Holy Thursday inaugurates the Triduum, the three days of ceaseless prayer in which the Church commemorates the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection. But, in a sense, the Holy Thursday liturgy frames the Triduum. Holy Thursday sets the stage for the passion, but it also points beyond Easter, and in both instances it does so by focusing on the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
The Holy Thursday Mass recalls the Lord’s Jewishness. This is a Passover seder that he was celebrating with his disciples, recalling the deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Now, Jesus brings deliverance from the slavery of sin, and not just to Israel but to the whole world, and he does so by starting in the most human way possible, a celebratory dinner with friends. He calls attention to his humanity so that the full salvific effects of what is to come will be made clear: The Christ is here to save human kind and he can do so because he is himself human.
The Holy Thursday Mass, however, also points beyond the Triduum with its institution of the Eucharist. If Christ came to earth to reveal the Father’s love, in the Eucharist he promises that while he must ascend to the right hand of the Father in heaven, he will never abandon his Church, he will always be present in the world, and he achieves this through the Sacrament of the Eucharist. When Christians gather to break the bread and share the cup, He is there. When the sacred hosts are reserved in the tabernacle, He is there. He is always there, for and with the Church.
Of course, the Holy Thursday readings and the remembrance of the Last Supper set up the Triduum in a more concrete, and dreadful, way as well: Here we encounter human iniquity at its worst, as Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial are foretold. Is there any human emotion that is more gut-wrenching than betrayal? And to compound the betrayal with the lie “Surely, Lord, it is not I?” that is simply too much. How Jesus’ heart must have ached at that moment! And, then, to have the fore-knowledge that his best friend, Peter, would deny their love! The clouds were closing in on Jesus.
The Mandatum rite, which is the source of the phrase “Maundy Thursday,” illustrates that the Lord not only leaves himself, he leaves an example for us, an example of service. I remember the first time I saw the Mandatum rite performed: I wept. (I also recall once seeing a bishop, who shall remain nameless, perform the rite and after washing each of the twelve feet and drying them off, he would lift his hand so that the person whose feet he had just washed could kiss his ring. I wept then too, but for a different reason.) At a time when our culture seems especially cruel, when it celebrates the gratuitous violence of these gladiatorial battles on television, when the poor and the aged and the infirm are told their needs are a burden on the rest of us, when wealth is celebrated as a sign of moral dignity and human accomplishment, when men and women are divided into “winners” and “losers,” it is good to recall that the Lord of the Universe set aside his cloak, washed the feet of his disciples and bid us to do likewise.
The Gloria returns tonight, for the first time since the start of Lent. Again, we look to the Incarnation and cannot help but give praise. Gone are the purple vestments and the flowerless altar, replaced with white vestments and lots of spring flowers. But, the fragility of our faith life is brought home to us. Just as we are getting used to the celebration again, something happens. The sanctuary candle in front of the tabernacle is extinguished, the doors of the tabernacle are left open and the tabernacle itself is left empty. In the book Brideshead Revisited, Cordelia tells Charles about the priest coming to close the chapel at Brideshead Castle: “[T]he priest came in…and took out the altar stone and put it in his bag; then he burned the wads of wool with the holy oil on them and threw the ash outside; he emptied the holy water stoup and blew out the lamp in the sanctuary and left the tabernacle open and empty, as though from now on it was always to be Good Friday. I suppose none of this makes any sense to you, Charles, poor agnostic. I stayed there till he was gone, and then, suddenly, there wasn’t any chapel there any more, just an oddly decorated room.”
Here is the import of the Incarnation for us Christians. Without Christ, more than the architecture of our chapels become “oddly decorated” rooms. Without Christ, the moral architecture, the theological architecture, the anthropological architecture of our Church, all become oddly decorated rooms. Tonight, at the end of the Mass, look at extinguishing of the sanctuary lamp and at the empty tabernacle and imagine life without Christ. That is how tonight prepares us for the dread of Good Friday.