Holy Thursday

 

Ex 12,1-8.11-14

 1 Cor 11,23-26

 Jn 13,1-5

 

The evening mass of the Lord’s Supper, celebrated at sundown, is the beginning of the Paschal Triduum, in the same way that the last supper of Jesus with the disciples marked the beginning of the Passion.  The celebration of Holy Thursday stresses three themes of the greatest importance for the Christian faith:  the institution of the Eucharist, memorial of the new covenant; the reality of the ministerial priesthood, valuable gift for the unity and service in the Church and the “new commandment” of love, distinctive mark of Jesus’ disciples.

 

The first reading (Ex 12,1-8.11-14) reminds us of the most ancient rite of “the Passover,” that goes back to anterior immemorial times of Israel’s exodus from Egypt.  Originally, it was a feast of semi-nomadic shepherds that was celebrated during spring, when the tribe went out looking for new fields.  The celebration was a form of finding favor with the divinity to obtain his protection through the propitious sacrifice of a lamb.  They immolated it by night and sprinkled the posts of the tents to protect men and women and animals from the attack of evil spirits (cf. Ex 12,7).  Some of the shepherding lines still can be perceived in the account of Exodus 12:  the lamb was slaughtered at “twilight” (v. 6) when the shepherds returned to the camp in the most brilliant night of the month; the food was accompanied with unleavened bread, shepherds’ very food, and of bitter herbs that came from the desert and were used as spices (v.8).  Also the other details of dress and adornment are adjusted to that ancient epoch of celebration:  “belt around your waist,” “sandals on your feet,” “staff in your hand” (v.11).  And “hurriedly” (v.11) because that meal marked the beginning of a necessary journey.

 

This rite was placed in relationship with an historic event from the day that a group of Hebrews, at the command of Moses, escaped from Egypt in a night of full moon there in the year 1250 BC.  Israel assumed that ancient feat of nomadic shepherds and gave it a new meaning in the light of the experience of liberation from slavery in Egypt.  All those rites came to be expression and symbol of a saving event:  God had liberated his people and had placed them on the way to liberty.  The shepherds are now a people that “leave” slavery and oppression, protected and guided by God.  The redeeming and protecting value of blood is preserved:  Yahweh sill go through Egypt and strike down all the first-born, man and beast alike (v.12).  But when he sees the blood on the Hebrews' house he will pass over (v.13).  A group of slaves disposed themselves to leave that night.  Now not to look for temporal fields for the flock, but to reach a definitive land to live as free men and women.  The ancient feast marked a change in the life of the shepherds.   Having the exodus as a starting point, this expresses and remembers the change of destiny of God’s people:  passage from death, to life, from oppression to liberty, from fear to faith.  That day, the Israelites “keep as a feast-day for all generations; this is a decree for all times” (Ex 12,14).  The “Passover” meal (from Hebrew pesah:  “to jump,” “to pass,” cf. Ex 12,13.23.27; 1 K 18,21.26; 2 Sam 4,4; Is 31,5) finds itself in the center and heart of biblical experience now that it is relations with the founding event of the people of God:  the exodus and the covenant.  By means of the Passover celebration, true “memorial of the Lord,” each year Israel actualizes the event of her liberation in festive and liturgical form.  With this reading, that reminds us of the Hebrew Passover, is given the tone with which the Church lives all of the Christian Pascal Triduum, true and definitive Passover of Christ and believers, as passage from death to life.

 

The second reading (1 Cor 11,23-26) belongs to the catechesis that Paul directs to the Corinthian community in regards to the celebration of Christian assemblies, where the most powerful and richest humiliated and despised the poorest.  Paul takes the opportunity to remember an ancient tradition that he has received about the Eucharistic meal, now that rejection, humiliation and lack of attention for the poor in the assemblies were destroying at the root the most significant meaning of the Lord’s Supper.  This is placed so in harmony with the prophets of the Old Testament that had condemned strongly the hypocritical worship that was not accompanied with a life of charity and justice (cf. Am 5,21-25; Is 1,10-20), as Jesus also did (cf. Mt 5,23-24; Mk 7,9-13).  The Eucharist, memorial of the giving up of love of  Jesus, ought to be lived by believers with the same spirit of giving and of charity with which the Lord “gave up” his boy and blood on the cross for “you.”  The Pauline reading reminds us of the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, with which the Lord interpreted his future passion and death as “covenant sealed with his blood” (1 Cor 11,25) and “body given up for you” (1 Cor 11,24), mystery of love that is actualized and becomes present “each time that you eat this bread and drink this cup” (1 Cor 11,26).

 

The Eucharistic celebration embraces and fills all of history giving it a new meaning:  Jesus becomes really present in his mystery of love and giving on the cross (past); the community, obedient to the command of its Lord, will have to repeat the gesture of the Supper continuously while history runs “in my commemoration” (1 Cor 11,24) (present); and will do it always with the expectation of his glorious return, “until he comes” (1 Cor 11,26) (future).  The mystery of the institution of the Eucharist that we celebrate today is born from the love of Christ that gave himself up for us and, therefore, ought to always be living and celebrated in love and generous giving, in the image of the Lord, without divisions nor hypocrisies. 

 

The gospel of today (Jn 13,1-15) marks the beginning of the second part of the Johannine writing dedicated to the return of Jesus to the Father (Jn 13,1.3; 14,2.28).  For John, this treats of the narration of the love of Jesus for his own manifested “to the end” (Jn 13,1, in Greek:  eis teléios, “until the final event”), phrase that can indicate as much intensity as duration:  until the extremes of love” (Jn 15,13:  “No one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends”) or “until the end of his existence,” that is to say, until the last instant in which he will hand over his spirit on the cross (Jn 19,30).  In any case, the phrase is a true key for the reading of the life and death of Jesus.

 

Precisely in this same logic of interpretation of the existence of Jesus, it is necessary to understand the washing of his disciples’ feet during the Last Supper.  This treats of a true “symbolic action,” in the style of the ancient prophets of Israel, like when Jeremiah places a yoke around himself to indicate that it is necessary to be submissive to the King of Babylon (Jer 27).  Jesus, “the Master and Lord” (Jn 13,13) realizes an almost scandalous action:  becomes servant, does the work of a slave and places himself in service washing the feet of his disciples.  John’s gospel does not relate the institution of the Eucharist, but tells of this loving gesture of the Lord, that the disciples will only understand afterwards (Jn 13,17), in the light of the Paschal mystery of death and resurrection.  It is not a simple gesture of humility.  It is a prophetic act that tries to explain all that his life has been and all that his approximate death will be:  a gesture of love by which all will reach eternal life.  Washing the feet of the disciples, Jesus prefigures the scandal of the cross, when the Son of Man will be lifted up above the earth (cf. Jn 3,14; 12,34).  At the same time, he leaves this gesture as a proposal and way for his own:  “I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you” (Jn 13,15).  The gesture acquires, therefore, an exemplary value for the Christian, who in the image of Jesus, Master and Lord that gives himself up in love, orienting his life as an existence of charity and service in favor of others.

 

The text underlines, in words directed to Peter that does not understand what the Lord is doing, the importance of experiencing in one’s own life the love of Jesus:  “if I do not wash you, you can have no share with me” (Jn 13,8).  It is necessary to “taste and see how good is the Lord” (Ps 34,9) to really be transformed in his love and “become radiant” (Ps 34,6). Christian love is profoundly theological:  is born of and is a prolongation of the love of Jesus.  If we have experienced “how good is the Lord” and how great is his love for us and the others, we will live united to him in this love and be capable of loving.

 

We begin the Paschal Triduum with the desire of passing from death to life, like Israel of old.  We want to celebrate the memorial of our redemption and live really in this Passover the saving work of the Lord.  Today, Holy Thursday, we enter into the Cenacle with the Apostles to receive the last gifts of Him that loves us, to contemplate his last gestures at the meal, to listen to his words and to fill our hearts with his presence.  Today we are invited to welcome the Lord’s love who gave himself up for us and that remains eternally present in the presence of Eucharistic Bread and Wine.  We are invited to welcome the love of the Lord in his humble gesture of washing feet, expression of his life and death, to be able to live his only and new commandment:  “love one another, as I have loved you” (Jn 15,34; cf. Jn 13,34; 15,17; 1 Jn 3,11; 3,23; 4,21).  “It is by your love for one another that everyone will recognize you as my disciples.” (Jn 13,35).