The Church intends, on this day, to renew, in a most solemn manner, the mystery of the last Supper: for our Lord Himself, on this occasion of the institution of the blessed Sacrament, said to His apostles, Do this for a commemoration of Me.'1 Let us, therefore, resume the Gospel narrative.
Jesus is in the supper chamber, where the Paschal lamb is to be eaten. All the apostles are with Him; Judas is there, also, but his crime is not known to the rest. Jesus approaches the table, on which the lamb is served. His disciples stand around Him. The ceremonies prescribed by God to Moses are religiously observed. At the beginning of the repast, Jesus speaks these words to His apostles: 'With desire I have desired to eat this Pasch with you, before I suffer.'2 In saying this, He does not imply that the Pasch of this year is intrinsically better than those that have preceded it; but that it is dearer to Him, inasmuch as it is to give rise to the institution of the new Pasch, which He has prepared for mankind, and which He is now going to give them as His last gift; for, as St. John says, having loved His own, who were in the world, He loved them unto the end.3
During the repast, Jesus, who reads the hearts of all men, utters these words, which cause great consternation among the disciples: 'Amen I say to you that one of you is about to betray Me:he that dippeth his hand with Me in the dish, he shall betray Me.'4 The sadness with which He speaks is enough to soften any heart; and Judas, who knows his Master's goodness, feels that they imply a merciful pardon, if he will but ask it. But no: the passion of avarice has enslaved his soul, and he, like the rest of the apostles, says to Jesus: 'Is it I, Rabbi?' Jesus answers him in a whisper, in order not to compromise him before his brethren: 'Thou hast said it!' But Judas yields not. He intends to remain with Jesus, until the hour comes for betraying Him. Thus, the august mystery, which is on the point of being celebrated, is to be insulted by his presence!
The legal repast is over. It is followed by a feast, which again brings the disciples around their divine Master. It was the custom in the east, that guests should repose two and two on couches round the table: these have been provided by the disciple who has placed his house at Jesus' service. John is on the same couch as Jesus, so that it is easy for him to lean his head on his Master's breast. Peter is on the next couch, on the other side of Jesus, who is thus between the two disciples whom He had sent, in the morning to prepare the Pasch, and who, as we have already observed, represent faith and love. The second repast is a sorrowful one, in consequence of Jesus having told the guests that one of them is a traitor. The innocent and affectionate John is overwhelmed with grief, and seeks consolation on the Heart of his dear Lord, whom some one is about to deliver to His enemies.
But the apostles little expect a third supper; Jesus has not told them of His intention; but He had made a promise, and He would fulfil it before His Passion. Speaking, one day, to the people, He had said: 'I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever, and the bread that I will give, is My Flesh for the life of the world... My Flesh is meat indeed, and My Blood is drink indeed. He that eateth My Flesh and drinketh 'My Blood, abideth in Me, and I in him.'5 The time has come for the fulfilment of this His loving promise. But as it was both His Flesh and His Blood that He promised us, He waited till the time of His sacrifice. His Passion has begun; He is sold to His enemies; His life is already in their hands:He may at once, therefore, offer Himself in sacrifice, and give to His disciples the very Flesh and Blood of the Victim.
As soon as the second repast is over, Jesus suddenly rises, and, to the astonishment of His apostles, takes off His upper garment, girds Himself as a servant with a towel, pours water into a basin, and prepares to wash the feet of the guests. It was the custom in the east, to wash one's feet before taking part in a feast; it was considered as the very extreme of hospitality, when the master of the house himself did this service to his guest. Jesus is about to regale His apostles with a divine banquet; He wishes to treat them with every possible mark of welcome and attention. But in this, as in every other action of His, there is a fund of instruction: He would teach us, by what He is now doing, how great is the purity wherewith we should approach the holy Table. ' He that is washed,' says He, 'needeth not but to wash his feet;'6 as though He would say: ' The holiness of this Table is such, that those who come to it should not only be free from grievous sins, but they should, moreover, strive to cleanse their souls from those lesser faults, which come from contact with the world, and are like the dust that covers the feet of one that walks on the highway.' We will explain further on the other teachings conveyed by this action of our Lord.
It is with Peter, the future head of His Church, that Jesus begins. The apostle protests; he declares that he will never permit his Master to humble Himself so low as this: but he is obliged to yield. The other apostles (who, as Peter himself, are reclining upon their couches) receive the same mark of love: Jesus comes to each of them in turn, and washes their feet. Judas is not excepted: he has just received a second warning from his merciful Master; for Jesus, addressing Himself to all the apostles, said to them: 'You are clean, but not all':7 but the reproach produced no effect upon this hardened heart. Having finished washing the feet of the twelve, Jesus resumes His place, side by side with John.
Then taking a piece of the unleavened bread, that had remained over from the feast, He raises His eyes to heaven, blesses the bread, breaks it, and distributes it to His disciples saying to them: 'Take ye, and sat; this is My Body'.8 The Apostles take the bread, which is now changed into the Body of their divine Master; they eat: and Jesus is now not only with them, but in them. But, as this sacred mystery is not only the most holy of the Sacraments, but moreover a true Sacrifice; and as a Sacrifice requires the shedding of blood; our Jesus takes the cup, and changing the wine into His own Blood, He passes it round to His disciples, saying to them: 'Drink ye all, of this; for this is My Blood of the new testament, which shall be shed for many, unto remission of sins'.9 The apostles drink from the sacred chalice thus proffered them! When it comes to Judas, he too partakes of it, but he drinks his own damnation, as he ate his own judgment when he received the Bread of life.10 Jesus, however, mercifully offers the traitor another grace, by saying, as He gives the cup to His disciples: 'The hand of him that betrayeth Me is with Me on the table'.11
Peter is struck by Jesus thus frequently alluding to the crime, which is to be committed by one of the twelve. He is determined to find out who the traitor is. Not daring himself to ask Jesus, at whose right hand he is sitting, he makes a sign to John, who is on the other side, and begs him, to put the question. John leans on Jesus' breast, and says to Him in a whisper: 'Lord, who is it?' Jesus answers him in an equally suppressed tone: 'He to whom I shall reach bread dipped.' And having taken one of the pieces of bread that remained over from the repast, He dipped it, and gave it to Judas. It was one more grace offered and refused, for the evangelist adds: 'And after the morsel, satan entered into him.'12 Jesus again addresses him saying: 'That which thou dost, do quickly.'13 The wretch then leaves the room, and sets about the perpetration of his crime.
Such is the history of the Last Supper, of which we celebrate the anniversary on this day. But there is one circumstance of the deepest interest to us, to which we have, so far, made only an indirect allusion. The institution of the holy Eucharist, both as a Sacrament and a Sacrifice, is followed by another: the institution of a new priesthood. How could our Saviour have said: 'Except you eat the Flesh of the Son of man, and drink His Blood, you shall not have life in you,'14 unless He had resolved to establish a ministry upon earth, whereby He would renew, even to the end of time, the great mystery He thus commands us to receive? He begins it today, in the cenacle. The twelve apostles are the first to partake of it; but observe what He says to them: 'Do this for a commemoration of Me.'15 By these words, He gives them power to change bread into His Body, and wine into His Blood; and this sublime power shall be perpetuated in the Church, by holy Ordination, even to the end of the world. Jesus will continue to operate, by the ministry of mortal and sinful men, the mystery of the Last Supper. By thus enriching His Church with the one and perpetual Sacrifice, He also gives us the means of abiding in Him, for He gives us, as He promised, the Bread of heaven.
Today, then, we keep the anniversary, not only of the institution of the holy Eucharist, but also of the equally wonderful institution of the Christian priesthood.
To offer the faithful an outward expression of the greatness and the unity of this Supper, which our Saviour gave to His disciples, and, through them, to us, the Church forbids her priests to say private Masses on this day, except in cases of necessity. She would have but one Sacrifice to be offered in each church, at which the other priests are to assist, and receive holy Communion from the hands of the celebrant. When approaching the altar, they put on the stole, the emblem of their priesthood.
The Mass of Maundy Thursday is one of the most solemn of the year; and although the feast of Corpus Christi is the day for solemnly honouring the mystery of the holy Eucharist, still, the Church would have the anniversary of the last Supper to be celebrated with all possible splendour. The colour of the vestments is white, as it is for Christmas day and Easter Sunday; the decorations of the altar and sanctuary all bespeak joy, and yet, there are several ceremonies during this Mass; which show that the holy bride of Christ has not forgotten the Passion of her Jesus, and that this joy is but transient. The priest entones the angelic hymn, Glory be to God in the highest! and the bells ring forth a joyous peal, which continues during the whole of the heavenly canticle: but from that moment they remain silent, and their long silence produces, in every heart, a sentiment of holy mournfulness. But why does the Church deprive us, for so many hours of the grand melody of these sweet bells, whose voices cheer us during the rest of the year? It is to show us that this world lost all its melody and joy when its Saviour suffered and was crucified. Moreover, she would hereby remind us, how the apostles (who were the heralds of Christ, and are figured by the bells, whose ringing summons the faithful to the house of God), fled from their divine Master and left Him a prey to His enemies.
The holy Sacrifice continues as usual; but at the solemn moment of the elevation of the holy Host and the Chalice of salvation, the bell is silent, and outside the church there is not given to the neighbourhood the usual signal of the descent of Jesus upon the altar. When the time of the holy Communion is near, the priest does not give the kiss, of peace to the deacon, who, according to the apostolic tradition, should transmit it, by the subdeacon, to those who are about to communicate. Our thoughts turn to the traitor Judas, who on this very day profaned the sign of friendship by making it an instrument of death. It is out of detestation for this crime, that the Church omits, today, the sign of fraternal charity: it would too painfully remind us of the sacrilegious hypocrisy.
Another rite peculiar to today, is the consecration of two Hosts during the Mass. One of these the priest receives in Communion; the other he reserves, and reverently places it in a chalice, which he covers with a veil. The reason of this is that tomorrow the Church suspends the daily Sacrifice. Such is the impression produced by the anniversary of our Saviour's death, that the Church dares not to renew upon her altars the immolation which was then offered on Calvary; or rather, her renewal of it will be by fixing all her thoughts on the terrible scene of that Friday noon. The Host reserved from today's Mass, will be her morrow's participation. This rite is called the Mass of the Presanctified, because, in it, the priest does not consecrate, but only receives the Host consecrated on the previous day. Formerly, as we shall explain more fully further on, the holy Sacrifice was not offered up on Holy Saturday, and yet the Mass of the Presanctified was not celebrated as it was on the Friday.
But although the Church suspends, for a few short hours, the oblation of the perpetual Sacrifice, she would not that her divine Spouse should lose aught of the homage that is due to Him in the Sacrament of His love. Catholic piety has found a means of changing these trying hours into a tribute of devotion to the holy Eucharist. In every church is prepared a richly ornamented side-chapel or pavilion, where, after today's Mass, the Church places the Body of her divine Lord. Though veiled from their view, the faithful will visit Him in this His holy resting-place, pay Him their most humble adorations, and present Him their most fervent supplications. Wheresoever the Body shall be, there shall the eagles be gathered together.16 In every part of the Catholic world, a concert of prayer, more loving and earnest than at any other period of the year, will be offered to our Jesus, in reparation for the outrages He underwent, during these very hours, from the Jews. Around this anticipated tomb will be united both His long-tried and fervent servants, and those who are newly converted, or are preparing for their reconciliation.
At Rome, the station is in the Lateran basilica. The metropolitan church both of the holy city and of the world was deservedly chosen for this great day of the reconciliation of sinners and of the consecration of the chrism. The papal function, however, now takes place at the Vatican; and, as we have already stated, the apostolic benediction is given by the sovereign Pontiff from the loggia of St. Peter's.
1 St. Luke xxii. 19.
2 St. Luke xxii 15.
3 St. John xiii. 1.
4 St. Matt. xxvi. 21, 23.
5 St. John vi. 51, 52, 56, 57.
6 St. John xiii, 10.
8 St. Matt. xxvi. 26.
9 Ibid. 27, 28.
10 I Cor. xi. 29.
11 St. Luke xxii. 21.
12 St. John xiii. 27.
14 Ibid. vi. 54.
15 St. Luke xxii. 19.
16 St. Matt. xxiv. 28.