The Themes of Holy Thursday

The Holy Eucharist, the ministerial priesthood, and fraternal charity are intimately bound together in the mystery of Holy Thursday.

Fittingly enough, the Roman Missal provides the topics for the homily tonight. The rubrics say that there should be preaching on the following topics: the Holy Eucharist, the ministerial priesthood, and fraternal charity. So, let me get right to the subjects at hand.

The Food and Drug Administration, a federal regulatory agency, establishes guidelines and policies for what are called minimum and maximum recommended allowances of certain foods. Over the years, the recommended allowances have shifted depending on a host of factors, including sex, age, and medical history. No matter how scrupulously you follow these recommended allowances over the course of your life, it will not change one thing: you are going to run out of time; you are going to die. Your intake of food may help you to live longer but not forever.

Jesus is the only one in recorded history to make this claim: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:54). He makes this claim during His public ministry while preaching in Capernaum (cf. John 6:24).

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The evangelist points out in Chapter 6 of the fourth Gospel that, upon hearing Jesus speak this way about His flesh and blood, many in the crowd did not accept it and left His company (cf. John 6:66). He was altogether too much for them. The Israelites had previously been saved by something from Heaven—what the Bible calls manna—but death had not been overcome; it was just postponed.

The teaching of Jesus that He is the Bread come down from Heaven (cf. John 6:41) and that His Body is true food (cf. John 6:55) and His Blood is true drink (cf. John 6:55) goes far beyond a dietary prescription which is historically associated with religious expression in general terms. For example, the denial of food through fasting is thought to bring holiness and consecration. Jesus Himself speaks favorably about fasting (cf. Matthew 6:16-18); but in the matter of death, it is eating which can defeat it.

With due respect for communion by way of a via negative then, the Holy Eucharist is essentially about the fullness of life, a via plena unto eternity. The Holy Eucharist is the way to eternal life as the Bread of Life discourse says it is in St. John’s Gospel. Increasingly though, the conviction that there is a life beyond this one is on the wane.

The Pew Research Center of Washington, D.C., studies, among other things, religion. In a 2021 survey of adults in the United States, Pew found that a little more than 70 percent of respondents say they believe in Heaven. In a deeply secularized country like the United States, this is still quite impressive. But the 70 percent or so who still believe is down from an earlier survey in 2014 by Pew which showed belief in eternal life at 85 percent. In a matter of just seven years, the drop was nearly 15 percentage points!

When we stop believing in the Holy Eucharist, we stop believing in eternal life. The Holy Eucharist can never be restricted to a this-worldly endeavor wherein our hopes are limited. St. Paul warns against this truncated perspective in his First Letter to the Corinthians. He writes there:

For if the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is in vain; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all. (15:16-19)

To believe in the Holy Eucharist is to desire life on high with Christ—that is, life in the fullness of the Kingdom. Thus, it is not just for now that the Holy Eucharist has significance. The Holy Eucharist unfailingly points beyond itself to eternal life. It’s what Jesus intended when He gave us the Eucharist; it’s what the Church has preserved for us in her teaching on the Eucharist; it’s what we should make part of our work of evangelization. To do anything less, especially on that last point, is to contribute to the declining belief in eternal life.

On a lot of the busiest avenues and streets in America, you are likely to find what we commonly refer to as fast food places, you know McDonald’s and Burger King. Fifty years ago, Burger King used a popular jingle with the words: Have it your way. It was a clever merchandising ploy. It highlighted something we all like. We all like to do it our way. What better way to show that than with the food we eat: more pickles, fewer tomatoes, no onions, plenty of lettuce. It’s your food, so have it your way.

The clever merchandising ploy symbolizes an attitude many of us rather like. We like our own preferences to be honored, our own predilections to carry the day. We know better than others; we will decide how it will be done.

In the Gospel for this Mass, the evangelist depicts how, at the Last Supper, Jesus washes the feet of the apostles. Not even Judas objects to this act of humility. But Peter does. “You will never wash my feet,” he says (John 13:8). Jesus, of course, corrects him. He tells Peter that a refusal to have his feet washed would mean no inheritance with the Lord (cf. John 13:8).

Peter acts on this occasion like he acted on some other occasions with Jesus—as if he knew better. We recall here how Peter at first objected when Jesus told him to put out into deep water and lower [his] net for a catch [of fish] (cf. Luke 5:4). Peter wants it his way. Or what about the time when Jesus makes the first prediction of His Passion? Peter took the Lord aside and rebuked Him (cf. Mark 8:32). Again, Peter wants it his way.

At the Last Supper, Jesus gives us the Eucharist and, by the sacramental economy, the means to have the Eucharist until the end of time. He gives us the ministerial priesthood. It could not come any other way. It had to be through a person, one who is configured to the Lord at the deepest core of his being. At the Last Supper, Jesus gives us the Eucharist and, by the sacramental economy, the means to have the Eucharist until the end of time. He gives us the ministerial priesthood.Tweet This

Every priest belongs to the Lord ontologically. This truth does not, however, shield the priest from thinking he knows better than the One Who conferred on him the gift of the priesthood. The priest is not immune from pride and vainglory. As unedifying as these qualities are, they can be mitigated or even removed by a deeper identification with the kenotic sacrifice of Jesus.

We heard of this kenotic sacrifice on Palm Sunday, when St. Paul described for us in his Letter to the Philippians the self-emptying of Jesus. The self-emptying brings Jesus to a humble death on the Cross (cf. Philippians 2:8). The practice of humility brings the priest to Calvary. There, the priest confesses with the centurion of St. Mark’s Gospel, “Truly this…was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39). It is in every respect a humble confession because the priest of the new dispensation distinguishes, as he ought, between Christ’s priesthood and his own. The eternal priesthood of Christ is more excellent not least because He makes intercession for us from Heaven.

The commandment to love is not explicitly found in the Gospel passage for this Mass. Nevertheless, it is the proper context for Jesus’ entire ministry and especially the Last Supper discourse. Indeed, in a part of the Last Supper discourse not proclaimed at the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, Jesus says to the apostles:

As the Father loves me, so I love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. (John 15:9-10)

The way to show that love is to serve. In washing the feet of the apostles, that particular act of service, Jesus demonstrates there is no loss of dignity in stooping low. No, dignity is found in the act of making clean. Christ has already done that cleansing for us in baptism. But our cleansing can take and does take other forms. Sometimes it is a matter of asking that provisions be made for the materially poor among us. Sometimes it is a matter of acting to protect the most innocent among us—the child in a mother’s womb. Sometimes it is a matter of refusing to countenance the disfigurement of nature by gender transitioning.

Every true act of service on our part affirms the intrinsic goodness of personhood. The honor of the body, paradoxically, has less to do with function. For all of us, the honor is in our being joined to the one head—Christ. Without the headship of Christ, we lack an integrating unity. There is no diversity then; there is only rivalry and grievance. Serve we must, but be it always in accord with goodness and truth. That is the only way to be free in serving.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

[Image: “Last Supper” by Lorenzo Monaco]


  • Msgr. Robert Batule

    Msgr. Robert J. Batule is a priest of the Diocese of Rockville Centre and Pastor of Saint Margaret Parish in Selden, New York. He was the Editor-in-Chief of the Catholic Social Science Review until his term ended in 2022, and has contributed many articles, essays, and book reviews to Catholic journals and magazines.

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