The night of Holy Thursday ushers in the most holy time of the Church year, the Sacred Triduum. In this privileged time, we follow Christ on His via dolorosa. On this night, before His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, we are with Our Lord in the Upper Room for the Last Supper as Christ shows his apostles the humility of serving one another as he washes their feet.
At Mass tonight we have sung the joyful Gloria in excelsis accompanied by the ringing of bells, but we will not hear those bells again till the night of the Easer Vigil when we announce Jesus’ Resurrection. This night Jesus institutes two Sacraments, the Holy Priesthood, and the Holy Eucharist. This Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood means we are never deserted by Him, even if we desert Him at times.
As the mood of the Holy Thursday Mass shifts from the joy we have in the Eucharist to the impending suffering of Christ’s Passion, the joyful sound of the bells is silenced by the jolting sound of the crotalus, which reminds us of the nails which soon will be driven into Jesus’ hands and feet. After celebrating the Last Supper, Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane before being arrested there and taken to Gabbatha where, during the night, He is beaten and subjected to every indignity.
As we prepare ourselves to follow Our Blessed Savior to Golgotha, through our tears, fasting, and prayers, we kneel before the Altar of Repose. Like Peter, James, and John we are invited to accompany Jesus as He exhausts this night in prayer. Just as on the night of the Last Supper, we must contemplate other realities of this night: betrayal, desertion, and darkness. The mood of the Holy Thursday Mass shifts from the joy we have in the Eucharist to the impending suffering of Christ’s Passion.
At the conclusion of the Holy Mass this night, the Most Blessed Sacrament is taken to the Altar of Repose. In this procession we recall how Christ was betrayed in the Garden of Gethsemane by Judas’ kiss, how Jesus was arrested and lead off into prison as the silence of this night envelopes us.
Let us pray that we, who partake in the Mystical Supper of the Lamb, may not be lukewarm in our faith. Let us be set on fire with the Holy Spirit. May our cowardly hearts be roused with the strength of Christ, as St. Augustine challenges us: “For the Body and Blood that Christ gave unto to us, we should be ready to give our own body and blood.” We should keep the greatest respect and reverence for the Holy Eucharist, for every crumb of the Sacred Host and every drop of Christ’s Precious Blood is His True Presence.
To illustrate this, I am reminded of a story one told by Archbishop Fulton Sheen. In 1979, not long before his death, Archbishop Sheen was interviewed on television. A reporter asked: “Your Excellency, you inspired millions all over the world. Who inspired you?” Surprisingly, it was not the Pope, nor any other bishop or priest. He said it was an eleven-year- old girl who lived in a communist country.
When the Communists took over, they persecuted the Church. In the little girl’s parish, the soldiers imprisoned the parish priest in his own rectory. Looking through the window, he was horrified to see the soldiers enter the church and break open the tabernacle, scattering the Blessed Sacrament on the floor. The priest knew the exact number of the sacred hosts: thirty-two.
But a young girl had been praying in the back of the church and she hid when the soldiers came in. That night the girl returned and spent an hour in prayer – an act of love and reparation for that act of hatred and sacrilege. She then entered the sanctuary, knelt and bent over to receive Jesus in Holy Communion by picking up a sacred host with her tongue.
This was what she did every night: she spends an hour in prayer and receives the Eucharist with her tongue. On the thirty-second night, after consuming the last host, she accidentally made a slight noise, enough to awaken a soldier. She ran but the soldier caught her, and hit her with his rifle butt. The priest heard the commotion, but it was too late. From the window of the rectory, he saw the girl die.
Bishop Sheen said that this story inspired him so much that he promised he would spend at least one hour each day before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. That daily holy hour was what inspired him and gave him the power all through the years in his life as a priest. On Holy Thursday, Jesus instituted the Sacrament of the Priesthood and instructed His apostles: “Do this in memory of Me.”
My dear friends in Christ, Holy Thursday is a day of love – the day when Jesus showed us the depth of his love. On this most holy night, as the Paschal moon sheds its soft light over the world, we are bidden to spend this night in prayer with Jesus. Our Lord has done all He could do for His disciples.
He had just given them and to us the most wonderful gift in the world, His Precious Body and Blood, His own Soul and Divinity. Our Eucharistic Lord comes to us so humbly, under the appearance of mere bread and wine.
Indeed, on this day our Lord gives us almost too many good things: His example of humility by washing His disciples’ feet, the assurance of His abiding peace, the command to love one another, the promise of the Holy Spirit, and His very Self in the Blessed Sacrament. So “Could you not watch with me one hour?” On this most holy night, Jesus asks this of us all. Will you come, and “taste and see how gracious is the Lord?”
The hour has come! Judas has gone! Soon the band of soldiers will be here! Until then, the time is precious, to be spent in unison with His Father so that the divine will may be done.
Yet His soul is heavy, full of grief and suffering for the sinfulness of man. To support Him, as He pours out His agony to the heavens, Our Lord has taken Peter, James and John, the three who had shared with Him in His glorious transfiguration, to another part of the garden of Gethesemane from the other disciples.
His request to His friends is simple enough, to pray with Him. Yet they could not; they fail Him, their Friend and Master. Why? Was it because they were sleepy after the meal? Was it because they were lazy? Was it because they did not know for what to pray? For whatever reason they had deserted their Friend, and Peter was soon to deny Him as well. They could not watch with Jesus even for one hour!
As they slept Judas was gathering the troops. Only the moon silently watches as Jesus prays, and spreads her gentleness over His grief-stricken face. Soon the silence within the garden will be shattered by the sound of footsteps and the clamor of swords and staves, but more piercing will be the sound of Judas’ kiss.
Judas’ kiss challenges us to examine our loyalty to Christ; the disciples’ sleep challenges the freshness of our prayer and meditation, while the brutality of the soldiers challenge our resolve to show forgiveness to those who have hurt us. On this most holy night, let us give sincere thankfulness for the Blessed Sacrament which fills us with Your life each day, and may we always come to the Altar prepared to receive Love, and take Love out into the world.