Each Holy Thursday the Church recounts the evening when Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with his closest disciples. At that meal Jesus inaugurated the Passover of the New Covenant, when the supreme sacrifice would be offered for the salvation of the human race, by Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection.
Also of highest importance for us who follow Christ, the Lord instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper, giving His Body and Blood, under the form of bread and wine, to His disciples. At every Eucharist members of the Church are invited to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord,” (Psalm 33(34):8), as the psalmist expresses it, by reception of the Blessed Sacrament.
In addition to the Eucharist, Christ instituted the ministerial priesthood at the Last Supper, whereby the Sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood would be perpetuated, that is, celebrated, until the end of the ages. Those who are called to the priesthood, set before God’s people the Paschal meal, whereby the Body and Blood of the Redeemer are made present and given as spiritual nourishment for the journey through life.
The other Sacraments of the Church: Baptism, Penance, Confirmation, Holy Orders, Matrimony, the Sacrament of the Sick are also outward signs, instituted by Christ, to bestow grace on believers. On Holy Thursday we give thanks to God in a singular manner for all these great gifts, and especially the Holy Eucharist and the ministerial priesthood.
At the Last Supper Christ also gave the “new commandment,” (mandatum in Latin) of love. The words of Jesus in this regard we know very well: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (Jn 13:34). This is not a suggestion or a theory, but a command. Prior to Christ’s mandatum, love was based more on an expected reward in return, or upon the fulfillment of an imposed norm. Now, love is to be based upon Christ, who loved to the point of giving His own life by a love that is to be the measure of every disciple’s love, and what should characterize a Christian and Catholic understanding of love.
We all realize that to love as Christ loved is beyond our capacity. Even so, we strive with all our heart to love and to find our strength for doing so from the grace we receive from God, especially through Christ’s Body and Blood, the Holy Eucharist, called in the Christian east, the “Fountain of Immortality,” and often in the west as the “Bread of Angels.”
At the same Last Supper, with the gesture of a humble servant expressing love, Jesus washed the feet of His disciples, and directs all who follow Him to do likewise. This action of Jesus is more than a simple gesture, though. It is in fact an anticipation of the total humiliation and self-emptying that Christ went through, to save the human race. The One who is God bowed down before our human littleness, before everyone, and offers a sign for all of us to imitate. Our humble Lord invites us every day to follow His example to build up a better and different world, rooted in God’s sovereignty over all, and taking the form of service and love of God and one another by the way we live.
At every Eucharist, and especially on Holy Thursday, where Divine love and forgiveness are emphasized, we “proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes” (1 Cor 11). In the Old Testament, at the time of Passover, God’s people sprinkled the blood of a lamb on each home, recounting the Exodus, that is, freedom from slavery in Egypt. Now, in the New Covenant, the Lamb without blemish, Jesus Christ, is sacrificed, and the Blood of the Lamb is sprinkled on the souls of believers, offering to all freedom from sin and death.
Today we are all called to move toward a new life in Christ, a full life of Divine love. Another psalmist beautifully expresses what takes place at the Eucharistic sacrifice we offer here and now: “How shall I make a return to the Lord for all the good he has done for me? The cup of salvation I will take up and I will call upon the name of the Lord” (Psalm 115(116): 13).
May this Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper, which begins what we call the “Sacred Triduum,” be an opportunity to renew belief in the Real Presence of the Christ in the Eucharist and willing participation in this Sacrament at Mass. May it also be a pledge of our humble service toward one another, freely and joyfully given. We are to recognize Christ present in others and should willingly “bow and bend low” to serve them in the love of Christ.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB