The Ecstasy and Terror of Holy Thursday

Last Supper
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“And it was night.”—John 13:30  

If you are not paying close attention, you might miss it: two small omissions in the canon of the Holy Thursday Mass. While these occur only in the Extraordinary Form, their observation and consideration unleash the chilling power of Holy Thursday for every Catholic. They produce in the soul a kind of thunderclap. As with everything in the Roman Rite, their appearance is understated and demure, which is its genius and majesty. 

Both of those omissions appear in the body of the Canon. The first comes in the last invocation of the Agnus Dei. Ordinarily, the plea is dona nobis pacem. But on Holy Thursday, that cry for peace is replaced by a third miserere nobis. The second alteration occurs at those three prayers that the priest prays directly before his personal Holy Communion. In the first of those prayers, the initial sentence reads, Domine, qui dixisti, pacem relinquo nobis…(O Lord, Who said, my peace I leave you…). The prayer includes several more sentences, but the prayer in its entirety is censured. 

Why both changes? Because each is invoking peace. On this Holy Thursday night there can be no peace. For a treachery of cosmic magnitude has been perpetrated. The Son of Man has been betrayed with a kiss. Where there is sin, peace becomes a stranger.

But Holy Thursday night possesses a complex duality. On the one hand, there is a burst of joy at the outset. Not only is the priest clothed in raiment of radiant white, but bells peal at the intonation of the Gloria. This crescendo of jubilation celebrates two of the most central mysteries of the Catholic Faith: the institution of the Priesthood and of the Holy Eucharist, instituted together by the Savior because they are inextricably linked. Both are the infallible guarantees that Christ dwells among us, even as He reigns at the right hand of His Father in Heaven.  

In fact, in the Holy Eucharist, we possess Heaven and the way to Heaven. Some of the most glorious structures known to man have been built to house this wondrous mystery. All that touches this Mystery is draped in a beauty that astonishes and leaves men spellbound. Indeed, the artistic imagination so stretches itself to bespeak this Blessed Sacrament that it seems to exhaust itself in extravagant virtuosity. Whether it be sculpture, painting, vestments, sacred vessels, architecture, or music, all conspire to touch the edges of Paradise.  

No one gives more eloquent testimony to this than the twelfth-century Abbot Suger of Paris in On His Abbatial Administration:

As for me, I confess that I took great pleasure in devoting all the costliest and most precious things I could find to the service and administration of the Most Holy Eucharist. If, to fulfill an order from God manifested from the mouth of the Prophets, golden chalices, vases and cups were used to receive the blood of goats…how much greater is our obligation to use, in order to receive the Blood of Jesus Christ, in perpetual service with and with the utmost devotion, vases of gold, gems and everything that is considered most precious. Surely neither we nor our worldly goods can suffice to serve such great mysteries. Even if, in a new creation, our substance were changed into that of Seraphim and Cherubim, it would still be unworthy to serve the ineffable Host.

This great mystery of the Holy Eucharist would disappear from our midst without the priest. In the sacrament of Holy Orders, a man’s soul is reconfigured to be Alter Christus (Another Christ). His entire identity is changed. He is no longer himself but the minister of the Absolute. His voice is Christ’s voice; his hands become Christ’s hands. He wears the black Roman cassock as a sign to humanity that though he is made like other men, he is no longer like other men. He exists to make Christ’s presence real to a sinful and crippled world. 

Yes, no man is worthy of such privilege. But Christ’s divine power shines through his unworthiness, and even sin, so men may not be left orphans. St. Norbert gives a kind of rhapsodic inflection to the great mystery of the Priesthood:

O Priest! Thou are not thou, for thou art God;
Thou dost not belong to thyself,
For thou art the servant and minister of Christ;
Thou are not thine own, for thou art the
            Spouse of the Church;
Thou are not for thyself, for thou art the
             Mediator between God and man;
Thou art not of thyself, for thou art nothing.
Who art thou then, O Priest?
             Nothing and everything.
O Priest, beware lest what was said of Christ in His Passion,
             be said of thee:
“He saved others, himself he cannot save.”

Amidst this clamorous joy, an abrupt, indeed dramatic, shift occurs. The dull thud of wood clappers replaces silver bells. A dark curtain seems to descend, wresting us from elation, leaving the faithful with only bleak sorrow. A kind of dread at imminent horror. Recall St. John’s words at the exit of Judas from the Last Supper, “And it was night.” These words of great foreboding fall heavily upon our souls at the conclusion of the Holy Thursday Mass. 

Our Lord is carried from His throne of majesty at the altar and is mournfully borne through the Church in solemn procession. This is a liturgical re-enactment of that procession of Christ from the Garden of Gethsemane. Those heart-searing words of the Savior to Judas burn themselves into our souls, “O Judas, wouldst thou betray the Son of Man with a kiss?”  

The human heart sinks at the memory of the many times it has betrayed the Savior with a kiss: heart in love with the Savior, concealing a heart in love with myself. In return for all His lavish graces, ever-faithful friendship, and undeserved mercies, we reciprocate with small betrayals. Over and over, in return for Love, treason. 

Such duplicity governs our souls: one day fervor, another, tepidity; one moment willingness to conquer sin, another surrender; sometimes, sincerity, other times, dissimulation; once resolution, then dissipation; sometimes courage, most times cowardice; at times truth, other times, rationalization. Indeed, for us, it is night. It is a night which seems always to overstretch us. Indeed, a night in which we often take comfort, even refuge. Miserere, Dominus!

All that is left is departure. The sacred rites are finished. But our parting steps are heavy. For we know all that faces the Innocent Lamb of God. Each Catholic can only exclaim: what have I done? The words of the ancient Improperia, chanted on Good Friday, capture this mystery. They literally plunder our hearts:

“My people, my people, what have I done to Thee?
           How have I offended thee? Answer me.”

[Image: The Last Supper by Jean Jouvenet]

By

Fr. John A. Perricone, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of philosophy at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York. His articles have appeared in St. John’s Law Review, The Latin Mass, New Oxford Review and The Journal of Catholic Legal Studies.

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