Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper

Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

John 13:1-15

In his Encyclical Letter on the Holy Eucharist, Mysterium Fidei (The Mystery of Faith, 1965), Pope Paul VI wrote powerfully about the presence of Christ and how this presence is mediated in various ways through various means made manifest in the Church’s life and mission:

35. All of us realize that there is more than one way in which Christ is present in His Church. We want to go into this very joyful subject, which the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum concilium) presented briefly, at somewhat greater length. Christ is present in His Church when she prays, since He is the one who “prays for us and prays in us and to whom we pray: He prays for us as our priest, He prays in us as our head, He is prayed to by us as our God”; and He is the one who has promised, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them.”  He is present in the Church as she performs her works of mercy, not just because whatever good we do to one of His least brethren we do to Christ Himself, but also because Christ is the one who performs these works through the Church and who continually helps men with His divine love. He is present in the Church as she moves along on her pilgrimage with a longing to reach the portals of eternal life, for He is the one who dwells in our hearts through faith, and who instils charity in them through the Holy Spirit whom He gives to us. 

36. In still another very genuine way, He is present in the Church as she preaches, since the Gospel which she proclaims is the word of God, and it is only in the name of Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, and by His authority and with His help that it is preached, so that there might be “one flock resting secure in one shepherd.”

37. He is present in His Church as she rules and governs the People of God, since her sacred power comes from Christ and since Christ, the “Shepherd of Shepherds,” is present in the bishops who exercise that power, in keeping with the promise He made to the Apostles.

38. Moreover, Christ is present in His Church in a still more sublime manner as she offers the Sacrifice of the Mass in His name; He is present in her as she administers the sacraments. On the matter of Christ’s presence in the offering of the Sacrifice of the Mass, We would like very much to call what St. John Chrysostom, overcome with awe, had to say in such accurate and eloquent words: “I wish to add something that is clearly awe-inspiring, but do not be surprised or upset. What is this? It is the same offering, no matter who offers it, be it Peter or Paul. It is the same one that Christ gave to His disciples and the same one that priests now perform: the latter is in no way inferior to the former, for it is not men who sanctify the latter, but He who sanctified the former. For just as the words which God spoke are the same as those that the priest now pronounces, so too the offering is the same.”  No one is unaware that the sacraments are the actions of Christ who administers them through men. And so the sacraments are holy in themselves and they pour grace into the soul by the power of Christ, when they touch the body.

These various ways in which Christ is present fill the mind with astonishment and offer the Church a mystery for her contemplation. But there is another way in which Christ is present in His Church, a way that surpasses all the others. It is His presence in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, which is, for this reason, “a more consoling source of devotion, a lovelier object of contemplation and holier in what it contains” than all the other sacraments; for it contains Christ Himself and it is “a kind of consummation of the spiritual life, and in a sense the goal of all the sacraments.”

39. This presence is called “real” not to exclude the idea that the others are “real” too, but rather to indicate presence par excellence, because it is substantial and through it Christ becomes present whole and entire, God and man.  And so it would be wrong for anyone to try to explain this manner of presence by dreaming up a so-called “pneumatic” nature of the glorious body of Christ that would be present everywhere; or for anyone to limit it to symbolism, as if this most sacred Sacrament were to consist in nothing more than an efficacious sign “of the spiritual presence of Christ and of His intimate union with the faithful, the members of His Mystical Body.”

Immediately, our thoughts are directed to the various “presence” by which Christ can be recognised in the Church’s activity, and through which he makes the kingdom of God, communicated by word and action, present in the world.  From the point of view of vocation consideration and discernment this offers extraordinary food for prayer, discussion and reflection.  Each possibility is an invitation to participate in Christ’s continuing saving work; each “presence” asks us something about our own felt sense of vocation; each manifestation asks us to go to the heart of our service, and becomes a proving ground for our own engagement in vocationed life.

Christ is present in his Church when she prays.  Pope Paul here is meditating on a text of St Augustine on the psalms, as St Augustine considers Christ as Head and Body, present in every aspect of his Church’s life.  The concentration in prayer is essential: Christ, on the evidence of the Gospel texts, is always in a state of prayer, we might say, always in the presence of the Father, with whom his works and words are delivered, as it were, in a complete and utterly concordant harmony.  This invitation to be one who prays constantly, and ceaselessly, can be said to be the heart of every vocation: our service and our very relationship to everything and everyone around us is, above all, conditioned by our being consciously in the presence of God.  Prayer begins precisely in this way, and without it prayer cannot be.  Particularly in the matter of priestly and religious vocations in the Church, if they are undertaken without this commitment to growth in the presence of God by an ever more ardent desire to be in that presence, then they founder without getting out of the harbour!  No vocation to the religious or priestly lives can possibly exist without its being planted in the soil of God’s acknowledged presence.  And, of course, if this is true of these vocational ways, it is certainly true of marriage and the chosen single life.  For those who wish to love a service of their brothers and sisters which incorporates Christ for them, turning to the Father is indispensable.

Christ is present in the Church’s works of mercy.  Perhaps we have become more acutely aware of this in the last few years through Pope Francis’s insistent catechesis around the Father who reveals himself to us as mercy in his Son.  But Pope St Paul VI wishes to call to mind that the Church, in her unending outreach to the poor, the marginalised, the abandoned, the forgotten, the disenfranchised, makes Christ present in her very action and charity: it is always a matter for her of Christ in the Church ministering to Christ in the poor.  This is an essential part of the Paschal Christ event – the messianic quality of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection is already, in some sense, present in the suffering which he encounters in the course of his ministry, and then in the healing, restoring, raising and feeding a new experience of life is given which prepares in those who receive it for the ultimate living of new life which will be made possible and real in Christ Risen.  The great parable of Matthew 25 certainly foreshadows the Last Judgement when our lived charity will become the criterion by which we will be judged worthy of eternal life, but it is perhaps more a call to arms in the now, that neglect of our brothers and sisters in need is utterly contrary to the example of Christ and the demand of the Gospel.  From the point of view of vocation this is essential: a defining aspect of any chosen consecration in the Church’s life must be the willingness of the candidate to place themselves in the service of the other, however that service will be manifested and demanded, in apostolic, monastic, religious life, or whatever.  And this must in a very particular way be highlighted for those of us who choose monastic contemplative living: our service in this life is certainly one lived for our brothers and sisters throughout the world, in all that they suffer and endure, and our centredness on a life of prayer, work and service in community becomes a template for our carrying of our unseen brothers and sisters.  Far from being removed from the reality of their lives we make our lives an offering for them, when they have little, perhaps, to offer themselves.

Christ is present in his Church as she moves to the eternal kingdom on her pilgrim way.  Perhaps one of the most important highlighted themes to emerge from the Second Vatican Council has been a renewed sense of the Church as Pilgrim People, and this has been catapulted into our present day experience by a new emphasis on synodality as a defining culture and style in the Church’s life.  The Church is the People of God in journey, on pilgrimage, always moving forward towards the land promised to us all and gained for us all in Christ Jesus.  There can be no doubt that this aspect of pilgrim people sinks the Church deeply in the theological virtues of faith, hope and love.  They epitomise the essence of this pilgrimage, which is deeply rooted in the experience of God’s salvific action now and yet always, eschatologically, looks forward to the final consummation of all things and all creation in Christ, when he will present all to the Father.  This gives the Church both a rootedness in Christ present and the kingdom already present and yet moving to fulfilment, and a dynamism which challenges stagnation, retrospective clamouring, and an unwillingness to read the signs of the times and be challenged by them.  Obviously, in the discernment of vocation this is pivotal.  To have an awareness of the Holy Spirit, Lord and Life Giver, who directs the Church’s gaze always forward, is to know that vocation and a called way of life should also reflect that directedness.  In many ways, the consecrated person incarnates this sense of looking forward to completion and consummation – the one consecrated by vows and mission carries within themselves the Gospel which always speaks about Christ having come and Christ yet to come.  Lacking that dynamism we see, sadly, only stagnation, lost hope, little zest for the consecrated life.  And always we keep in mind that the consecrated person is one who is hope-filled, as well as faith-nourished and love-formed.  This hope confounds mere emotional, vage, undefined optimism, because hope is directed toward a concrete reality, and for the consecrated person this will always mean a concrete person, Jesus Christ whom they desire with their whole heart to come to know.  Perhaps this, above all, defines a vocation which is characterised by presence: an obvious, and beautiful, desire to know Jesus Christ, and the reality of the one who has taken time to come to know him, love him, and be loved by him!  

Christ is present when the Church preaches.  The sacramentality of the Word of God, the bread which is Sacred Scripture, and of the Word of God broken in preaching, seems to require frequent highlighting.  In fact, this touches upon a point which lies at the heart of vocation: does the person come to an experience of Sacred Scripture with a desire to hear Christ speaking there, and an openness to encounter the Christ who is present there?  This is an essential part of that art of prayer which we call lectio divina.  In lectio, above all, it is Christ whom we wish to meet and hear, and through lectio we wish that his word, a word spoken directly to me, should overwhelm me and make its home within me.  In the mystery of the Paschal Christ Event the presence of the Word himself, both in his words and in his silence, continues to challenge hearers and all present because they reflect deeply the mystery being unfolded: the Passover Supper itself and the institution of the Eucharist; the giving of the new commandment and prophetic action of the washing of the feet; the encounter in Gethsemani and the further revelation of Jesus God-Man; the humiliation and affirmation before Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas; the silence in torture; the words uttered on the Cross; the even more full silence of the Cross, which is filled by the Trinitarian presence….  All of these moments present the Word present and active, and insert themselves into a vocation which can never be separated from the Word.  The entire heart of Christian vocation, and especially those concerned most with the consecrated service of the People of God, must be filled with the Word who transforms the servant, the one who has been granted a disciple’s ear.  The preaching of the Word becomes then not merely a matter of word spoken but of Word lived, and the incarnational encounter with Christ is made possible through the person of the preacher, immersed as he or she is in the very Word which transforms.

Christ is present in the service of authority exercised in the Church.  If we can speak of those three charismatic functions which we associate with Christ above all, and then with his faithful people who are part of his body by baptism and their incorporation into him, then apart from the roles of sanctifying and teaching, that of governing must be integrated and lived.  The service of authority has frequently become, and not just in the Church, a matter of control by exercise of power.  The common confusion of authority and power has no place in the Church’s life and mission, in which the preaching of the Gospel is supported and delivered by and through the service of the People of God.  If Christ himself, again and again, gives witness to his own phrase “I come among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27), then how much more should his disciples seek to live and embody this characteristic.  It is an attitude which confounds and overturns the usual course of events.  And so an authenticity in vocation must be evident through that willingness to become the servant of the other, no matter who they are or how they find their lives panning out.  All gifts, functions, charisms are called into unity in this single current.  Again, Pope Francis has insistently made the point that clericalism – a career through vocation in the Church, in which advancement of self has priority over service of the universal Church – runs counter to Christ’s intentions.  And it should be a question asked directly of those who seek to discern a consecrated vocation, religious or priestly, in the Church: do you wish to be a servant?

Touching on the above, Christ is present in his Church through her acts of consecration, and particularly in the celebration of the sacraments.  Perhaps our catechesis in these areas has been sorely damaged and poorly delivered: how to recapture and communicate that the sacraments are Christ’s actions, and make him truly present and active in his Church, through which he communicates himself to all those present and particularly to those for whom the sacraments are celebrated and who are actively involved in and participate in those moments?  Unfortunately, the experience of mystery in sacramental celebration and the dignified celebration of liturgy has been weakened, and palpably so, over the last few decades.  This cannot be said to lie solely with those responsible for celebrating the sacraments, but in large part responsibility lies at the that door: a laissez-faire attitude toward liturgical dynamism, a lack of respect for texts and actions, a very self-centred forgetfulness that the People of God have a right to have liturgy – the public action of worship of the People of God, after all – performed according to the approved rites and texts of the Church, a misplaced notion that a certain degree of personal improvisation can “improve” liturgical texts or make them “more accessible”.  The priest forgets, perhaps, that he is only a servant of the one who celebrates the sacrament ultimately, and that Christ the Lord is the one who is in action here and in these moments! By the sacrament not only those participating are drawn deeper into the reality of the Body of Christ, but the entire Body is strengthened and made more complete by these celebrations.  And they express intensely the reality of Christ present through the joyful consecrated presence of the human person.  The outstanding Orthodox lay theologian, Paul Evdokimov, has this to say:

“A saint is not a superman, but one who discovers and lives his truth as a liturgical being.  It is to respond to his vocation as a liturgical being that man is charismatic, the one who bears the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  The best evangelisation of the world, the most effective witness to the Christian faith, is this full liturgical hymn, the doxology which rises from the depths of the earth, in which moves the powerful breath of the Paraclete who alone converts and heals”.

Evdokimov has come close to the central truth of the matter for the person who prays: we are by nature and grace formed as liturgical beings, men and women who are predisposed to give glory to God in all that we do, and that supremely must have its apex in the formal liturgy of the Church, in which Christ himself acts and is present, through the presence and action of his holy People.  Evdokimov again writes:

“In the catacombs, the image that recurs most frequently is the figure of a woman in prayer, the Orans.  It represents the only true attitude of the human soul.  It is not enough to possess prayer: we must become prayer – prayer incarnate.  It is not enough to have moments of praise; our whole life, every act and every gesture, even a smile, must become a hymn of adoration, an offering, a prayer.  We must offer not what we have, but what we are.”

Which is precisely what Christ does in every action of these days and in the single action of the Paschal event!

But there is another way in which Christ is present in His Church, a way that surpasses all the others. It is His presence in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

We come to the heart of the mystery of vocation, and indeed life in the Church.  The very point of this Holy Thursday is that Christ gives himself, anticipating his Calvary self oblation, the sacrifice which at the same time fulfils and then replaces all the other sacrifices of the ancient rites. In the institution of the sacrament of his Body and Blood Christ makes the Church also – and this has been noted, especially by Henri de Lubac: the Eucharist makes the Church, so that when we do this in memory of Christ the Church herself is made present, dynamic and real, in the place in which the Eucharist is being celebrated and completely throughout all creation, past, present and future.  Everything, all time and creation, is caught up completely in the mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood, because when we do this we enter into God’s salvific moment, which is always present, is never encompassed by time, but encompasses all time.

While we cannot enter now into as complete a theological and spiritual reflection on the mystery of the Eucharist that we would wish for, given that we celebrate this Holy Thursday in its true context – that of the Sacred Paschal Triduum – still we must note, in the more narrow context of vocation, what the Eucharist is for those who choose specifically to answer the call to particular consecration.  It must go without saying that a deep, personal love for the Eucharistc presence of Christ is indispensable for the consecrated religious, and, of course, for the priest.  It is, as Paul VI rightly says, the presence which we call the real presence, the presence par excellence, because Christ makes it so, wills it so, sustains it so – the sacrament is the whole Christ.  His presence in all other ways we recognise and marvel at, but in this we adore, and worship, and wonder.  Above all in receiving Christ’s Body and Blood we are drawn deeper into the mystery of his Body the Church, but also by our very receiving the Church herself is built up and strengthened – thus, our communion in the bread and wine which is the Body and Blood has effects which are both personal and social.  And we are made one with Christ.

As persons searching for meaning, calling, direction, belonging, participation, identity, affirmation and confirmation – if we love Christ, if we wish to make him known, if we wish to give everything to him  and for him, then we must be persons who are eucharitsic, not simply in the general sense of people of thanksgiving, but people whose lives flow from, are sustained by and are directed to communion in Christ.  To neglect Christ’s invitation to be one with him in the sacrament of his Body and Blood is to accept withering and death – nothing else will do for us what Christ’s Body and Blood will do.  And this has to be borne in mind: while Euharistic devotion, exposition, benediction and processions can do much to build up our sense of the centrality of the Eucharistic mystery, they cannot replace, nor should they take first place over communication in Christ’s sacramental offering.

Obviously, the demand on the one aware of vocation should be remembered: we are asked to lay down our lives as he does; we are asked to wash the feet of our brothers and sisters as he does at the last great supper; we are asked to accept the reality of Calvary in our own lives, when it is given to us; and we are asked to be persons who readily communicate the reality of communion in Christ, and the challenges that brings, when we must.  So, this Holy Thursday we are faced with a myriad of vocation questions, and all of them centred on Christ present: the one whom we must recognise, the one whom we must welcome, the one whom we can present to others.  This fills out the matter of vocation in a very beautiful way – the Christ who makes himself present asks us to be servants of his Presence!

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