In recent years I’ve spilled perhaps an inordinate amount of ink on the Holy Thursday foot-washing rite, which surely has been the cause of some controversy in recent years. At the same time, though, the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper has never ceased to be one of my favorite liturgies of the year, and my family is eagerly looking forward to tonight’s celebration (despite its unfortunate coinciding with the beginning of “March madness”!).
One aspect of this beautiful liturgy that always seems to capture my attention is the first reading, from chapter 12 of Exodus, in which the Lord gives the instructions for the Passover to Moses and Aaron. I tend to zero in on the part about the lamb being taken from either the sheep or the goats. The Lord isn’t particular on this point–the blood of either a sheep or a goat on the doorposts and lintel of the house will save the family’s firstborn from death.
In other contexts, there is a huge difference between sheep and goats. The example that immediately comes to mind is Matthew 25, where Our Lord says that at the judgment He will separate the sheep from the goats. The sheep obviously are those in a state of grace, those who are being saved, while the goats are those who are destined for eternal fire.
I don’t want to make too much of that, because these are two distinct passages with their own distinct messages. But on the night in which we celebrate and praise God for the gift of the New Covenant priesthood, we are reminded that ”in the old days” Yahweh made use of both sheep and goats in the rite that prefigured the Mass. I find that to be a reminder of the efficacy of God’s salvific economy notwithstanding the holiness or sinfulness of his ministers. When the New Covenant “instructions” are followed, Our Lord is true to His promises, and He becomes the living bread from heaven bearing everlasting life. What an awesome reality!
At the same time, whether we are sheep or goats does have eternal ramifications. And isn’t that what the Last Supper, and more specifically, the Institution of the Holy Eucharist, is all about? The Good Shepherd, through the Sacrament of His Body and Blood, gives us the means to be recognized as His sheep, enabling us in turn to recognize and serve Him in the least of our brethren.