The Mass of the Lord’s Supper: The Story of God’s Love for Us
For five weeks of Lent, we prepared ourselves through works of charity, self-sacrifice and personal conversion toward God. Now, on Holy Thursday, we enter into the Sacred Paschal Triduum with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. On this holy night, we see Jesus showing his apostles how they are to lead – through service. Our Lord gets down on his knees and washes their feet (Jn 13:4-17). In like fashion, the priest at this Mass will wash the feet of twelve people to remind us that the call of the priest, and each of us, is to serve and not to be served – to love one another as Jesus loves us. We are capable of showing love for others in many ways, maybe not as dramatically as washing their feet, but in a way that truly conveys compassion: by a word of forgiveness, by a gesture of welcome, by a sign of caring.
The Son of God descended from heaven and became flesh in order to serve with love, to give the entirety of himself. The night before he allowed himself to be handed over to authorities, Jesus also instituted the Eucharist and the priesthood that brings us this Blessed Sacrament. It is here where we literally savor the gift of the Lord. When the priest – who acts in the person of Christ – takes the bread and the wine and says, “this is my Body . . . this is my Blood,” Jesus is really truly present and he asks us to receive him into our lives, into the fullness of Holy Communion with him. We are not mere bystanders, but rather participants as the Lord’s sacrifice is made present again.
The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. It is the bread of life, what Saint Ignatius of Antioch called the medicine of immortality, and by our participation in the Eucharistic celebration, we unite ourselves with the heavenly liturgy and anticipate eternal life, when God will be all in all (CCC 1326, 1331).
Before he was elected Pope Francis, I had the pleasure of participating in an International Eucharistic Congress with him in Québec, Canada. “This is the desire of Jesus Christ: that people have life in him,” then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio said at this Congress. “The first thing we can say about the Eucharist is that this is a new and eternal covenant, as the Lord says at the Last Supper. The liturgy explains this very well in the Eucharistic prayer of reconciliation. ‘Time and time again we broke your covenant, but you did not abandon us. Instead, through your Son, Jesus our Lord, you bound yourself even more closely to the human family by a bond that can never be broken.’”
By his passion and death – by his self-offering on the Cross – Jesus would show us his limitless love for the Father and for us. Through his blood, he would wash away all of our sins, all of our failure, everything that would keep us from God. But Jesus knew that within one generation the story of his love and our redemption could be lost. Thus, he instituted the Eucharist.
At each Mass, we are able to join ourselves to Christ’s suffering and victory over sin without having to die on a cross. The Eucharistic Liturgy gives us a means by which we share in the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, given in ransom for his people. By his Cross and Resurrection, he frees not just one nation from bondage, but all humanity from the more bitter slavery of sin. He creates a new people of God by the rich gift of his Spirit.
Holy Thursday, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, is a retelling of the story of God’s love, a love for each one of us individually. After the distribution of Holy Communion, the priest will incense the most Blessed Sacrament before taking it in solemn procession to a place of repose, just as our Lord went from the Upper Room to Gethsemane. We are invited to stay in adoration and quietly pray with Jesus, to be with him in his darkest moment. Meanwhile, the altar will be stripped and the tabernacle left empty.