The phrase above appears in the Prayer after Communion on Holy Thursday night, when the priest petitions God on behalf of the community. And then he states, ever so simply, that “we receive new life” in this “supper.” He asks, too, that we may “find full contentment in the meal we hope to share” in the Kingdom. These are all, to say the least, quite pregnant phrases that need some thinking through.
Embedded in the words is the foundation in the past, when the Incarnate Son of God was among us as a human being and ate a meal with his friends the day before the horrors of what the poet George Herbert (1593-1633) called the Agony.
The words also encompass the present time because Jesus, risen and glorified, is with us again for “supper” on this Holy Thursday sharing an unimaginable new life with us. This meal is founded in love: “Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,/ which my God feels as blood and I as wine.” (Herbert) The meal has its meaning only because it is the unbloody presence of what happened the next day. Jesus gave his life for us – the definitive moment in human history.
But also present is the future because of who Jesus is and what he has done here in our history and for all remaining time as a member of the human race. We will further join this meal eternally in some mystical way in the Kingdom of God. This “supper” thus encompasses past, present, and future, and what transcends time.
For those who have faith, it is the framework of existence, the wellspring of new life right here and now. It is also the source of the meaning of real life, authentic life, life without end – in fact a life for and with others. Now Jesus lived his life for others by speaking the truth, serving others, healing others, forgiving their sins, pouring out his life for humanity. The risen and glorified Jesus has poured out his Spirit on the Church so that all of the many dimensions of this life for others can constantly be present in a visible, concrete form – in all countries and in all ages.
The Sacrament of the Last Supper (Salvador Dalí, 1955)
We need this concrete, visible presence because we are creatures who operate through our senses. Part of this presence for others appears in the New Testament, which witnesses to Jesus. But anticipations of this coming presence recur throughout the Old Testament.
His presence also lies in the priesthood, which offers his sacrifice, and a complementary part of his priesthood lies in the priesthood of the baptized – often misunderstood and overemphasized in some quarters. The baptized “through all those works which are those of the Christian man . . . offer spiritual sacrifices and proclaim the power of Him who has called them out of darkness into His marvelous light. Therefore all the disciples of Christ, persevering in prayer and praising God, should present themselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. Everywhere on earth they must bear witness to Christ and give an answer to those who seek an account of that hope of eternal life which is in them.” (Vatican II)
Furthermore, part of Jesus’ presence for others operates through the teaching office of the Church, through his grace in the sacraments besides the Eucharist (the Supper), and the ordained priesthood. Finally there is the presence for others in the lives of men and women religious. This complex mediation of Jesus’ presence for others is needed because of the fact that he is God and so fills his varied creation with a surplus of meaning through this differentiated presence that we call the Church.
So the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper recalls us to the spiritual core of the Church and its completion in the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. We, time-bound creatures, can only deal with things in a sequential way, so the liturgy takes us through this majestic pleroma of grace that Jesus is manifesting through the created realities of words and actions in this meal and on the Cross – which transform literally everything.
He sacrificed himself for others. And now, at the Holy Thursday “supper,” we see Christ the priest offering himself as the victim, doing in a mediated form what he would do once and for all on the following day. The sacrifice was made and the ordained priest commemorating that sacrifice is simply “acting in the person of Christ, [and] he makes present the Eucharistic sacrifice, and offers it to God in the name of all the people.” (Vatican II) The faithful, “in virtue of their royal priesthood, join in the offering of the Eucharist” in their particular mode.
This bottomless stream of grace and truth opens up in our midst and remains for all time, bubbling up in the heart of the rich and differentiated community that we know as the Church.