With Holy Thursday, we arrive at the Triduum, the most sacred time in our liturgical calendar. These days sometimes have been referred to as the “still days,” but for most of us, our prior experience of them has involved very little stillness. While the Church sets aside extra time for special liturgies recalling the mystery of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, the world generally takes very little notice. It continues on, with its hustle and bustle, with commerce and the cacophonous noise of lives simply moving without pause. And while we might be members of the Church, we are also creatures of this world. It is difficult for us to resist the inertia of that hustle and bustle that too often moves us along unthinkingly, and that makes these days just like those on the rest of the calendar: markers of time come and gone.
This continuous flow of activity impedes us from entering into the requisite stillness to which we are invited. But this year things are markedly different. The outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has ushered in an unanticipated and enforced interruption of activity. The hustle and bustle we simply assumed as a given, that we took to be as natural as the passing of days, is revealed now as what is truly artificial: it is, it turns out when all is stripped away, the stillness that is the constant, not the busyness.
We can resist that disclosure or we can accept it. We can choose to embrace the privileged time and silence to which God has constantly been inviting us. Or we can once more rebuff that offer by desperately searching for distraction instead, as so many will be tempted to do. This moment affords us, though, the possibility of allowing ourselves now to take the plunge into the mystery of God in ways previously unimaginable.
And it is a special challenge leveled at the Church and her members. The world does not know what to do with itself now. But we do. We have this knowledge not through our own merit, but only as those who have already received the gift of God’s largesse. We have been given God’s life and made stewards of it in order to extend it to others. That is the nature of God’s very life — a Triune exchange of giving. Our privilege as the Church is to be invited into this; but that privilege comes with a mandate to draw others — through our service — into this same life. And that summons to service is especially what Holy Thursday and the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper brings to the forefront.
The collect, or opening prayer, of Holy Thursday’s Mass reminds us that the God who has “called us to participate in this most sacred Supper,” is the same God who has entrusted to us “a sacrifice new for all eternity, the banquet of his love,” so that we might draw from so great a mystery “the fullness of charity and life.” In case the meaning of what we have been so entrusted with remains unclear, we have the most dramatic gesture of this annual celebration, which is the washing of the feet. The significance of that action for all of us is stipulated by Christ’s words in the Gospel proclaimed: “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (Jn 13:15).
On Holy Thursday we recall Christ’s institution of the Eucharist, the “sacrifice new for all eternity” alluded to in the Collect Prayer. What will undoubtedly make this particular Holy Thursday memorable, and regrettable for so many, is the inability to receive that very sacrament. But it is worth recalling that reception itself is not its own end. We can take Christ on our tongue repeatedly, all the while being closed to him interiorly. The meaning of our reception of Communion as a believer is to — in St. Augustine’s formulation — become the mystery we have received. Or alternatively expressed: to become like Christ, who is himself “the fullness of charity and life.”
How does one do that? The foot-washing has already shown the way. As he says, “I have given you a model to follow.” We the beneficiaries of Christ’s humble service are likewise called to the same service. Those who have received Christ’s life poured out in them are to pour out themselves for others. The pouring out of Christ for us is most fully expressed in the Eucharist. It is true that COVID-19 may deny us this Holy Thursday the privilege of receiving that Eucharist, but it does not prevent us from being the mystery we receive; that is, it does not preclude us from becoming now Eucharist for the world.
Father Andrew Clyne writes from Maryland.