To get deeper into the spirit of Holy Week, and to help you to do the same, I’ll be posting daily “soul boosts” containing the following: (1) a hymn tied to the liturgical day; (2) a timely Biblical text; (3) a beautiful piece of religious art; (4) a spiritual reflection; and (5) a Saint you should get to know (or get to know better).
Today is Holy Thursday, the night of the Last Supper, and therefore the anniversary of both the Eucharist and the priesthood. It’s here that Jesus celebrates the first Mass, and then commissions his disciples to do the same. And it’s here that the Passion of Christ truly begins. Triduum, the most sacred period on the Church calendar, is the three day period beginning tonight and running to the Easter Vigil.
Hymn: Pange Linguia Gloriosi
There are actually two hymns by this name (which means, “Sing, my tongue, the glory…”). The first is by St. Venantius Fortunatus (530-609), the Saint who also wrote Vexilla Regis (the hymn featured on Tuesday). Centuries later, this inspired another hymn by the same title, this time penned by St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74). Although it was originally composed for the feast of Corpus Christi, it’s fitting for tonight, as it recounts the story of the Last Supper in beautiful detail. Here’s the hymn in Latin, along with a literal English translation:
Tell, tongue, the mystery
of the glorious Body
and of the precious Blood,
which, for the price of the world,
the fruit of a noble Womb,
the King of the Nations poured forth.
Given to us, born for us,
from the untouched Virgin,
and dwelt in the world
after the seed of the Word had been scattered.
His inhabiting ended the delays
with wonderful order.
On the night of the Last Supper,
reclining with His brethren,
once the Law had been fully observed
with the prescribed foods,
as food to the crowd of Twelve
He gives Himself with His hands.
The Word as Flesh makes true bread
into flesh by a word
and the wine becomes the Blood of Christ.
And if sense is deficient
to strengthen a sincere heart
Faith alone suffices.
Therefore, the great Sacrament
let us reverence, prostrate:
and let the old Covenant
give way to a new rite.
Let faith stand forth as substitute
for defect of the senses.
To the Begetter and the Begotten
be praise and jubilation,
greeting, honour, strength also
To the One who proceeds from Both
be equal praise.
Aquinas is perhaps the greatest theologian in history, but most of what he’s known for is the Summa, which was written as a a theology textbook (and is therefore, unsurprisingly, a bit “dry” at points). This hymn is a reminder of the heart that beat for love of Christ within that great Saint. And his theological brilliance is on display in the way in which he connects the Incarnation (Christ the Word made Flesh) and the consecration of the Eucharist (in which bread, through the praying of the word, becomes the Flesh of Christ).
Scripture: The First Last Supper
The liturgical riches of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday are only seen in their fullness with an eye towards the Jewish Passover. After all, the Last Supper is a Passover meal: Jesus explains His anticipation of the meal by saying, “I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15). As that statement suggests, the Last Supper is at once looking backwards towards the Passover, and forwards towards the Cross, uniting these events in some Mysterious way. We’ll look at the Cross more closely tomorrow, on Good Friday. Today, let’s look back at the Passover. Exodus 12:1-14 gives us the first description of the Passover (this is the First Reading in this evening’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper, by the way):
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month they shall take every man a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household; and if the household is too small for a lamb, then a man and his neighbor next to his house shall take according to the number of persons; according to what each can eat you shall make your count for the lamb.
“Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old; you shall take it from the sheep or from the goats; and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs in the evening. Then they shall take some of the blood, and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat them.
“They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled with water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts. And you shall let none of it remain until the morning, anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. In this manner you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord’s passover.
“For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you, upon the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall fall upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt. This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as an ordinance for ever.”
There are a few crucial details to notice in that passage. First, that the lamb should be without blemish: this points (symbolically) to the need for a perfect, sinless Sacrifice, a perfection ultimately found only in Jesus Christ. It also points to the value of the sacrifice. A blemished or wounded lamb was inferior to an unblemished one, pointing to the infinite merit of the Flesh and Blood of Christ. Second, that the lamb is taken and slaughtered. This is the day called Preparation Day, and St. John ties this event to Good Friday (John 19:14, 31). Third, that part of the sacrifice involved eating the Lamb. This is the Passover meal proper, and its fulfillment isn’t on Good Friday, but Holy Thursday. The Eucharist, the actual eating and drinking of Jesus Christ’s Body and Blood, is our doorward towards participation in His atoning Sacrifice on Calvary, just as eating the flesh of the lamb created a participation in the Passover sacrifice. Fourth and finally, the Passover ordinance is eternal. This doesn’t mean that we Christians need to be eating seder meals. Rather, it means that what the seder meal accomplished by half-measures and foreshadowing is achieved in eternal light and glory in the Passover and (ultimately) in the heavenly Wedding Feast of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9).
Religious Art: Jaume Huguet, Last Supper (1470)
I’m partial to the Last Supper depicted (on wood!) by the 15th century Catalan painter Jaume Huguet:
My only quibble is with the presence of lamb on the table. Despite it being a Passover meal, none of the Biblical accounts mention the Last Supper actually having lamb. That’s a striking omission, since that’s the center of the Passover meal. But of course, it makes sense in light of the idea that Jesus is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), “our Paschal Lamb” (1 Corinthians 5:7), the fulfillment of the Passover sacrifice.
Spiritual Reading: The Beauty of the Priesthood
So far, we’ve focused on the Eucharistic and sacrificial dimensions of Holy Thursday. But this is inseparable from the sacerdotal (priestly) dimension, because priests exist for the sake of the Eucharist, and without priests, there is no offering of the Sacrifice. So with that in mind, a fitting reflection for the day is St. John Chrysostom’s On the Priesthood. In Book III, he talks about the importance of the priesthood in bringing the life-giving Sacraments to the people of God:
4. For the priestly office is indeed discharged on earth, but it ranks among heavenly ordinances; and very naturally so: for neither man, nor angel, nor archangel, nor any other created power, but the Paraclete Himself, instituted this vocation, and persuaded men while still abiding in the flesh to represent the ministry of angels. Wherefore the consecrated priest ought to be as pure as if he were standing in the heavens themselves in the midst of those powers. Fearful, indeed, and of most awful import, were the things which were used before the dispensation of grace, as the bells, the pomegranates, the stones on the breastplate and on the ephod, the girdle, the mitre, the long robe, the plate of gold, the holy of holies, the deep silence within. But if any one should examine the things which belong to the dispensation of grace, he will find that, small as they are, yet are they fearful and full of awe, and that what was spoken concerning the law is true in this case also, that “what has been made glorious has no glory in this respect by reason of the glory which excels.” [2 Corinthians 3:10] For when you see the Lord sacrificed, and laid upon the altar, and the priest standing and praying over the victim, and all the worshippers empurpled with that precious blood, can you then think that you are still among men, and standing upon the earth? Are you not, on the contrary, straightway translated to Heaven, and casting out every carnal thought from the soul, do you not with disembodied spirit and pure reason contemplate the things which are in Heaven? Oh! What a marvel! What love of God to man! He who sits on high with the Father is at that hour held in the hands of all, and gives Himself to those who are willing to embrace and grasp Him. And this all do through the eyes of faith! Do these things seem to you fit to be despised, or such as to make it possible for any one to be uplifted against them? [….]
5. For if any one will consider how great a thing it is for one, being a man, and compassed with flesh and blood, to be enabled to draw near to that blessed and pure nature, he will then clearly see what great honor the grace of the Spirit has vouchsafed to priests; since by their agency these rites are celebrated, and others nowise inferior to these both in respect of our dignity and our salvation. For they who inhabit the earth and make their abode there are entrusted with the administration of things which are in Heaven, and have received an authority which God has not given to angels or archangels. For it has not been said to them, “Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven.” [Matthew 18:18] They who rule on earth have indeed authority to bind, but only the body: whereas this binding lays hold of the soul and penetrates the heavens; and what priests do here below God ratifies above, and the Master confirms the sentence of his servants. For indeed what is it but all manner of heavenly authority which He has given them when He says, Whose sins ye remit they are remitted, and whose sins ye retain they are retained? John 20:23 What authority could be greater than this? The Father has committed all judgment to the Son? John 5:22 But I see it all put into the hands of these men by the Son. For they have been conducted to this dignity as if they were already translated to Heaven, and had transcended human nature, and were released from the passions to which we are liable. Moreover, if a king should bestow this honor upon any of his subjects, authorizing him to cast into prison whom he pleased and to release them again, he becomes an object of envy and respect to all men; but he who has received from God an authority as much greater as heaven is more precious than earth, and souls more precious than bodies, seems to some to have received so small an honor that they are actually able to imagine that one of those who have been entrusted with these things will despise the gift. Away with such madness! For transparent madness it is to despise so great a dignity, without which it is not possible to obtain either our own salvation, or the good things which have been promised to us. For if no one can enter into the kingdom of Heaven except he be regenerate through water and the Spirit, and he who does not eat the flesh of the Lord and drink His blood is excluded from eternal life, and if all these things are accomplished only by means of those holy hands, I mean the hands of the priest, how will any one, without these, be able to escape the fire of hell, or to win those crowns which are reserved for the victorious?
Saint of the Day: Saint Tarcisius
Given the celebration of the institution of the Eucharist today, it seems only right to commemorate St. Tarcisius, the young boy who died to protect the Eucharist. I’ll let Pope Benedict XVI tell the story in his own words:
Who was St Tarcisius? We do not have much information about him. We are dealing with the early centuries of the Church’s history or, to be more precise, with the third century. It is said that he was a boy who came regularly to the Catacombs of St Calixtus here in Rome and took his special Christian duties very seriously. He had great love for the Eucharist and various hints lead us to conclude that he was presumably an acolyte, that is, an altar server. Those were years in which the Emperor Valerian was harshly persecuting Christians who were forced to meet secretly in private houses or, at times, also in the Catacombs, to hear the word of God, to pray and to celebrate Holy Mass. Even the custom of taking the Eucharist to prisoners and the sick became increasingly dangerous. One day, when, as was his habit, the priest asked who was prepared to take the Eucharist to the other brothers and sisters who were waiting for it, young Tarcisius stood up and said: “send me!”. This boy seemed too young for such a demanding service! “My youth”, Tarcisius said, “will be the best shield for the Eucharist”. Convinced, the priest entrusted to him the precious Bread, saying: “Tarcisius, remember that a heavenly treasure has been entrusted to your weak hands. Avoid crowded streets and do not forget that holy things must never be thrown to dogs nor pearls to pigs. Will you guard the Sacred Mysteries faithfully and safely?”. “I would die”, Tarcisio answered with determination, “rather than let go of them”. As he went on his way he met some friends who approached him and asked him to join them. As pagans they became suspicious and insistent at his refusal and realized he was clasping something to his breast that he appeared to be protecting. They tried to prize it away from him, but in vain; the struggle became ever fiercer, especially when they realized that Tarcisius was a Christian; They kicked him, they threw stones at him, but he did not surrender. While Tarcisius was dying a Pretoria guard called Quadratus, who had also, secretly, become a Christian, carried him to the priest. Tarcisius was already dead when they arrived but was still clutching to his breast a small linen bag containing the Eucharist. He was buried straight away in the Catacombs of St Calixtus. Pope Damasus had an inscription carved on St Tarcisius’ grave; it says that the boy died in 257.