Sometimes words flow as easily as tears; sometimes there are no words, only a painful numbness in the face of suffering and fear. I have already written many times about different aspects of Maundy Thursday and its liturgy, so today I give you instead an image to think about and pray before. It is Nicholas Mynheer’s Angel of the Agony which occupies a place of honour in our chapel. It takes us to the heart of Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane, plunges us into the depths of his loneliness and near-despair, and reassures us that, when we least expect it, God’s help is at hand. (Please note: the painting is copyright; reproduction prohibited.)
Tonight we begin the sacred paschal Triduum, the three days that are liturgically one day, when we commemorate the saving passion, death and resurrection of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Moment by moment we shall trace the events of these three days, beginning tonight with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at which we shall recall Christ’s institution of the holy Eucharist and his commandment to love one another as demonstrated by the washing of feet. Connected with this great liturgy of the whole Church are other, more particular liturgies. For our priests there is the Chrism Mass, at which the holy oils are blessed and distributed and the priests’ commitment is reaffirmed. Here in the monastery another domestic liturgy has been unfolding. Last night we began reading the Last Discourse before Compline. A single voice proclaims into the dusk those words of Jesus at the Last Supper which will end with his going to Gethsemane. It is poignant and painful and sets the tone for what is to follow.
Early this morning I went into the kitchen and baked some unleavened bread. It is not for use in the Mass. Instead, it will accompany our meals between now and Easter morning. It is the bread of affliction, the bread of suffering, a reminder of the reality of sin and redemption — something we taste, chew over, absorb into ourselves. Today it has a wonderful freshness and zest about it and will accompany our recalling of the Last Supper with joy and gladness. Tomorrow, when we fast the great fast of Good Friday, it will be stale, crumbly, eaten without relish. By Holy Saturday it will be rock hard, with all the bitterness of loss and death. It is a small way of making the huge events of the paschal Triduum approachable, knitted to the substance of our lives in a direct, uncomplicated way.
I often describe monasticism as doing theology on one’s knees. I think it could, with equal truth, be called doing theology in the kitchen. May your paschal Triduum be blessed.
Note: There are many previous posts about Maundy Thursday (Holy Thursday) and other days of the Triduum. Please use the search box in the sidebar if interested.
Tonight we begin the sacred Triduum with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper and afterwards will watch until midnight as Jesus is betrayed into the hands of his enemies. But this morning a single thought keeps nudging me: it is the blood spread on the lintels of the houses of the Israelites, that the Angel of Death might pass over them (cf Exodus 12). In the last few weeks much blood has been shed in Turkey, Yemen and now Belgium. The Angel of Death has not passed over. God’s children — Jewish, Christian, Muslim, agnostic — have not been spared. Yet we continue to affirm that God’s promise holds. How can that be?
I think the only answer we can give is the one that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews gives: Christ suffered on behalf of all of us and by so doing showed that sin, betrayal, even death itself, no longer have ultimate power over us. Our own sufferings are taken up into those of Christ and we know that he will triumph. There will be no dismissal at the end of Mass tonight because the three great celebrations of the Triduum, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, are one great liturgical act. We cannot separate death from resurrection. The blood on the doorposts and the Blood of Christ given to us in the Eucharist are a pledge of God’s unfailing love for his people. We go into the darkness of the night sure of the dawn to come.
Note on the illustration: The Betrayal of Christ; Masters of Dirc van Delf (Dutch, active about 1400 – about 1410); Utrecht (probably), Netherlands; about 1405 – 1410; Tempera colours, gold leaf, and ink on parchment; Leaf: 16.5 x 11.7 cm (6 1/2 x 4 5/8 in.); Ms. 40, fol. 13v
Year after year I have tried to say something worth thinking about on Maundy Thursday. This year I have only an image and a single thought. The image is from a twelfth century English manuscript, with a text added later in the fifteenth century. It shows the Beloved Disciple crumpled in sorrow and distress on Jesus’ breast.
It is the poignancy of that image which strikes me. Tonight there will be many fine homilies on the three major themes of the Maundy Thursday liturgy. There will probably be a nod or two in the direction of the Leaders’ Debate on TV and the irony of discussing human greatness when the words and actions of Jesus are entirely about humility and service. But, for all the brilliance of our preachers and all the loveliness of the liturgy we celebrate, we come back to those essential elements: the self-giving of Christ, and the pain of those who love him and would spare him suffering if they could. Yet again we are faced with an extraordinary and life-giving paradox: God’s ways are indeed not our ways, but only in him can we find life and peace and balm for our souls.
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
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>
Tonight we begin the most important part of the Christian year. The whole week has been full of surprises, stretching our understanding of time and space. Now, as we go deeper into the mystery, the liturgy is a sure guide to what would otherwise be overwhelming. The three days are one; just as the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ are one salvific act; and we must take our part in each. We must taste the bitterness of our own sinfulness if we are to relish the sweetness of our salvation. We must make the journey from death to life.
The Mass of the Lord’s Supper will remind us of Christ’s gift of himself in the Eucharist and in the Priesthood. It will remind us, too, that the priesthood of the New Testament is one of loving and humble service. We shall accompany Christ to Gethsemane, kneel beside him during the dark hours of doubt and dread; feel the betrayer’s kiss on our cheek; endure the long, long night of questioning and abuse.
On Good Friday the liturgy will revert to a very simple, ancient form. We are in a world without light, without sacraments. There is only the bleak narrative of the Passion and the prayers, piling up like the waves of the sea. As we creep towards the Cross we carry with us the burden of a lifetime’s sin, sin that has been nailed to that Cross and forgiven with the death of our Saviour.
Then comes Holy Saturday, empty, still, silent as the tomb. We are waiting, waiting. On Easter Eve, when the new fire is kindled, we share in the explosion of life and joy that is the Resurrection. The Exsultet dares to say what we cannot: ‘O happy fault . . . O necessary sin of Adam’. Only one word can express our joy, and throughout the Easter season we shall sing it over and over again, ‘Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.’
May your celebration of the sacred Triduum be blessed. We shall keep you in our prayers.