Holy Thursday: Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper

Today’s readings

“We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,

for he is our salvation, our life and our resurrection;

through him we are saved and made free.”

That is the proper entrance antiphon, also known as the introit, for this Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. It is taken from Paul’s letter to the Galatians in which he says “May I never boast about anything other than the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which I have been crucified to the world and the world to me.” As you know, the Church considers these three days – the Sacred Triduum – as just one day, one liturgy. When we gather for Mass tonight, and reconvene tomorrow for the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion, and finally gather for the great Easter Vigil on Saturday, it’s just one day for the church, one Liturgy in three parts. And the only part of that Liturgy that has an entrance antiphon is tonight’s Mass, so the Church has chosen this text to set the tone for our celebrations for these three nights, and to draw all of them together with the cross holding them all together.

It’s almost ridiculous for us to glory in the cross.  Few of us could imagine anything more horrible than being arrested by the leaders of one’s religion, put through a farce of a trial, being stripped, humiliated, beaten and dragged through the streets, then being nailed to a cross in order that we might die a horrible, painful death for no apparent reason.  But we know the reason, don’t we?  And that reason is why the Church has us gather on these holy days to glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

We glory in the cross because these days remind us that there is nothing our God won’t do in order to be with us.  It was we who had and have rejected his friendship over and over again.  Our original sin, our personal sin, our societal sin, the sins of all the ages and every people had dug a chasm that prevented us from being close to our God.  The offense was so great and the chasm was so deep that there was absolutely nothing we could do to bridge the gap and find our God.  So God did it for us.  He sent his only Son to be our salvation.  He was born among us in the lowliest of conditions.  He grew up and lived among us, experiencing the many frustrations that we find in our world, knowing our hardship and pain.  And when the appointed hour arrived, he gave up his very own life in that horrible, humiliating, seemingly-pointless death.  That act canceled the power that sin and death had over us, bridged the great chasm, and opened for us the possibility of life that lasts forever.

We absolutely should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ!

I think what the cross teaches us in these three days, and what this evening’s part of the Liturgy says in particular is summed up in the Latin word, caritas. Caritas is most often translated into English as either “charity” or “love.” And, as in the case of most translations, both are inadequate. When we think about the word “charity,” we usually think of something we do to the poor: we give to the poor, we have pity on the poor, that kind of thing. And “love” can have a whole host of different meanings, depending on the context, and the emotion involved. And that’s not what caritas means at all. I think caritas is best imagined as a love that shows itself in the action of setting oneself aside for the good of others. It’s a love that remembers that everything is not about me, that God gives us opportunities all the time to pour ourselves out on behalf of others, that we were put on this earth to love one another into heaven.

Two parts of this evening’s Liturgy show us what caritas means. The first is what we call the mandatum: the washing of the feet. Here, Jesus gets up from the meal, puts on a towel and begins to wash the feet of his disciples. Washing the feet of guests was a common act of hospitality in Jesus’ time. In those days, people often had to travel quite a distance to accept an invitation to a feast or celebration. And so the guests’ feet would be washed. This was a gesture of hospitality that was supplied not by the host of the gathering, but instead by someone much lower in stature, usually a servant or slave. But at the Last Supper, it is Jesus himself who wraps a towel around himself, picks up the bowl and pitcher, and washes the feet of his friends.

We will reenact that Gospel vignette in a few minutes. But I have to admit, I’m not a big fan of this particular ritual. Not because I don’t like washing feet or don’t care to have mine washed. It’s just that I think this particular ritual is better when it is reenacted outside of church. Every day, in every place where Christians are. Let me give you an example.

In seminary, we used to eat cafeteria style most of the time, much like any institution of higher learning. But several times a year, we would have formal dinners. They would happen on special feast days or to celebrate the giving of ministries or ordinations to the deaconate. On those occasions, our round tables would have white tablecloths, there would be wine at the table, and special food. On one of the chairs of every table, there would be a white apron. The person who got that chair was to put on the apron – much like Jesus wrapped the towel around him – and serve the rest of the people at the table. Now, when I first got to seminary, my objective, I am not proud to tell you, was to get over to the refectory early so that I wouldn’t have to be that person. Lots of us did that at first. But sometime during seminary, and I’m not sure exactly when it happened, my objective changed. I would try to get to the refectory early, not to avoid being the one to serve the rest, but to get that seat at the table so that I could serve the others. Certainly that was the work of the Holy Spirit.

And I think this kind of caritas can happen everywhere. Maybe you make an effort to get home from work a little sooner to help your spouse get dinner ready or help your children with their homework. Maybe at work you try to get in early so that you can make the first pot of coffee so that people can smell it when they come in to the office. Or maybe after lunch you take a minute or two to wipe out the microwave so it’s not gross the next day. If you’re a young person, perhaps you can try on occasion to do a chore without being asked or even wash the dishes when it’s not your turn to do it. Or if one of your classmates has a lot of stuff to bring to school one day, you can offer to carry some of his or her books to lighten the load.

This kind of thing costs us. It’s not our job. We’re entitled to be treated well too. It’s inconvenient. I’ve had a hard day at work – or at school. I want to see this show on television. I’m in the middle of reading the paper. But caritas requires something of us – something over and above what we may be prepared to do. But, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel, he’s given us an example: as he has done, so we must do. And not just here in church washing each other’s feet, but out there in our world, washing the feet of all those in our lives who need to be loved into heaven.

The second part of our Liturgy that illustrates caritas is one with which we are so familiar, we may most of the time let it pass us by without giving it a thought. And that, of course, is the Eucharist. This evening we commemorate that night when Jesus, for the very first time, shared bread and wine with his closest friends and offered the meal as his very own body and blood, poured out on behalf of the world, given that we might remember, as often as we do it, what caritas means. This is the meal that we share here tonight, not just as a memory of something that happened in the far distant past, but instead experienced with Jesus and his disciples, and all the church of every time and place, on earth and in heaven, gathered around the same Table of the Lord, nourished by the same body, blood, soul and divinity of our Savior who poured himself out for us in the ultimate act of caritas.

We who eat this meal have to be willing to be changed by it. Because we too must pour ourselves out for others. We must feed them with our presence and our love and our understanding even when we would rather not. We must help them to know Christ’s presence in their lives by the way that we serve them, in humility, giving of ourselves and asking nothing in return.

The ultimate act of caritas will unfold tomorrow and Saturday night as we look to the cross and keep vigil for the resurrection. Tonight it will suffice for us to hear the command to go and do likewise, pouring ourselves out for others, laying down our lives for them, washing their feet and becoming Eucharist for them. It may seem difficult to glory in the cross – it may even seem ridiculous to say it. But the Church makes it clear tonight: the cross is our salvation, it is caritas poured out for us, it is caritas poured out on others through us, every time we extend ourselves, lay down our lives, abandon our sense of entitlement and give of ourselves.

“We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,

for he is our salvation, our life and our resurrection;

through him we are saved and made free.”