These three holiest of days breathe deeply of Jesus. During them, the believing heart is drawn into a truer and deeper union of love with Him in his great work of redemption, the healing of man and the healing of creation. We call these three days the Sacred Triduum, a term which tells us that they are really one event, “the” central and defining event, in fact, of history itself.
And we find this three-in-one day mapped out for us quite unexpectedly yet, once you realise it, rather obviously in the actions and words of Jesus at the Last Supper. We could even call his actions programmatic, so I will follow this programme he gives us as we move from Thursday through Friday and into Sunday, Saturday being a “non-day” when the King sleeps in the earth.
Let’s hear about these actions again, so familiar to us and always so moving. “On the night he was betrayed, He took bread, said the blessing, broke the bread and gave it to his disciples…. He took the chalice and, giving thanks, gave it to his disciples.” I will focus mainly on his actions around the bread.
First, he took bread and blessed it. That is what we celebrate tonight, Holy Thursday. Second, he broke the bread. That is what we celebrate tomorrow, Good Friday. Third, he gave it to his disciples. That is what we celebrate at Easter.
Before Jesus took bread and blessed it, he took human nature to himself and blessed it by uniting it to his divinity. His conception in the womb of Mary by the Holy Spirit foreshadows his union of himself to the bread of the Eucharist by the same Holy Spirit. The words, “this is my body”, apply first to the Son of God made incarnate of Mary and then to His real presence in the Eucharist. His goal in taking flesh from Mary was to become the Eucharist. In other words, he becomes flesh not just for himself, but for our flesh, too. He becomes his flesh so that he can become our flesh. He blessed our human nature by becoming man; he blesses each one of us most sublimely by becoming our food. While his divinity took flesh from Mary, his divinity and his humanity became the bread of the Eucharist. This is the first and unsurpassable gift he gives us this night.
But there was another way that Jesus took what is human to himself, and united it to his divinity and humanity, and it is the second great gift which he gave us on the night he was betrayed. Like the bread, he also took the humanity of his apostles and blessed it by sharing with it his divinity and humanity. As he consecrated the bread to become the sacrament of his body, so he consecrated the humanity of his chosen apostles to become the sacrament of his own servant priesthood. And he showed them that the meaning of their priesthood was “to do this in memory of him”, that is, to keep feeding his mystical body with his sacramental body, and to do it in imitation of him.
This imitation does not consist only in the celebration of the Eucharist but in the outpouring of themselves like the one who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. This is the third great gift of Jesus to his people on this night, symbolised in the washing of the feet. The unconditional service of love of the priest is driven primarily neither by human kindness, however heroic, nor by social philanthropy, however noble, but by the divine power of Christ’s own Spirit received in the sacrament of holy orders. The priest is not a social worker but a servant-witness to the Crucified. It is from the Cross alone that his ministerial service and love draw their power and it is for the sake of the Cross alone that he exercises them. The glory of the priesthood does not, indeed cannot, lie in honours, praise or popularity, but only in the ever-increasing union with the crucified Jesus. As Jesus freely gave up his body on the Cross for us, the priest is called literally to give up his body and his freedom to Christ for the sake of Christ’s people. That’s where celibacy and obedience find their meaning; and the less these mean in the eyes of the world, the more they witness to the Cross and to him who hung upon it.
The priest is endowed by Christ with Christ’s own divine power in order to bless with grace the humanity of his brothers and sisters, the people to whom he is sent. As priests carry on through history the priesthood of Christ the head, so they carry Christ’s love and Christ’s blessing to Christ’s people. In their turn, the people of Christ carry that love and blessing to the world, beginning with their families, their friends and extending to all whom they know and meet and to all their presence and activity in the world.
Jesus took the bread and blessed it. May the Eucharist always be our greatest blessing as the mystical Body of the Lord and may we become in our persons and in our lives his blessing for the world. May the ministerial priesthood be renewed this night throughout the world to mirror more faithfully and fully the suffering servant who called, consecrated and sent those he has chosen. And may we all, priest and people, embrace the glorious calling to agape-love, the self-sacrificing love of Jesus, the love by which all men will know that we are his disciples.
Jesus took the bread, blessed it and broke it. Good Friday is the brokenness of Jesus. He is broken because we are broken. Broken describes so well, alas, so much of human life and history. We like to think that we can fix everything ourselves. In the process, we often break more. Who among us can say that she is fixed, that he is completely whole? Man cannot fix himself. If nothing else, death itself finally breaks him.
The cosmos, too, groans in its brokenness, as St. Paul tells us. We must do all we can to heal it, but alone we simply cannot.
And so, the whole and holy One, the immortal and mighty One, takes broken humanity and creation into himself, upon his atlas shoulders. He does not do it from on high, from a distance, from outside broken reality. But by lowering himself in humility and humiliation, closer to us than we are to ourselves, within and inside us and his beautiful, broken world. What wondrous love is this?
He takes the bread and breaks it. That “He” who takes is divine; that “bread” He breaks is his humanity. As his humanity is broken, his divinity remains whole. His clothes are shared out, but his undergarment remains whole. Broken by death, he yet has no bone broken. Here we have the paradox of the billions of pieces of Eucharistic bread which yet contain him whole and entire in each crumb. His compassion gives the whole of himself to each broken sister and brother, to each crumb of humanity. What wondrous love is this?
His love is extreme. It is love without borders. He appeals to our brokenness by being broken for us in atrocious suffering and in ignominious death. He keeps nothing for himself. He gives away his rights, his dignity, his Mother, his close friend, the last drop of his blood and water. He even waits in chronic agony until 3 o’clock to die, the hour when the lambs were sacrificed for the Passover, the hour appointed by the Father. He accepts sour wine to drink when his cry, “I thirst”, was for the sweetness of our faith and love. That sour wine is our unbelief, our ingratitude, our sin. Even the Father seems to abandon him as he gives up his life. He dies a broken man and, yes, in empathy, a broken God. …. That we might be whole, in ourselves, among ourselves, in Him.
What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul?
What wondrous love is this, O my soul?
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
to bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
to bear the dreadful curse for my soul?
Jesus took the bread, blessed it and broke it.
On Thursday, Jesus took and blessed the bread. On Friday, he broke it. Now, at Easter, we celebrate that he gave it to his disciples. He gave and keeps giving it to us.
On the Cross, mortal life left his broken body. On Easter morn, immortal life enters it and raises it up. This immortal and risen body, he gives us in holy communion. It had first to be taken, blessed and broken before it could be given. We shared in Adam’s sin and mortality through generation in the flesh. We now share in Christ’s grace and immortality through regeneration in the Holy Spirit. Mortal life is fed with food that perishes; immortal life is fed with food that will never perish.
Jesus once admonished people who sought a cheap meal from him not to work for food that does not last. Seek rather the bread of life, he said, calling it real food. Whoever eats this real food, he adds, will live for ever. As he once hid his divinity in his mortal humanity, he now conceals both his divinity and his immortal humanity in the bread of the Eucharist. As we say: body, blood, soul and divinity.
He took our flesh so as to give us life through holy communion. I am the living bread come down from heaven, he tells us, so that a man may eat of it and not die for ever. The divine life he gives us in the Eucharist is now concealed within our humanity. It can’t be seen by the senses or by the inquiring mind, but can only be reached by faith in him, in his divinity, in his incarnation of the Virgin, in his being broken in death and in his rising on the third day.
The Eucharist is the sacrament of Easter. Faith in the Eucharist is faith in the entire reality and mystery of Jesus Christ. The whole plan of creation and redemption is concentrated in the Eucharist. No wonder we call it the source and summit of the life of the Church. No wonder St. John Paul II called it the heart of the cosmos. To be real, reality depends on Christ, feeds on Christ. From the smallest particle to the greatest mega-sun, all things exist in him and for him, and they only hold together and are reconciled in him. Whoever is united to Christ in faith, in love, in free and obedient will, will live for ever.
The entire, sublime mystery of God’s love for the world is found in the Eucharist. Whatever our sufferings and yearnings, our anguish and dreams, in the night of our fears as in the day of our joys, the Eucharist is and will remain the certainty of final victory for the one who believes. Jesus was betrayed into the hands of sinners. So, as we hold the host in our hands, how can we not tremble with love, gratitude and joy? For we are holding the heart of the cosmos, the life of the Church, Easter, eternal life and, yes, the humble grandeur of the Son of God.
“On the night he was betrayed, he took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to his disciples saying, ‘Take this, all of you, and eat of it. For this is my Body which will be given up for you.’”