A good friend asked me Tues night how I would summarize to evangelical friends what the all fuss is about in Holy Thursday Mass, or the Celebration of the Institution of the Eucharist. It got me thinking.
What Holy Thursday does (and Good Friday & Easter Vigil do not) is draws us into those precious moments at the deathbed of a beloved spouse. It’s about remembering, not the death itself, but the dying. The Church, together with all the angels and saints of ages past, remembers that last night with her Spouse – the last meal, the foot-washing, the new commandment, the offering of His Body and Blood, the mounting anxiety of the disciples, the words of comfort spoken, the betrayal, the agony in the Garden, the arrest, the trial before the Sanhedrin, the deposition by Pilate and Herod, the torture, the mockery, the abandonment, the denials, the despair. It’s just not enough to read about it from a book, even if it’s the Bible; it’s not enough to just have a little service on Good Friday that summarily assumes what happened the night before. We have to relive that Thursday if we are to understand the Cross.
Christ is the dying spouse and the Church is the surviving spouse at his bedside. She knows he’s about to undergo excruciating pain and imminent death and they’re trying to make the most of those last few moments together, saying what needs to be said, the most important things. Yet the littlest things about that time together become eternally etched in her memory. Even in these moments, the surviving spouse is filled with mixed feelings – anger, fatigue, confusion, skepticism, hopelessness. And though she loves him, she still cheats on him in her despair. She knows she is with him, but not really, and it kills her.
Then the husband gives her a special token to always remember him by. Except this gift is a part of himself and in a mysterious way, it contains everything he stands for, everything about their unbreakable union, everything he is and has done, including his suffering and death. And she realizes afterwards that the whole dying experience and the Gift will save her life, which in turn really is HIS life living on in hers. Somehow, his suffering and death reconnects every loose thread in her life and gives it force and nerve. He not only lives on through the children she bore with him, but by the way she mothers them and the way the family remembers him and acts in his memory, he lives on forever.
The Institution of the Eucharist is all about that priceless gift of himself that the husband gives the wife in his last dying moments with her. It’s not just a material token of a past event, because his dying and his death live on forever.
And I think this is where many Evangelicals part ways – they tend to believe that the dying and death is the bad morbid part that the Resurrection sheds, whereas the Catholic & Orthodox insist that Christ’s death is His triumph, His glory, His crown, and not just a smaller crown next to the big kahuna Resurrection crown. The Cross is the one crown. The Resurrection is a proclamation and an extension of that triumph into eternity. It doesn’t undo, soften, or mitigate the Cross, but intensifies it.
Having no Holy Thursday is like telling the wife to just forget the painful past and move on. But to do that is to forget the Gift. And to forget the Gift is to forget Him.