Fr. Joseph Levine; April 1, 2021
Holy Thursday is a light in the darkness of Holy Week.
Holy Thursday comes to us from the Apostles. Or better, from Holy Thursday, through the Apostles, we receive the Mass, the Holy Eucharist, the Priesthood, and the commandment of Jesus to love one another as he has loved us.
You see, this ‘Mass of the Lord’s Supper’ tonight is the only Mass in which we actually commemorate the ‘Last Supper’; of itself the Mass commemorates and offers Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross, brought to completion by his Resurrection and Ascension to the right hand of his Father.
In the hymn ‘Pange Lingua’ that will be sung during tonight’s procession St. Thomas Aquinas has us sing: “In the night of the Last Supper, seated with the brethren, having fulfilled all the law required, to the Twelve with His own hands as food He gives Himself.” And, “The old law gives place to a new rite, faith supplies the lack of sight.”
The Last Supper was a Jewish Passover meal, celebrated in accord with the Law of Moses. In the context of that meal, Jesus gave to his Apostles a ‘new rite’ to be handed on to his Church, in memory of himself, of his sacrifice on the Cross, and as nourishment for the life of grace, the life of the soul, and as a pledge and foretaste of eternal life; this is the Holy Eucharist, the sacrament of his Body and Blood.
Historically, the rite of the Mass was quickly distinguished from the Jewish Passover. It was celebrated every Sunday and even every day, instead of once a year. It was soon separated from the context of any common food through the establishment of the Eucharistic fast. It was soon clothed with a complete sacrificial ritual, like the Jewish temple liturgy. It was soon moved away from the time of the evening and it became customary for the Mass to be celebrated during the morning hours. It was soon joined to the liturgy of the word, which was more of a continuation of the Jewish synagogue service than anything else.
The Mass, which comes to us from Jesus, through the Apostles, and through the priesthood, reveals the hierarchical and traditional nature of the Church.
The Mass reveals the traditional nature of the Church. Very significantly, in today’s 2nd reading, St. Paul writes, I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you. We do not invent the Mass, we receive the Mass from the Tradition of the Church; indeed, I would dare say that the Mass is the central Tradition of the Church by which “the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes.” (Vatican II, Dei Verbum 8)
The Mass reveals the hierarchical nature of the Church. Our Lord did not celebrate the Last Supper with all the disciples, but with the twelve Apostles. He did not entrust the Holy Eucharist to all the disciples, but to the twelve Apostles. From the Apostles this great mystery was then handed on to the bishops and priests. Only a priest has the power to celebrate the Mass, to serve as the instrument of Christ the High Priest in changing the bread and wine into his Body and Blood and offering those gifts to the Father in sacrifice. All the authority of the priesthood (bishop and priest) whether to teach or to rule the Church, as well as to administer the other sacraments, is connected with and for the sake of the sacred power given for the celebration of the Mass.
That means that the Church is hierarchical not just in teaching, but even more in the communication of grace. Faith, which receives the teaching, opens the door for grace, which is the life we receive in the Holy Spirit, the life that leads to the life of heaven. Grace, the life of God that we are called to share, is communicated to us hierarchically, coming from the Holy Trinity, through the sacred humanity of Jesus Christ, our Savior, Redeemer, and High Priest, through the sacramental priesthood.
These days people want brotherhood, but without the paternity that gives rise to brotherhood; they want equality, but without the authority that makes true equality possible.
In truth, what comes to us hierarchically, establishes us in the most noble equality, the most noble fraternity, for we all receive the same Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man. Through him, we all become partakers of the same life of grace, even if we do not share that life in same measure. The priest, we could say, is privileged in the order of communication of grace, which places upon him a grave responsibility, but the priest is not privileged in life of grace itself, which he serves. The highest example for the live of grace is the Blessed Virgin Mary, full of grace, who was not a priest. After her comes St. Joseph, who was not a priest.
Would that priests cared for the Eucharistic Body of Christ in the way that St. Joseph cared for his physical Body.
The common inheritance of the life of grace, received from Jesus Christ, is the basis of his command of charity, love one another as I have loved you. (Jn 13:34)
The Christian, St. Paul tells us, is to do good to all, but especially to those who belong to the household of faith. (cf. Gal 6:10)
It is by receiving the gift of the Lord’s love in the Holy Eucharist, by recognizing the greatness of that gift, by recognizing each other as sharers in that gift, that we become capable of fulfilling the Lord’s command. Our life together as brothers and sisters in Christ is all built upon the common recognition of what he has done for us and what he has given to us. This is all summed up in the Holy Eucharist.
By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (Jn 13:35)
This can only come about as the fruit of our common participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. This is also why this celebration of Holy Thursday is especially intimate. It is not something to be noised abroad, but to be shared among ourselves. It is not the celebration that should be seen, but the fruit of Christian charity that should then draw others to want to know what hidden gift we possess and so want to become part of the household of faith.
St. John wrote to those who already believed that they might have communion with the Apostles, whose communion was with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, that is with the most Holy Trinity. (cf. 1 Jn 1:3) Our communion with each other, in the Holy Trinity, through the Mass, should be such that people want to share in it.