A Gathering Darkness: Maundy Thursday 2021

The Angel of the Agony by Nicholas Mynheer
The Angel of the Agony by Nicholas Mynheer. Image copyright. All rights reserved. From the monastery’s collection.

Early this morning, before dawn, I went into the kitchen and made some unleavened bread. It does not take long. The whole process should be completed in about eighteen minutes, after which the dough begins to ferment and ceases to be unleavened. Like making the wine used in the Eucharist, bread-making has always been for me deeply symbolic: the place where everyday life and theology intertwine and become one. The bread I made will be our bread of affliction, eaten while still sweet and tangy at a commemorative meal* later today, then stale and crumbly tomorrow on Good Friday, and finally rock hard, with all the bitterness of loss and death, on Holy Saturday. It is a way of literally absorbing the meaning of these three days into our flesh. On Easter Sunday morning we shall feast on fresh white rolls, a rare delicacy in the monastery, made in the same kitchen, from the same flour, but completely transformed by the action of yeast and the addition of a little butter and milk.

The passion, death and resurrection of Christ, celebrated during the Paschal Triduum, is the pivotal event in human history but so full of incident that we have difficulty registering more than a fraction of its significance at any one time. It too is transformative, and we are given these three days, liturgically one day, to try to grasp the mystery they contain. We begin with Maundy Thursday, the institution of the Eucharist and the commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us. It is a dark time but also a time of hope. This is the the story of our redemption and we enter into it with every nerve stretched, poised to receive the greatest of all gifts offered by our Saviour, life itself.

Last year on this day I wrote about the loneliness Jesus experienced in Gethsemane and mused on the part played by Judas. We forget that when Jesus looked into the darkness ahead of him, he acknowledged his need of help. He sweat blood at the thought of it; but just when he might have expected his disciples to be most alert to his need, the only help he received came from an angel.

Many have felt a similar loneliness and vulnerability during the past year. They have experienced the darkness of not being able to share fully in the liturgical celebrations of the season, a painful isolation from family and friends, or gone through some other sorrow or deprivation that has left them sad or anxious. Add to that the horror of political and religious repression, violence and corruption, and the terrible toll exacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the effect can be overwhelming. That very human and familiar experience parallels the gathering darkness in the gospel narrative. Judas steps out into the night; Jesus prays alone while his disciples sleep; only a few soldiers seem to be abroad, tasked with apprehending malefactors.

It is not surprising if we feel weariness at the thought of what lies ahead of us during the Triduum. We grieve for all that Christ must undergo for our sakes. Our feasting will be changed into lamentation and we shall be left confused, sad, uncertain for a while. But tonight, as we turn our gaze towards the Upper Room and the Mount of Olives, let us not forget the promise of light. Jesus is moving inexorably towards death and resurrection, but for us that means freedom, redemption. We need fear no longer. Soon the darkness will be scattered, never to trouble us more.

*Our commemorative meal is not a seder, simply a meal at which we serve unleavened bread and wine (or, in our case, unfermented grape juice) as a reminder of the Eucharist.

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Maundy Thursday 2019

The Sacred Triduum begins tonight with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Here in the monastery we anticipate the Triduum with a day of special silence and prayer. At noon we have a solemn meal that recalls (but does not replicate) the kind of meal Jesus celebrated with his disciples while our reading of the Last Discourse as the final act of the day ensures we do not lose our focus as Maundy Thursday gives way to Good Friday. The liturgical celebration we begin tonight does not end until Easter morning. It is all one, as you can see from the fact that no dismissal is uttered from the end of Mass tonight until the end of the Easter Vigil. This is the high-point of the Christian year, and it is not a merely historical commemoration, a kind of play-acting that we engage in. By means of the liturgy we enter into the events we recall: we are one with what we are celebrating. What does that mean for us today on Maundy Thursday?

First and foremost, I think it means that we are each bound to scrutinize our own fidelity or lack of it to the commandment to love one another. Unless we are unusually complacent, I daresay most of us feel a little shame-faced when we consider how often we have missed opportunities to serve or done so in a way that was distinctly unloving and ungracious. Some of us may even have made consciousness of our own rectitude — in our own eyes at least — a source of boasting. How many, for example, have noisily turned their backs on the Church, saying they can have no part in her because of the terrible scandal of sexual abuse and cover-up? Then we read of Père Fournier going into the blazing heart of Notre Dame to rescue the Blessed Sacrament and know we are on firm ground again. That is what we expect of our priests! And tonight we recall the giving of that great treasure of the Church, the Holy Eucharist. We give thanks and try to express our love and devotion in those precious hours at the Altar of Repose where we bring all the world’s sin and sorrow and our own pain and confusion.

Maundy Thursday is intense in its movement from Judas’s betrayal to the Agony in the Garden. It is intense in both its joy and its sorrow. We cannot live all our lives with such intensity but tonight we can and must. It is our entry into Christ’s Passion.

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Priesthood and Eucharist | Maundy Thursday 2014

The Last Supper; Unknown; Regensburg, Bavaria; about 1030 - 1040; Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment; Leaf: 23.2 x 16 cm (9 1/8 x 6 5/16 in.); 83.MI.90.38
The Last Supper; Unknown; Regensburg, Bavaria; about 1030 – 1040;

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today’s liturgy is so full, it weighs heavy on heart and mind. There is the Chrism Mass, with its powerful reminder of the great gift of priesthood and then, this evening, the beginning of the sacred Triduum with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper when we ponder the amazing gift of the Eucharist and Jesus’ commandment to love one another as he has loved us. We have barely registered these before we are plunged into watching with Christ in the Garden at Gethsemane, conscious of sin and betrayal. There will be no let up, no lessening of tension, until the Easter Vigil. We are one with Christ on his long, last journey from this world to the next.

In previous years I have attempted to single out some aspect of the day’s events for reflection and prayer. Today, however, I suggest we think about the Preface used at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. It contains in a nutshell the theology of this day:

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God,
through Christ our Lord.
For he is the true and eternal Priest,
who instituted the pattern of an everlasting sacrifice
and was the first to offer himself as the saving Victim,
commanding us to make this offering as his memorial.
As we eat his flesh that was sacrificed for us,
we are made strong,
and, as we drink his Blood that was poured out for us,
we are washed clean.
And so, with Angels and Archangels,
with Thrones and Dominions,
and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven,
we sing the hymn of your glory,
as without end we acclaim:
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts . . .

Note on the illustration
Unknown, illuminator
The Last Supper, about 1030 – 1040, Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment
Leaf: 23.2 x 16 cm (9 1/8 x 6 5/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig VII 1, fol. 38,/small>
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