Holy Thursday is not a night of sorrows, yet it does not break with the somber, sad tone of Holy Week. Its purpose is precisely what Christ intended his sacred supper to be: the communal, ritual meal in which we come to understand his gift of self, receive him and make return to him with our own gifts of self.
The hymn we often sing this night, “Pange lingua gloriosi,” by St. Thomas Aquinas, captures the spirit of his supper by beginning on a note of praise, which is how Jesus and his disciples would also have entered this eve, extolling the God of Israel. St. Thomas opens his hymn by praising the Lord Jesus, who ended his life as he had begun it and as he had always lived it, by being the gift of God, by being God’s very presence in our midst. Whether in the manger or the fields of Galilee, Christ was never simply a spiritual presence. He was the God who had assumed our flesh and its burdens.
Sing my tongue the Savior’s glory
Of His Flesh, the mystery sing,
Of the Blood all price exceeding
Shed by our Immortal King.
Destined for the world’s redemption
From a mortal Womb to spring.
Of a pure and spotless Virgin
Born for us on earth below,
He, as man, with man conversing,
Stayed the seeds of truth to sow;
Then He closed in solemn order
Wond’rously His Life of woe.
The genius of the Christ—if one may so speak in order to focus upon the creativity of his human intellect—was to draw together Israel’s cultic celebration of God’s covenant and his own gift of self on the coming cross. Both the continuity and the contrast are considerable: God had effortlessly delivered Israel from slavery; yet only by the gift of himself, giving himself over into our hands, as victim and viaticum, can Christ deliver us from sin.
It is sometimes said that Thomas and his fellow medievals focused too much upon the Eucharist as sacred species to the detriment of its being a sacred meal. Yet St. Thomas arrives at the very center of what happened that night, of what would happen the next day on the cross and of what happens at every subsequent Eucharist. With his own hands, Christ gives himself to us.
St. John the Evangelist, whose Gospel is always read this night, does the same by focusing upon the humble act of foot washing rather than the cultic meal. In all accounts the core is clear: Christ lives and dies for others. He simply is gift.
On the night of that Last Supper,
Seated with His chosen band,
He, the Pascal Victim eating,
First fulfills the Law’s command;
Then as Food to His Apostles
Gives Himself with His own Hand.
Yet history is hefty with loves being offered only to be ignored, refused or betrayed. St. Thomas insists that only a loving heart can perceive and be penetrated by Christ.
Word-made Flesh, the bread of nature
By His Word to Flesh He turns;
Wine into His Blood He changes;
What though sense no change discerns?
Only be the heart in earnest,
Faith her lesson quickly learns.
Christ does not leave behind a teaching, fixed in writing. Before he had scattered his words; now he carefully holds himself in his own hands. He creates a community, living witnesses who encounter him and give witness to him by entering, by way of love, into his own gift of self.
With his own hands, Christ gives himself to us.
Christ and his disciples closed the meal with Psalms of praise. St. Thomas closes his hymn by focusing upon Christ still at table, still present upon the altar, still giving his very self to those who will receive him. You cannot be indifferent to love in the flesh. You must respond with all that you are:
Down in adoration falling,
This great Sacrament we hail,
O’ev ancient forms of worship
Newer rites of grace prevail;
Faith will tell us Christ is present,
When our human senses fail.
To the Everlasting Father,
And the Son who made us free
And the Spirit, God proceeding
From them Each eternally,
Be Salvation, honour, blessing,
Might and endless majesty. Amen.
[Translated by Fr. Edward Caswall, 1849]