On Thursday of the Lord’s Supper, this beautiful truth becomes a reality: For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life—John 3:16
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
28 March 2013
During the celebration of the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, chapter 13 (vs. 1-15) of the gospel of John is proclaimed. This is an exceedingly beautiful and rich gospel proclamation for a number of reasons: it speaks of the preexistence of Jesus, the Son of God whose divinity and power are given him by the Father; it wonderfully reveals the humility of Jesus who lays aside his garments and washes the feet of his disciples; it provides for us a lesson in the meaning of Christian discipleship in the reaction of St. Peter, who, in spite of his protest, must allow himself to be washed by Jesus. Peter cannot permit himself to be governed by his own ideas, but must instead adhere to the divine plan of the Son of God.
There is another beautiful verse found in this gospel, in fact the first, filled with rich spiritual meaning: “Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end” (13:1).
The entire meaning of Lent, Holy Thursday, the Easter Triduum, can be summed up in the last sentence of that verse, “He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end,” since it speaks about the entire content of the life and mission of Jesus Christ; that is, to love his disciples and his brethren—us, you, me, humanity—to the very end.
Can we fully understand what this means? I would venture to say that no one can; not here, not at this moment in time. The full implication of what Christ has done for humankind is of such immensity and profoundness as to be far beyond the complete grasp of the human intellect. Consider for a moment: we are incapable of comprehending the entirety of creation and the farthest reaches of the cosmos; the human brain remains a mystery; we cannot fathom what another person’s life is like who lives not far removed from us in a distant part of the world but right next door; we fail to understand the inner depths of even our own being. Who should be so bold as to say they fully understand what Christ has accomplished by the sacred mysteries of his life, passion, death and resurrection?
The obvious question is, will we ever fully understand what our Savior has accomplished? Perhaps not. One the other hand, it is certain that the path to understanding is experience: it is human life lived; it is the gift of self; it is sacrifice for love. We must fully live it, this experience, this life God has given us, with real purpose and authenticity, with true sincerity and with meaning of lasting depth, moving from our point of beginning to the goal and destiny that lies ahead. But what kind of life is this to be? How is it lived? What is the key principle in this life?
The answer is found in Christ himself. “In reality it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear” (Gaudium et Spes 22 § 1). Christ, as God-made-man, is the definitive answer to every pressing human question. The supreme, perfect model of humanity is Jesus the Christ; the pattern we are to emulate is the divine and human Jesus; who we are to become is “little christ’s.” We must enter into the life of Christ, as fully and completely as is possible. That is not something accomplished from outside, looking in from a distance, as if mere observation or comfortable and calculated analyzation will suffice. It is something we must do for real, now, totally—it is to be a firsthand and profoundly intimate experience. Such a sublime life is only made possible, of course, by our coming to the feet of Christ in humility and placing ourselves before his infinite mercy, perhaps with copious tears, overcome entirely with a singular thirst to be one with him. Then we will begin to see; then the foggy mists of uncertainty will give way to the brilliant, sublime light of clarity. God will kiss us with his divine secrets.
Christ has loved us to the very end. There is great spiritual profit to be found in meditating on those words. It is interesting, revealing, enriching. They might give the impression that Christ has loved us, and now that he has done that, it is over. But it is not over. It is not simply that Christ has loved; it is that he continually, constantly and permanently loves. Christ loves because He Is Love. Jesus heals, because he is the Love Who Heals. He gives himself to us because his love is infinite, and infinite love must by definition overflow all boundaries: it is uncontainable, limitless, fiery and burning and all-encompassing and transforming. No one touched by the love of Christ is ever the same. It changes you. Forever. The Last Supper, his gift of himself, the removal of his garments and the washing of his disciples’ feet, loving to the end, it continues on because Jesus Christ transcends time and space.
It is astonishingly beautiful. Think of how Jesus loved us to the end in his gift of the Eucharist.
At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us. (CCC 1323)
Each time we receive the Eucharist, Christ is loving us completely, to the end, by giving the gift of his glorified and resurrected body, the gift of his own divine, supernatural life to those he loves. The Eucharist is the gift of Life Itself, and thus is the life-blood dynamic of the Christian. The Eucharist does not merely nourish us physically, nor should we ever be under the false impression that it be only a symbolic representation of our oneness as members of the body of Christ, but rather it provides us with incomparable spiritual nourishment; with, in fact, a share in the life of the Risen Lord himself (see Jn 6:22-65).
There can be no greater gift. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). Jesus Christ laid down his life for his friends on the cross, shedding his blood for the redemption of humankind, in order to save us from spiritual death and bring the promise of new life to all. In doing so, Jesus Christ gave content to the Eucharist with his own death. The cost of the Eucharist was the brutal, horrifyingly cruel death of the Son of God. It will stand forever as the greatest act of love possible.
This Holy Thursday, when we rise up, walk forward and receive Holy Communion at the divine liturgy, we take part in the death of Christ and, ultimately, in the greatest reality of love ever possible. The Son of God became man, died for you and for me, and gave us his glorified body to consume as the source of everlasting life. It is not simply a pledge of kindness, but the pledge of infinite, sacrificial love: Christ shares his very life with those he loves.
Knowing his hour had come and he was to return to the Father, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples during the course of a meal and “gave them the commandment of love. In order to leave them a pledge of this love, in order never to depart from his own and to make them sharers in his Passover, he instituted the Eucharist as the memorial of his death and Resurrection, . . .” (CCC 1337).
Above I stated that we cannot fully understand the gift of Christ. That statement was not meant to imply we can known nothing of what Jesus has given us by his sacrificial death; nor was it meant to suggest we should refrain from studying the meaning of our Savior’s gift; nor is it meant to discourage us in any way. On the contrary, the fact that this mystery is so deep, so profound and magnificent, should urge us onward, to explore and seek and strive and thirst without end. However, fruitful exploration is not merely an intellectual undertaking; on the contrary, it is a life lived in love with Jesus Christ, in free and loving obedience to the will of the Father.
It is a life lived for the love of God. That way of life presupposes a dying to self. We must not want our way, but the way of Jesus Christ; we must not want our desires, but the will of God; we must not strive after our own way of doing things, our own ideas and ways of thinking, but immerse ourselves in the way of God. Capio Dies!: “Seize the day!”
We must, ultimately, find that Jesus’ words have become the substance of our own heart: We thirst to love to the end.
Let us pray:
O God, who have called us to participate in this most sacred Supper, in which your Only Begotten Son, when about to hand himself over to death, entrusted to the Church a sacrifice new for all eternity, the banquet of his love, grant, we pray, that we may draw from so great a mystery, the fullness of charity and of life. (Collect, Thursday of the Lord’s Supper, At the Evening Mass)
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.