In commemorating the events of Holy Week, we do much more than just recall Christ’s suffering and glorification. We actually celebrate his life and share in his victory. Through his Passion, Death and Resurrection, Jesus accomplishes the mission to which his Father calls him. He conquers sin and restores humanity to the justice of God.
Holy Thursday marks the end of the Lenten season. Tonight in a very special way, we experience Jesus’ gift of himself in the Eucharist, which has been handed down to us. On this night we begin the three days that are the center of our year, and indeed of the Christian faith. The Scripture readings for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper [Ex 12:1-8, 11-14 and Ps 116:12-13] root us deeply in our Jewish past, celebrating the Passover with the Jewish people, receiving from St. Paul [I Cor 11:23-26] that which was handed on to him, namely the Eucharistic banquet. In the Gospel [Jn 13:1-15] we look at Jesus square in the face as he kneels before us to wash feet in humble service. On this night, Jesus gives us an image of what the church is supposed to look like, feel like, and act like.
We contemplate Christ in the Upper Room, on the eve of his Passion, as he made a gift of himself to the Church, instituted the ministerial priesthood and left to his disciples the new commandment of love. In this way he wished to remain with us in the sacrament of the Eucharist, making himself the food of our salvation. After the Mass of the Lord's Supper, we will keep a vigil of adoration with the Lord, obeying the desire that he expressed to the Apostles in the Garden of Olives: "Remain here and keep watch with me" [Mt 26,38].
The Lord’s Supper
The four accounts of the Last Supper are based on two traditions: the Pauline – Lukan deriving from Antioch (I Cor I:23–7 Lk 22:14–20) and the Markan–Matthean, deriving from Jerusalem (Mk l4:22-25 Mt 26:26-29. The Lord’s Supper is central in almost all Christian denominations because it focuses sharply on the death of Jesus. The broken bread speaks of his broken body: the poured wine of his shed blood. As Paul puts it, ‘As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” [I Cor 11:26]. From the very beginning, the enshrinement of Jesus’ death in the celebration of the Eucharist attests to the continuing significance of his death and provides a way of reappropriating it afresh for those who never knew him personally. The sacrificial death of Jesus has deep relevance for the church.
Sacrifice in the New Testament
To properly understand the notion of sacrifice, it is necessary to interpret it in the light of the New Testament. The Eucharist is the sacramental, symbolic form under which the eternally enduring self-giving of Jesus to the Father on behalf of humankind obtains power over the participants in the Holy Spirit. This understanding makes clear that the church adds nothing to the sacrifice of the cross. It undertakes nothing on its own in the self-giving of Jesus. Rather, the church is taken up into the self-giving. The church is enabled to participate in this act in the power of the Spirit.
The New Testament uses the word sacrifice to describe the self-giving of Jesus and the Christian. Jesus’ self-giving was a dedication of himself to the Father on behalf of all people. The sacrifice of the Christian consists in the giving of oneself in union with Jesus. This includes sentiments of love and obedience toward the Father on behalf of humankind. There is more to the self-giving of Jesus and the Christian: it is the initiative of the Father. It is important to remember that this movement is not from human beings to God, but the opposite.
This is expressed through the use of the passive voice to describe the delivery of Jesus into the hands of sinners: “This is my body which is given” [Lk 22:19] and On the night he was handed over [I Cor 11:23]. John interprets this with the words, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” [Jn 3:16. In a similar way, Paul refers to the God “who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” [Rom 3:32]. In II Corinthians God is the one who through Christ reconciled the world to himself “God was in Christ reconciling the world,” [5:18-19].
When we speak of the self-giving of Jesus, we understand it to be the movement of God to us, to accept it and give thanks for it. To speak of the self-giving of the Christian on behalf of others includes the movement of God to human beings through other human beings. In other words, God enters the world as a loving God through the self-giving of Christ and the self-giving of Christians who live in Christ.
A Discipleship that Remembers Jesus
The Eucharist is a summary of Jesus’ life, a call to lay down one’s life for others. The laying down of Jesus’ life for the whole of humankind is not simply a gift but that which gives life; he dies in order to live and give life. Thus the body of Jesus was not simply slain, but “given for you.” In fact, Paul’s consistent emphasis is that Christ died “for others” [I Cor 8:11: Thes 5:10], which in turn also shows us the way God wants us to live. “He died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves” [II Cor 5:15].
The bread is not simply spoken of as bread, but in the Gospels as bread broken, and St. Paul refers not simply to the bread but to the one loaf. The meal aspect is radically subordinated to the central sharing of loving service. It is not by chance that the Gospel of John contains no account of the institution of the Eucharist, but instead relates the “washing of feet” [Jn 13:1-20]: by bending down to wash the feet of his disciples, Jesus explains the meaning of the Eucharist unequivocally. Saint Paul vigorously reaffirms the impropriety of a Eucharistic celebration lacking charity expressed by practical sharing with the poor [I Cor 11:17-22, 27-34].
“To remember” in the New Testament almost always signified to recall something or to think about it in such a way that it is expressed in speech or is formative of attitudes and actions. When we commemorate or “do this as a memorial,” the object of the memory is not an image or a replica of the Last Supper, but the Last Supper itself.
To celebrate the Eucharist is to commit oneself to a discipleship that “remembers” Jesus, not only in the ritual breaking of the bread and sharing the cup, but also in the “imitation” of Jesus, in the ongoing breaking of one’s own body and spilling of one’s own blood “in remembrance” of Jesus”. For this reason, Paul adds: “You proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” [I Cor 11:26].
Sharing Bread a Powerful Sign of Unity
The breaking of bread is also a powerful sign of unity. When we break bread, it is a means of sharing in the body of Christ. Paul says, “Because there is one bread... we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (I Cor 10:16-17). It is not only that the person sharing the cup and the broken bread establishes a union with Christ: a further union is established through the “partaking” of the same loaf: the union between all the members of the celebrating community. The unity expressed here is not just a matter of human conviviality; it is a gift given in the breaking of bread, a sharing in the body of Christ. The Eucharist makes the members of the body celebrate their oneness, a oneness experienced on three levels: one in Christ, one with each other, and one in service to the world.
The Meals of Jesus
Throughout the Gospel stories, Jesus dines with sinners and takes the opportunity to teach some very important qualities of discipleship and holiness. Jesus' befriending such types of people and eating with them angered his opponents, especially the religious leaders of his day. They murmured against him: "He has gone in to be a guest of a man who is a sinner", or "Look at him who eats with tax-collectors and prostitutes!" But where others saw only sinners, people on the fringe, public pariahs to be hated and isolated, Jesus saw human beings, perhaps people trapped in their own failure, desperately trying to be something better, awkwardly trying to make amends for a life of injustice. Jesus of Nazareth exclaimed: "Today salvation has come to this house, since this man also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost."
So often at meals Jesus showed us most clearly that he reconciled sinners. We have the stories of Zacchaeus, Levi, the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, the disillusioned disciples at Emmaus, and Peter at the lakeside. Even the Last Supper, which was such a solemn occasion, was in reality a meal shared with sinners.
Jesus’ guest list includes Judas (his betrayer), Peter (who denied him), and the squabbling and obtuse disciples. Jesus eats with people who fail, even at the Last Supper. The early church founded its understanding of the Eucharist on the basis of the dangerous memory of Jesus’ table fellowship. As Jesus shared his table with the broken and the outcasts, early Christians were being summoned to share their Eucharistic table with the broken and outcasts.
Let us never forget these important principles as we establish our liturgical policies and practices and determine the names of who should come to dinner with Jesus. On this night of “Institution”, let us remember that it is the Lord who sets the table, it is the Lord who gives the supreme example of sacrifice. We who are entrusted with the sacred ministry of priesthood are first and foremost servants and footwashers at the Sacred Banquet. What an extraordinary privilege it is to serve the Master in this way!
Father Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO Salt + Light Catholic Television Network
[The readings for Holy Thursday are Exodus 12.1-8, 11-14; Ps 116; 1 Corinthians 11.23-26; John 13.1-15]
Watch Fr. Rosica’s Reflection for Holy Thursday: When We Eat This Bread and Drink this Cup HERE.
As we remember the 5th anniversary of Venerable John Paul II's death this week (April 2nd), see also Thank You JPII or the longer version HERE.