“Why is this night different from every other night?” asks the Blessed Virgin Mary in her first appearance in the film The Passion of the Christ. The apostle John suddenly bursts in with the answer: the Temple guards have taken Jesus prisoner. Without protest or fight, He gave himself freely to his persecutors.
This night is indeed different from every other: Jesus of Nazareth, the man meek and humble of heart, stands on the threshold of completing the mission entrusted to Him by his Father. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) This night Jesus begins to pay the ransom: his own flesh and blood, given for the life of the world.
This night explains the great mystery that will happen on Calvary the following day. Without Holy Thursday, Good Friday’s purpose may never have been fully understood, lost amid the horrors of the Cross. So before the betrayal that Jesus awaited with full awareness, He explained the meaning of his looming death with water basin and humility, with sign and word, with matter and form.
The Mass of the Lord’s Supper brings the cosmic drama of this night into the present. The moon is full, just as it was then. In imitation of our Lord, the priest exchanges his chasuble for a towel, and washes the feet of his parishioners. We watch and meditate on this most humbling – most humiliating – gesture. How could the Son of almighty God stoop so low?
“What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand.” (John 13:7) After what? This humbling awaits a greater humbling still. Service is to be followed, and crowned, by self-immolation.
This Mass then solemnly commemorates our Lord’s own interpretation of his death on the following day: “Take this, all of you, and eat of it: For this is my body which will be given up for you. Take this, all of you, and drink from it: For this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
These words, so awesome, but perhaps overly familiar, now ring fresh as the historical reality of the Paschal Mystery unfolds before us in all its depth and wonder. His body and blood are given to us in the most real way, and Christ himself is the giver. “His life will be taken from him on the Cross,” Pope Benedict explains, “but here he is already laying it down. He transforms his violent death into a free act of self-giving for others and to others.” True humility, true service, is self-immolation.
In this holy Mass the climax of our Lord’s self-giving extends beyond the threshold of Holy Communion. Having received Him, we are not dismissed as normal, but invited – drawn – to follow Him and to help Him complete the self-gift that He just anticipated in the Last Supper.
The Agony in the Garden by Andrea Mantegna, San Zeno altarpiece c. 1459
We follow Him into the garden, the place of the original sin He has come to expiate. “Sit here, while I go yonder and pray.” (Matthew 26:36) This time, unlike the apostles, we do sit and pray: we offer a hymn of praise to Christ for what He has just done for us, for what He has just given us.
We conclude this hymn with the glorious Tantum Ergo, and offer incense and homage to our veiled Lord. But the festivity now ceases as we accompany Christ in his agony, in the incomprehensible pain required to procure his gift. “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.” (Matthew 26:38, 39)
The cosmic drama continues now in silence as Christ beseeches his Father in his battle against Satan, and we, feeble creatures, struggle to live up to the cost of our redemption. “Could you not keep watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:37-38)
As we retire for the night, the passion of the Lord unfolds: the betrayal, the arrest, the phony trial, the insults, the spitting, the denials, the imprisonment. The following morning brings more insults, more fury, more pain, more suffering. Finally, at 3:00 p.m., our Lord, tortured and crucified, expires. “It is finished.” (John 19:30)
Christ’s mission of redemption, born before all ages, begun at the incarnation, and anticipated on Holy Thursday, is finished. This night, the eve of his holy death, explains this greatest of mysteries in the institution of the Holy Eucharist. Christ has given us himself with his own hands. Because of this, even amidst the greatest trials, we can heed his command: “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)