LAST BECOME FIRST!
MASS OF THE LORD’S SUPPER Maundy Thursday / Holy Thursday / Last Supper of the Lord April 9, 2009
Readings: Ex 12:1-8, 11-14 / 1 Cor 11:23-26 / Jn 13:1-15
One beautiful thing about the Christian Catholic liturgy is its interlocking web of meanings. There is more than meets the eye in what we do together in the Church’s official worship. We read Scripture. We pray using the same Scripture. We remember the story as told in Scripture. But we do more than remember …. We remember… we celebrate … But we also do more than just celebrate … We believe!
There is also an interlocking web of meanings in the story that unfolds before our eyes as we read it in Church. Today, Maundy Thursday, is no exception. The drama of Holy Week began with a positive note last Sunday. The triumphant entry into Jerusalem could best be described as no less than royal – the closest thing to getting a red carpet welcome. But is it really? The details show us a lot of “circumstance” minus the “pomp.” In place of the red carpet, they had branches and palm leaves, cloaks, and most likely dirty, smelling street clothes that they laid out on the road. There was no royal, white stallion to pull a gilded chariot and gallop around town for all to see. No … just a raggedy bunch of unknowns and a representation of the hoi polloi to sing hosannas of praise to the King who was to come! And mind you, we have not yet spoken of the lowly ass which became the mobile throne on which the much awaited King of Kings sat on his way to his destination.
An interlocking web of meanings … at times not just interlocking but downright contradictory… this is the unfolding drama of holy week … It started in triumph last Sunday, which immediately was replaced by a sedate and solemn reality check … After the triumph came the test … the passion was read. The King who comes in the name of the Lord eventually became the servant who suffered, died, and won his battles by becoming obedient “usque ad mortem,” – all the way up to death, death on a cross!
Today, contrary to popular reckoning, the Church once more waxes joyful and glorious. Maundy Thursday has nothing to do with maudlin sentimentalism, nor syrupy sadness and artificial gloom. No … on the contrary, the Church blares out in the color of gladness and glorious celebration – white. Trumpets blast out the great news of a God who now will offer Last Supper to his disciples, but which eventually becomes the First Supper of Christendom for all time, for all places, and peoples! The Church booms with the brilliant tones of the Gloria … The bells will be rung lustily, only to become silent and replaced by the sober clicks of a wooden clapper only to be picked up once again on the glorious night of Easter!
And why revel and glory in the brilliant hues of white and the vibrant tones of trumpets on this day?
Again, it has to do with the web of interlocking meanings!
First and foremost, Maundy Thursday became Maundy precisely for the reason that today, we remember, we celebrate, and we believe that Christ gave his Maundy, his “mandatum,” his new command to his disciples and the incipient Church – the mandate to “love one another.” I don’t know about you, but it seems to me such a new mandate is cause for celebration. The old command was pretty much based on a God who punishes and who redresses wrongs – a God who lives and moves by the rule, so to speak. But the same rule now is packaged in something that would merit celebration. It is now couched on the foundations of love. Even the commandments now become nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else but a path that leads to love … una via che conduce all’amore! Whilst before the law was premised by fear, the new command now is premised on something positive, and there is nothing more positive than love, for as the Song of Songs puts it, “love is stronger than death, stronger even than hell.”
Second, maundy Thursday became Maundy because another mandate took center stage in our lives as a people who both believe and belong: “Do this in memory of me.” What do we need to do in memory of Him who so loved us “usque ad mortem” … all the way up to death? And here is where we need to dig up a whole new slew of interlocking meanings. It was Passover meal for Jesus and his disciples. It was the Last Supper of the Lord. But that meal had a lot to do with the Passover of the Jews that was to take place the day after, the day when all observant Jews would sacrifice and offer a one-year old unblemished male lamb and be consumed in ritual, prayer, and song. That was the night the mandatum of the Father took center stage. Jesus was to be the sacrificial lamb. In anticipation of what was to happen the day after, Jesus immolated himself, offered himself and his body and blood to become “food and drink” - for the remission of sins. Jesus’ mandate in return was “Do this in memory of me.”
Third, and still connected with this self offering of the Lord as food and drink, the Lord instituted for posterity and reality the “pignus futurae gloriae” – the pledge of future glory – the promise and path to the glory that He has called us to share in. But not only for posterity and reality, but with a definitive stamp of finality! Do this in memory of me. Do Eucharist and remember, celebrate, and believe! The Lord instituted the sacrament of Love, the sacrament of the Eucharist. And everytime we now celebrate, we not only rejoice. We immortalize His glorious and salvific presence. And we celebrate what we believe.
Fourth, and by no means the last, (though last in our reflection for today) … the Lord’s mandatum got down to brass tacks … It gets down in the knees or the nitty gritty of our earthly reality. It touches base with our finiteness as human beings. It answers for the fact of our earthly existence. The Lord gave the mandatum to his disciples to “wash one another’s feet,” even as he washed his disciples’ feet. He commissioned his disciples to ride not on royal white stallions, to walk not on red carpets, and to be welcomed with blaring trumpets of triumphalistic earthly glory and power, but to be a “servant” like he was …. “there was in him no stately bearing to make us look at him, nor appearance that would attract us to him …” (Is 52)
He just told us to be servants like he was, who was humble enough to do what only servants and lowly people would be required to do – wash other people’s smelly and dirty feet. He instituted the office of the priesthood, of ordained ministry, which was ministry for service, ministry to continue on his mandatum for all men and women of good will who claim to believe and who also rightly belong to the ranks of his followers and disciples – to bring His good news of God’s love, concretely, truly, and palpably!
Elsewhere in the gospels the Lord spoke of the last being the first in the kingdom. We have a concrete example of this right now. The last supper of the Lord is the first supper of our times. It is the supper par excellence! The Eucharist … where the pignus futurae gloriae, the pledge of future glory is given us. It was Last then. It is first now. First in our dreams. First in our expectations, and topmost in our line of priorities – as the sacrament of love, par excellence!