Apr 9, 2020: Holy Thursday, Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper (ABC)

Introduction

This is the first day of the solemn Triduum, the most sacred moment of the liturgical year. On each of the three days, we meditate on some aspect of the same question: What is the meaning of Passover? Holy Thursday opens this meditation by considering God’s initiative in these wondrous events. Three themes are prominent: the Passover, which is the saving action of God; our response to God’s Passover; and the wonder of God’s love.

1st Reading – Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, 
“This month shall stand at the head of your calendar; 
you shall reckon it the first month of the year.
Tell the whole community of Israel: 
On the tenth of this month every one of your families
must procure for itself a lamb, one apiece for each household.
If a family is too small for a whole lamb, 
it shall join the nearest household in procuring one 
and shall share in the lamb 
in proportion to the number of persons who partake of it.
The lamb must be a year-old male and without blemish.
You may take it from either the sheep or the goats.
You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, 
and then, with the whole assembly of Israel present, 
it shall be slaughtered during the evening twilight.
They shall take some of its blood 
and apply it to the two doorposts and the lintel 
of every house in which they partake of the lamb.
That same night they shall eat its roasted flesh 
with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.

“This is how you are to eat it: 
with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand,
you shall eat like those who are in flight.
It is the Passover of the LORD.
For on this same night I will go through Egypt, 
striking down every firstborn of the land, both man and beast,
and executing judgment on all the gods of Egypt—I, the LORD!
But the blood will mark the houses where you are.
Seeing the blood, I will pass over you; 
thus, when I strike the land of Egypt, 
no destructive blow will come upon you.

“This day shall be a memorial feast for you, 
which all your generations shall celebrate 
with pilgrimage to the LORD, as a perpetual institution.”

The first reading sets forth the ritual prescriptions for the annual celebration of the feast of Passover.

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt,

The establishment of the memorial, the determination of its date, and the details of the rite itself were all decreed by God himself.

“This month shall stand at the head of your calendar; you shall reckon it the first month of the year.

This is the month of Nisan (corresponds to March-April in the Gregorian calendar).

Since the event of the Exodus marked Israel’s beginning as a people, it is only fitting the feast that commemorates this beginning be positioned at the head of their year.

Tell the whole community of Israel: On the tenth of this month every one of your families must procure for itself a lamb, one apiece for each household. If a family is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join the nearest household in procuring one and shall share in the lamb in proportion to the number of persons who partake of it.

The celebration takes the form of a family meal, at the center of which is a lamb.

The lamb must be a year-old male and without blemish. You may take it from either the sheep or the goats.

Because of the significance of this ceremony, the selection, slaughter, and consumption of this lamb are carefully determined by ritual ordinance:

  • It must be male, because the people cannot afford to lose the reproductive potential of the females of the flock.
  • It must be a year old, so it has enough maturity to embody the salvific significance that will be placed upon it, yet not so old as to have lost its fundamental vitality.
  • It is a sacrificial offering to Yahweh and, as such, is to be the finest which is available; not old, deformed, diseased or infirm.

You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, and then, with the whole assembly of Israel present, it shall be slaughtered during the evening twilight.

The passover lambs must be slaughtered in the presence of the entire community and then eaten in the respective households.  Presumably this is an evening meal, since the lambs are to be slaughtered at twilight.

They shall take some of its blood and apply it to the two doorposts and the lintel of every house in which they partake of the lamb.

As with all covenants, this covenant with God has a sign – the blood marking the doorposts and lintel (the horizontal beam which forms the top of the doorway). Exodus 12:22 tells us that the blood is to be applied with a branch of hyssop.

That same night they shall eat its roasted flesh

Even if they don’t like lamb, they must eat the sacrifice as a mark of family unity. Part of the rite which forges the covenant involves eating the sacrifice; as is later reflected in the communion (peace) offerings of Leviticus 3; 7:11-21.

with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.  

The unleavened bread is to show that it is done in haste, there is not time to allow the dough to rise. The bitter herbs are to serve as a reminder of the bitterness which they have endured as slaves.

It shall not be eaten raw or boiled, but roasted whole, with its head and shanks and inner organs. None of it must be kept beyond the next morning; whatever is left over in the morning shall be burned up.

The lambs must be eaten in their entirety; nothing of the sacrifice can be left over, lest it be thrown out like refuse.  This is the reason smaller households were encouraged to join together — to ensure total consumption of the animal.

Some commentators believe the burned portion constitutes the offering to God.

“This is how you are to eat it: with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand, you shall eat like those who are in flight. It is the Passover of the LORD.

Even the manner of dress is prescribed: they must be clad like those in flight.

“Loins girt” means that their tunics are pulled tight, with the ends tucked into the belt, so that their clothing is not loose and tripping them or otherwise hindering their movement. Exodus 12:22 also tells us that everyone was to stay within the house until morning.

For on this same night I will go through Egypt, striking down every first-born of the land, both man and beast, and executing judgment on all the gods of Egypt – I, the LORD!

The power of God is effective even in the land of Egypt.  This is a profound theological claim for several reasons:

  • it means that the rule of the God of Israel is not limited to the boundaries of the land of Israel itself;
  • it describes Israel’s God as superior to the gods of Egypt, ruling where these other gods do not;
  • it implies that Israel’s God exercises authority over the lives of the Egyptians themselves, striking down their firstborn.

But the blood will mark the houses where you are. Seeing the blood, I will pass over you; thus, when I strike the land of Egypt, no destructive blow will come upon you.

The ritual itself may have originated from an ancient nomadic ceremony.  Herders frequently moved during the night from winter pasturage to places of spring grazing.  Before their move, one of the choicest members of the flock was sacrificed in order to ensure the safety of the rest of the flock. Its blook was then somehow sprinkled around the camp. They believed that the blood had apotropaic value, that is, it could ward off any threatening evil.

Elements of that ritual have now taken on historical meaning.  What was once a sacrifice for pacification of an evil deity is now a memorial of God’s protection and deliverance.

“This day shall be a memorial feast for you, which all your generations shall celebrate with pilgrimage to the LORD, as a perpetual institution.”

A memorial feast (anámnēsis) is a “ritual of remembering” that is enjoined upon the community of believers and repeated on a regular basis (in the case of Passover, Exodus 12:18-19 specifies an annual celebration).

Anámnēsis is not the recalling of fond memories, but a memorial sacrifice which makes the person present at the original event. Among the Hebrews, Passover was the memorial sacrifice par excellence; every time a Jew, even today, celebrates the Passover, they make themselves present at the first Passover in Egypt and are joined with all the participants of that original Passover meal. By making a remembrance, they are participating in a covenant renewal ceremony.

2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Brothers and sisters:
I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, 
that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, 
took bread, and, after he had given thanks,
broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, 
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood.
Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, 
you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.

Our second reading contains the words of consecration which we hear at every Mass.  This letter from Paul was written about eight years before the first gospel account, making this passage the oldest written account of the institution of the Eucharist.

Brothers and sisters: I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you,

The language used here by Saint Paul is technical and formulaic: what he received he now hands down.  Recall that Paul was a convert; he was not among The Twelve at the Last Supper. He received this tradition in the usual way a religious heritage is transmitted: by word of mouth.

Since such transmission was a custom in both the Greek schools and the Jewish synagogue, the audience would understand what Paul was doing, regardless of their ethnic or religious background.

that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, 

Holy Thursday, the night before Jesus’ crucifixion. Although the institution of the Eucharist is what is being highlighted here, this was also the night Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, experienced his agony in the garden, and was arrested.

took bread,

The afikomen, the section of unleavened bread which was broken off during the Passover meal and reserved until just before the third cup of wine was drunk.

and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said,

Faithful to Jewish table etiquette, as either the host of the gathering or the head of the household, he gives thanks and breaks the bread.

“Give thanks” in Greek: eucharisto.

“This is my body that is for you.

Recall that a year before the Last Supper, Jesus had said “I am the living bread that comes down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I give for the life of the world” (John 6:51).

Do this in remembrance of me.”

The Church sees these poignant words of Jesus as instruction for the continual celebration of the liturgical reenactment.  The fact that they are the words of Jesus gives divine legitimation to the anámnēsis (ritual of remembering) that is enjoined upon the community of believers.

Recall from our first reading that anámnēsis is simply a remembrance, but a memorial sacrifice which makes the person present at the original event.

Paul is conveying that the celebration of the Eucharist is a memorial sacrifice by which we bless and thank God for his life, death, and resurrection.  It is the covenant renewal ceremony for Christians, which is to last forever.

In the same way also the cup, after supper,

When the supper was over, Jesus took the cup and pronounced words over it as well.  This would have been the third cup of the Passover meal, the cup of thanksgiving.

saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.

The cup is identified with the new covenant and with the blood of the Lord, which, like sacrificial blood, ratifies the covenant. This takes the new covenant theme from Jeremiah 31:31 and the blood ratification from the Jewish sacrificial system, incorporates them, reinterprets them, and fulfills the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:31.

The institution of the Eucharist is the only time in the New Testament when Jesus uses the term “covenant.”  We’ve heard the words of the Eucharist so often that we can easily take them for granted; imagine the amazement, if not the incredulity, of the Apostles when they heard them for the first time.

Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

This verse ends as did the previous verse, with a charge to repeat the memorial.

We must keep in mind that Jesus is God, and whatever God speaks, happens (Isaiah 55:10-11). During creation, when he said “Let there be light,” darkness disappeared. Therefore, when Jesus said “This is my body… This is my blood,” the bread and wine became his Precious Body and Precious Blood. Not symbols, but literally his body and blood.

“For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by Him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nourished, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus.” [Saint Justin the Martyr (A.D. 150), First Apology 66]

“Do you wish to know how it is consecrated with heavenly words? Accept that the words are. The priest speaks. He says: Perform for us this oblation written, reasonable, acceptable, which is a figure of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. … Before it is consecrated, it is bread; but when the words of Christ come in, it is the Body of Christ. Finally, hear Him saying: ‘All of you take and eat of this; for this is My Body (Luke 22:19).’ And before the words of Christ the chalice is full of wine and water; but where the words of Christ have been operative it is made the Blood of Christ which redeems the people.” [Saint Ambrose of Milan (A.D. 390), The Sacraments 4,5, 21-23]

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.

Jesus’ sharing of the blessed bread and cup was a prophetic action that anticipated his death.  The ritual reenactment of this supper would be a participation in his death and a sharing in the benefits that would accrue from it.  In it, the risen exalted Lord continually gives what the dying Jesus gave, once and for all.  In the memorial celebration, the past, present, and future are brought together: the past is the commemoration of his death; the present is the ritual of remembrance itself; the future is his parousía, his coming again.

This is a renewal of the covenant, which is not a one-time thing.  The reason for repeating Jesus’ actions and words is that they reenact and signify his salvific death.  Believers live an essentially eschatological existence, anticipating the future as they reenact the past. Paul’s word for “proclaim” (katangellete) means “to celebrate in a living way, to bring to the present and make effective here and now.”  In other words, when we proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes, we’re bringing Christ’s death to the present and making it effective in ourselves.

The Eucharist is not only to be a memory, but a living contact with Jesus.

Gospel – John 13:1-15

Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come
to pass from this world to the Father.
He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end.
The devil had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand him over.
So, during supper, 
fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power 
and that he had come from God and was returning to God, 
he rose from supper and took off his outer garments.
He took a towel and tied it around his waist.
Then he poured water into a basin 
and began to wash the disciples’ feet 
and dry them with the towel around his waist.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, 
“Master, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus answered and said to him,
“What I am doing, you do not understand now,
but you will understand later.”
Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered him, 
“Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.”
Simon Peter said to him, 
“Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.”
Jesus said to him, 
“Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed,
for he is clean all over; 
so you are clean, but not all.”
For he knew who would betray him;
for this reason, he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

So when he had washed their feet 
and put his garments back on and reclined at table again, 
he said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you?
You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’  and rightly so, for indeed I am.
If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, 
you ought to wash one another’s feet.
I have given you a model to follow, 
so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”

The gospel reading for today is the account of the washing of the feet. Saint John finds symbolism in Jesus’ words and deeds and strives to relate them as practically as possible to the life of the Christian in the world.

This story is unique to John’s gospel, although there are hints of similar actions in Luke 22:27.

Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end. The devil had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand him over.

The scene is set with a few references: identification of the time of year (Passover), a note about Jesus’ relationship with God and his foreknowledge of his own death, a statement about his love for those he called “his own,” and a report about Judas’ complicity with the devil.

So, during supper, fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God, 

Note the repeated emphasis on Jesus’ awareness of his relationship to the Father and awareness of his impending passion.  Saint John is showing that what Jesus is about to do has deep meaning.

he rose from supper and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel around his waist.

The washing of the feet was unusual for several reasons.  Although it was a common practice of Eastern hospitality, it should have been done upon arrival at the house, not when everyone had reclined at table.  It was normally done by people of negligible social station — by slaves in a class-conscious household, or in a patriarchal society, by women.  Here it was done by the one who could boast divine origin and who was both Lord and teacher of those at table.

This calls to mind Philippians 2:6-7: “Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…”

What looks like self-abasement by Jesus is really an expression of his love.  By washing their feet, Jesus showed the extent of the love he had for his disciples.  Because of his love, he was willing to empty himself of all divine prerogatives and to assume the role of the menial household slave.  Because of his love, he was willing to empty himself of his very life in order to win salvation for all. The love he had for his disciples is the model of the love they were to have for one another. In other words, they were to be willing to empty themselves for the sake of one another.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Master, are you going to wash my feet?”  Jesus answered and said to him, “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.”

This symbolic action is misunderstood by Saint Peter.  Although he understands particularly well how thoroughly our Lord has humbled himself, he does not perceive its real meaning.

Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.”

Peter protests in the same manner as he did on other occasions when he did not want to hear of Christ suffering (Matthew 8:32).

Jesus answered him, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.”

Jesus would not let Peter refuse the gesture without dire consequences.  To reject the symbolic action was to reject its profound theological significance.  If Peter would not participate in Jesus’ self-emptying, he could not enjoy the blessings it would guarantee.

It is likely that Saint John expects the Christian reader of this narrative to relate Jesus’ words to their own life and be reminded of the function of baptism.

Simon Peter said to him, “Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.”

Saint Peter continues to speak at the superficial level, still not understanding the deeper significance. He seems to have thought that the more he washed the more he would be cleansed; he does not grasp that this foot-washing is a spiritual cleansing.

Jesus said to him, “Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed, for he is clean all over; so you are clean,

In trying to explain the meaning of his action, Jesus plays on the ideas of clean and unclean.

“You are already clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. That is: You are clean only to that extent. You have already received the Light; you have already got rid of the Jewish error. The Prophet asserted: ‘Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil from your souls’ (Isaiah 1:16). … Therefore, since they had rooted out all evil from their souls and were following Him with complete sincerity, He declared, in accordance with the Prophet’s words: ‘He who has bathed is clean all over’” (Saint John Chrysostom, Homily on Saint John, 70, 3).

By his choice of Greek words, Saint John again suggests baptism to the Christian reader. Louō (“bathe”) was a word used for religious washings, and in 1 Corinthians 6:11; Ephesians 5:26; Titus 3:5; and Hebrews 10:22 various forms of this word are used to signify baptism.

but not all.” For he knew who would betray him; for this reason, he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

Jesus knew that Judas had turned traitor and so was not clean, despite the fact that he too has been washed. Not even the sacraments can purify a person when the innermost dispositions are not pure.

So when he had washed their feet and put his garments back on and reclined at table again, he said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. 

The meaning of the action is now explained to the apostles.  Never did Jesus deny the dignity that was his as God, but he did not use it to safeguard his own comfort or well-being.  Instead, it became the measure of his own self-giving and the example of the extent of self-giving his disciples should be willing to offer to others.

I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”

After giving himself completely to those present, Jesus charges them to give themselves completely as well.

Connections and Themes

God’s Passover.  Here at the beginning of our meditation of the Passover, we see that it is God who passes over, saving us, nourishing us, serving us. The initiative is God’s; the magnanimity is God’s; the self-emptying is God’s. We have nothing to contribute to these amazing happenings. We have only to open ourselves to receive the wondrous gifts that have been won for us.

God passes over us as a protective angel, preserving us from harm, leading us out of bondage into freedom. All we have to do is accept the salvation offered us through this spectacular act of love. God also passes through mere human companionship and becomes the covenantal meal that sustains us. Along with this heavenly bread comes the guarantee of eternal life. It is ours only if we accept it. Finally, Jesus passes beyond being Lord and master and kneels before us as our humble servant. If we are to belong to him we must allow him to wash our feet. In each instance, the saving action is God’s. For no other reason but love, God offers us salvation, nourishment, and service.

Our response. “How shall I make a return to the Lord?” On this day of Eucharist, our only response is thanksgiving.  When we give thanks we are merely opening ourselves to the graciousness of God.  We are giving God the opportunity of overwhelming us with blessings. We participate in God’s many passovers by accepting God’s magnanimity. Our sacrifice of thanksgiving is really our openness to receive the sacrifice of God — the sacrifice of the lamb, whose blood on the doorpost liberated our future; the sacrifice of Christ’s Body and Blood, which became our food and drink; the sacrifice of Jesus’ self-emptying service, which stands as a model for our own service of others.

The wonder of it all. Who could have imagined that any of this would happen? A motley group of runaway laborers escapes from the clutches of their super-powerful overlords; bread and wine is changed into the Body and Blood of a man who is being hunted down; the Son who was sent by God into the world washes the feet of his disciples.  This is all incredible; it is no wonder Peter initially resisted. Is it so difficult for the self-possessed, self-directed human beings to relinquish control of their lives and to stand ready to receive the gift of God. We do not question whether God could do such marvels, but we stand in awe that God would.  God’s love for us is beyond comprehension.

Finally, on the first night of this holy Triduum we are left with a directive: “As I have done, so you must do.”  The graciousness of God towards us prompts us to pass over from being served to serving others.  Our thanksgiving is expressed in our own self-emptying service of others.  Having received the gifts of God, we give them away; they flow from God through us to others.

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