Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Reimagining Holy Week (3) - Holy Thursday

Other than the Mass on Easter Sunday morning itself, Holy Thursday's Mass of the Lord's Supper has always been my favorite of the week. Even considering all the extra complication caused by the introduction of the Foot-Washing in 1955, it is by far the simplest Holy Week service. Essentially, it is what it commemorates the origin of - a Mass (to which some special features, most notably a eucharistic procession at the end, have been added on). The fact that the procession, like the Foot-washing, has been dispensed with this year really reminds us that the procession is an add-on, focused in fact on the following day. Were Good Friday to conclude - as it quite logically could conclude - with the Veneration of the Cross, there would be no need for any Holy Thursday procession at all. 

Personally, I have always loved and looked forward to the procession. But, given that the contemporary relocation of the Mass to the evening hour and the subsequent abolition of adoration on Good Friday have radically reduced - if not in many places de facto eliminated - the once highly popular custom of devotional visits to the Altar of Repose, rethinking the role of the procession and, hence, of Communion on Good Friday may be in order.  Having to do without both of them this year may encourage such re-imagining.

The rubrics for the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday evening call for the celebrant to preach on the principal mysteries being commemorated that night: the institution of the Eucharist and of the priesthood and the commandment of fraternal charity. In recent years, I have increasingly taken my cue from the second reading's missing verses, 1 Corinthians 11:20-22, 27-32, which for centuries were included in the epistle reading  for Holy Thursday, but which were inexplicably omitted in the Pauline lectionary.

In Paul's account, it is clear that he was quite critical of the Corinthians. It seems that the values of secular Roman society, with its social and class distinctions and inequalities, were making themselves felt even within the Church community, to the point that even the celebration of the Lord’s Supper seemed to mirror those distinctions and inequalities. [Imagine such a thing!] Some have suggested that perhaps the rich got better food than others did at the community meal that in those days accompanied the Lord’s Supper, or that perhaps, since the rich had the leisure to arrive earlier, they ate first and left little or nothing for the others. Whatever exactly was going on, Paul’s point was that they were missing the meaning of the Lord’s Supper and the opportunity it offered for them to be transformed by it.

Perhaps the Corinthians couldn’t quite help bringing the world with them to Mass - any more than we can. It is always temptingly easy to miss the point and focus on the wrong food, as Pope Francis reminded us on Corpus Christi several years ago, when he said: “If we look around, we realize that there are so many offers of food which do not come from the Lord and which appear to be more satisfying. Some nourish themselves with money, others with success and vanity, others with power and pride. But the food that truly nourishes and satiates us is only that which the Lord gives us! The food the Lord offers us is different from other food, and perhaps it doesn’t seem as flavorful to us as certain other dishes the world offers us. So we dream of other dishes, like the Hebrews in the desert, who longed for the meat and onions they ate in Egypt, but forgot that they had eaten those meals at the table of slavery.”

The unprecedented crisis in which we now find ourselves, in which the food of the Eucharist is itself unavailable to most of us, is one which very directly challenges all of us to re-examine the things we have hitherto valued, and to recognize where and how we may have misplaced our priorities. This year, even more than normally, Saint Paul's Holy Thursday message - in its entirety - speaks loudly in our empty churches and cities to the emptiness of our hollowed out society, inviting us to undertake the urgent task of rebuilding by beginning with our own fuller transformation into the Body of Christ.

Photo: The Altar of Repose, 2019.

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