Today (about 5 PM to be precise) the Triduum begins, and this evening Catholic and other Christian Churches around the world will observe the Last Supper of the Lord with the Twelve. In my own lifetime the Holy Thursday Mass has probably captivated my emotions and my devotion more than any other day of the year, and I feel privileged to have celebrated this feast in both its Tridentine form (before 1970) and its present arrangement in the Roman Missal.
Except for the Easter Vigil, there is no Eucharistic celebration with a greater swing of emotion or more human drama. Your youthful catechism was correct in depicting the Last Supper as the first Mass, so while it is true that we celebrate Sundays as the Lord’s Day of his Resurrection, we do so by imitating his actions of the Last Supper, recalled in the second reading (1 Corinthians 11:23-26) by St. Paul, reporting a tradition that was passed down to him and which he penned in the 50’s A.D. Over the centuries the Holy Thursday celebration has marked a number of themes and events. In the third century Christians in grave sin were reconciled to the Church and readmitted to the Eucharistic banquet. As noted. Holy Thursday marks the establishment of the Eucharist and possibly Holy Orders. (In Medieval times the Church felt that as Holy Thursday fell under the shadow of the next day, Good Friday, a separate day should be set aside to celebrate the institution of the Eucharist, namely Corpus Christ.) Holy Thursday has been a day of offerings for the poor. It is a day, too, of recalling Judas’s betrayal, the agony in the garden, and the abandonment of the disciples, in the powerful gesture of the stripping of the altar at the end of tonight’s Mass. The new missal downplays the stripping; fortunately, my church and many others continue this rite despite the annoyance of liturgical purists.
Was the Last Supper the official Passover Meal of that year in history? Surprisingly, we are not quite sure. The Synoptic Gospels indicate that it was, but there is the possibility that Matthew, Mark and Luke have provided this dating to establish the Eucharist as the New Passover, replacing or superseding the old. John, on the other hand, places the Last Supper on the night before the Passover (see John 18:28), most likely to create a connection between the lancing of Jesus’ side on the cross and the slaughtering of hundreds of lambs then occurring in the Temple for the family Passover meals that night. Here is an excellent example of the theological/catechetical nature of all four Gospels.
The Gospel of tonight’s Mass is John 13: 1-15, the famous scene of the washing of the feet and Jesus’ command of service to others. The Latin for “commandment” is mandatum, and thus in Western Christianity until very times this day was referred to as Maundy Thursday. John is the only evangelist who does not include a rite of blessing over the bread and wine at the Last Supper. This is understandable, given that he was writing around seven decades after the event and felt no need to repeat what his Christian readers knew well and in fact were already celebrating weekly.
Unfortunately, they were not necessarily celebrating it with the unity that they ought. By John’s Gospel time (c. 100 A.D.) the Church was racked with divisions within and attacks from without. One—not the only—purpose of John’s Gospel was a reestablishment of proper order and a return to basics; this is why Peter plays such a profound role in tonight’s Gospel and in the Resurrection narratives to come. Peter would have been long dead when the Gospel was written, but his seniority in faith and the authoritative role of his successors would be a critical source of unity and authority in preserving the authentic teaching of the Master. It is no mystery why John replaces the bread/wine blessing with the washing of the feet. Breaking the bread without a stance of humility and service was “drinking a judgment upon one’s self” in Paul’s memorable phrase.
I sincerely hope you have the opportunity to celebrate the Lord’s Supper on this most sacred night. You will be pulled in many directions—which is precisely the mood of the Last Supper.