Holy Thursday

by Michael Sean Winters

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Last year, I reflected on different aspects of the Holy Thursday liturgy, which is surely among the most beautiful and moving in the entire year. This year, I should like to focus on one seemingly small liturgical change that distinguishes tonight’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper.

At every Mass, in the Eucharistic prayer, the celebrant begins the words of consecration by saying, “On the night he was betrayed, he took bread in his sacred hands….” At the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the celebrant adds three small words that pack a great deal of significance, saying, “On the night he was betrayed, that is tonight, he took bread in his sacred hands….”

“That is tonight.” I have not checked the new translation, but I hope these words are unchanged, especially the verb tense. “That is tonight.” The present tense.

The Church’s sacraments are born in history but they also transcend history. Both parts of the equation are critical and both parts have, in different epochs and by different people, been minimized. The Last Supper really happened. Jesus really did sit down to table with his apostles to celebrate the Passover meal. They ate real food and drank real wine. This is not a story or a mere myth. The events that we commemorate throughout the Triduum – the passion, the death and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus – were historical events. Jehovah could have saved his people in any one of a number of ways, but how could we humans know of that salvation unless it happened in history. God is not trapped in history, but we are. Some philosophic types are scandalized at the idea of God entering into human history in a specific time and place. What of those who did not know about him? It is not an easy question. But, how could anyone know of him unless he entered history.

The events of the Triduum, however, must transcend history as well, creating a new reality, new to us not to God, because these events are our invitation to the divine life of the Trinity. That is quite a claim. A few years back, then-Father, now Archbishop J. Augustine DiNoia, O.P. began his Holy Thursday sermon thus:

“Why is human weakness slow to believe that men will one day live with God?” wonders St. Augustine in one of his sermons (Sermon Guelf 3, LH Readings, Monday of Holy Week). People in fact seem to be ready to believe almost anything but that the point of life is to live with God.

Why indeed. Perhaps, it is self-knowledge, our acute awareness that we are not worthy to share the divine life, oftentimes barely worthy to share human life. We betray our friendships like Judas. We run from danger like the apostles. Like Jesus himself in the Garden of Gethsemane, we are wracked with doubt and ennui and, unlike Jesus himself, we have trouble setting our own will aside and cleaving to the will of the Father. Finally, we will die. No matter how good we are, no matter how just, no matter how attentive to the needs of the poor and the vulnerable, no matter how pious, we will be separated from those we love by death. Vanitas vanitorum. All is vanity. But, of course, Christianity is not about us or, better to say, it is only derivatively about us. It is about God. The events of the Triduum show the apostles, Pilate, the Sanhedrin, even the Blessed Mother herself, cast in supporting roles. The lead actor is God, the Son revealing the Trinity in a way we humans could not have grasped on our own. Whenever we are burdened by our own sins and frustrations and existential finitude, we need to remind ourselves that it is God who achieves liberation from sin and death.

Baptism is our acceptance of the invitation to share the divine life of the Trinity and the Eucharist is our on-going participation. We are baptized into the death and resurrection of the Lord, into the Triduum, into these events. But, because they transcend history, these historical events never end. That it seems to me is the whole point of tonight’s liturgy. Jesus knew what was coming and before he carried his cross and went to his tomb and was raised from the dead, he instituted the Eucharist precisely so that we could, in history, participate in these events that transcend them. Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we do not only remember these events, we make them present anew because the Eucharist is itself eternal. The passion, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus happened once and for all, to be sure, but it not the kind of thing that can be trapped in history and memory and other human categories. It is eternal, the point to which all history turns and from which all history receives a different, supernatural significance. This is not a memorial meal, as some of our non-Catholic brethren believe, a recollection of events long ago. “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it,” said Flannery O’Connor famously and rightly.

This balance between being in history and transcending it is at the heart of the Christian life. We live with this oftentimes awkward experience of the “already, but not yet.” Obviously, the final liberation of humankind from sin and death is something we await even while we celebrate it as an event enacted on a hillside in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. In this life, we have foretastes of the heavenly banquet, but we must return to the quotidian. God, however, does not return to the quotidian – He never left it. He never leaves us. That, too, is the meaning of the Eucharist and of our peculiar Catholic practice of keeping the reserved Eucharist in a tabernacle with a light in front of it. God is always there waiting for us. God is always there calling us. God is always there period. It is we who are on pilgrimage through the vale of tears, we who experience the “not yet” in our sins, and who try and try, but always stumble, as we try and focus on the “already.” I do not know why it is so except that, in my own life, those stumbles are what remind me of just how radically dependent I am upon God and those moments of human pride that drive me far from the gaze of the Savior.

“That is tonight.” When you attend Mass this evening, ask yourselves this question: Do you believe that Jesus is truly present, just as He was at the first Last Supper? And, are you prepared to accept his invitation to share in the divine life of the Trinity, a sharing that begins by carrying the cross? And, can you, in this world of finitude and doubt and ennui, can you sustain the hope that God’s verdict rendered on Easter morn will be a verdict of acquittal for the human race, a verdict of liberation from sin and death. “Why is human weakness slow to believe that men will one day live with God?” Augustine asked. My prayer for you all – and for myself – this Triduum is that we will all be a little less slow to believe.

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