marked by faith, hope and love.

In the first reading from Exodus, the people have not yet left Egypt. Moses is still trying to convince Pharaoh that he should let the people go out in to the desert to worship God, but Pharaoh is still stubbornly resisting, just as the Lord foretold. What we have in the reading, then, is the last of the plagues that will certainly cause Pharaoh not only to let the people go, but actually drive them from the land. That plague, of course, would be the death of all the first born of the land. But that death would not touch the first born of the Israelites, God said, if they would slaughter a lamb and sprinkle the doorposts with the blood. Then the houses would be marked as those of the Israelites, and the destroyer would not enter. This Passover sacrifice certainly marked the people for safety, but it also marked them in faith. They were given a ritual that would last for generations, one they still celebrate, in which they would recall this great saving act and pass that faith on to their young people.

In the second reading from the first letter of St. Peter, we are reminded that our redemption from sin and death was not just purchased with something perishable, but with the precious Blood of Christ. Because of that, we are to conduct ourselves as a ransomed people, as a people marked by hope – by a hope beyond all hopes, by a hope that was purchased at great price, by a hope that will never disappoint or pass away.

The Gospel shows Jesus giving this glorious, miraculous mystery to his apostles. "This is my Body … this is my Blood." We make that reality present every time we celebrate the Eucharist, in grateful remembrance of the Lord's sacrifice for our redemption. This beautiful feast of the most precious food marked the apostles, and all those who would be touched by their ministry and preaching, with the love of God beyond all telling.

Our God is higher than the heavens, more awesome than any of the world's mysteries, but our God also continues to be in our midst, continuing his work among us, continuing to gift us with salvation, continuing to bring us back to himself. We do not worship a god who has set the world in motion and then retired to view our history from afar. We believe in a God who is intimately involved in our lives and our history so that we can never fall so far from him that he cannot reach us. We believe in God who has sent his Son Jesus Christ into our world, to walk among us, to share our sorrows and feel our pains, to die our death and show us the way back to the Father. Christ is really present here among us as we gather, here among us as we hear the Word proclaimed, here among us as we receive the ministry of the Church, and here among us as we partake of the Eucharist, the great sacramental meal that he gave us as an everlasting remembrance. Because Christ is really present among us, we are a people who have been marked by faith, hope and love. We have received the grace of God's saving action throughout history and have been redeemed at a great cost.

We gather here then, for forty hours, to celebrate the nearness of our God and to worship Jesus Christ, really present here among us. We gather for forty hours because the number forty has always signified a sacred period of time: the rains during the time of Noah lasted 40 days and nights; the Jews wandered through the desert for 40 years, our Lord fasted and prayed for 40 days before beginning His public ministry. The 40 Hours Devotion remembers that traditional "forty-hour period" from our Lord's burial until the resurrection. In the Middle Ages, the Blessed Sacrament was transferred to the repository, "the Easter Sepulcher," for this 40 hour period of time to signify our Lord's time in the tomb.

This Blessed Sacrament that we worship in these 40 hours is the same Christ we will receive in the Eucharist this evening – and every time we gather for Mass. And that Christ we receive in the Eucharist is the same Christ we serve in our brothers and sisters. Our Catholic experience of Jesus Christ is never just "me and Jesus." Our personal relationship with Christ is important, but it is always defined by our communal experience. So these forty hours may challenge us to reach out to others in ways we have resisted in the past, because the more we see Christ as we worship, the more we'll see Christ in our daily lives.

What we celebrate in these days is that Christ is present to us in all of these ways every single day of our lives. We are looking for these forty hours to remind us of that great gift. Having celebrated St. Patrick's feast so recently, I am reminded that his Breastplate hymn sings of this wondrous presence so richly:

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

May this forty hour retreat of adoration and worship of the Blessed Sacrament remind us that we are all caught up in the faith, hope and love that is ours in Christ. May we all in this time become ever more aware that our Christ is really present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, every time we gather in faith for the Eucharist, every time we worship the great hope present in the Blessed Sacrament, and every time we reach out in love to our brothers and sisters.

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