Holy Thursday: The Institution of the Holy Eucharist

Valentin de Boulogne (+1632) The Last Supper

The most vital characteristic of our Catholic faith is not its external organization that has of late, thanks to Pope Francis, attracted the attention of the media. What makes us flourish, if flourish we do, is our vivid consciousness of the presence of Jesus with us in the Eucharist, what we call “the Real Presence.” It has been the subject of countless sermons and commentaries over the centuries simply because it is central to the faith. It so functions because it continues in a wonderful way what began with the coming of the Son of God in the flesh. There we find together the transcendent and the immanent, the supernatural and natural, the spiritual and the physical. For to encounter the man Jesus was truly to encounter God. Similarly, in the Eucharist we have the physical presence of Jesus—“This is my body”—that ensures that he is fully present as the God-man. There’s a further grandeur to the Blessed Sacrament that Jesus enunciated in his farewell discourse at the Last Supper: his own presence within us when we receive Communion ensures that of the Father as well, for Jesus said, “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”[1] And with the Father comes the Holy Spirit: “I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever.”[2] You see, then, that an immediate consequence of our recognition of the real presence is an awareness of the dignity of the Christian as the dwelling place of the Holy Trinity.

Scripture uses several metaphors to express these sublime tenets of our faith: the vine and the branches in Saint John, the Pauline doctrine of the (mystical) body, Saint Peter’s description of the temple made of living stones. The first two—the vine and its branches or the body and its parts—are universal, in that they refer to what Saint Paul termed the whole Christ, head and members.[3] The image of the temple—the “spiritual house” of 1 Peter 2.5—however, can signify the individual believer as well as the Church as a whole, for Saint Paul states categorically, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”[4]

Thus, what is true for me in this respect holds also for my fellow Catholics. That’s why, I believe, we Catholics are always trying to discover whether or not someone new we meet is a Catholic, an annoying practice for the uninitiated as we more-or-less discretely enquire about his religious affiliation. If he turns out to be an agnostic or an atheist, I sigh, “How boring.” But if it should be another Catholic I say to myself, “He has received the Eucharist. He has been sanctified by the presence of God more wonderfully than was the temple of Solomon.” And I feel an impulse to kneel as Saint John did when he was visited by an angel in the course of those revelations that form the contents of the Apocalypse. For I am in the presence, not of a bag of bones but of a creature who may one day shine with the light of eternal glory. Often, alas, today, I find myself encountering former Catholics who have declined perhaps into some sect or even into disbelief. What grief to be in the presence of the temple in ruins. And thus, I begin to understand why devout Jews gather at the wailing wall in Jerusalem, the only section of the ancient temple that remains. What was once the very habitation of the triune God has become, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “the haunt of jackals”[5] What tragedy it is to contemplate the indelible marks of baptism and confirmation on the soul of someone who has been unfaithful to the obligations and dismissive of the privileges they represent.

The judgmental vehemence of these sentiments should give me pause, reminding me of our Lord’s words: “Judge not and you will not be judged.” How ready I am to condemn another person, and how ready to exonerate myself. Jane Austen knew as much: “Like many other great moralists and preachers, she had been eloquent on a point in which her own conduct would ill bear examination.”[6] And, perhaps more suitably for a sermon, I may cite The Imitation of Christ:

We blame little failings in others but pass over great faults in ourselves. We are quick enough to resent what we suffer at the hands of others without considering how much others have to bear from us. Anyone who examines his own behavior carefully would not be prone to judge another’s severely.[7]

Let me put aside, therefore, consideration of the failings of other people. There is in fact only one person I am called upon to judge, and to judge harshly, and that person is myself. Truly, what use have I made of the blessings the Lord has lavished upon me in general and, specifically, in his abiding presence in the Blessed Sacrament?[8] This is Holy Thursday, and as we commemorate the institution of the Eucharist each one of us should strive to deepen his own appreciation of the inestimable gift Jesus has made of himself; for what he has begun on earth in this sacred rite will one day be completed in his everlasting kingdom if I love him and act upon his word.

Addendum

Let me offer here an examination of conscience from The Imitation of Christ:

Lament and be sorry, because you are still; so sensual and worldly

so unmortified in your passions,

so full of the itch of concupiscence, . . .

so reckless in your physical indulgence,

so often entangled in vain fancies,

so inclined to external things and so negligent of the internal;

so ready to laughter and so dissolute,

so unready for weeping and contrition;

so prone to ease and indulgence of the flesh,

so dull in zeal and fervour;

so curious to hear novelties,

so loath to be humble and despised;

so desirous to own things and so grudging in giving and so close in keeping;

so inconsiderate in speaking and so reluctant to keep silence;

so disorderly in behavior and so inconsiderate in action;

so eager after food,

so deaf towards the Word of God;

so eager to rest and so slow to labour;

so keen for gossip,

so sleepy at religious services and so eager for them to end and so inattentive during them and so negligent in being faithful to them,

so lukewarm in receiving Holy Communion;

so quickly distracted and so seldom recollected;

so quickly moved to anger and so readily displeased at others and so prone to judging and so severe at reproving;

so joyful in prosperity and so weak in adversity;

so frequent in making good resolutions and so ineffective in putting them into effect.[9]

 

[1] Jn 14.23.

[2] Jn 15.26.

[3] Eph 4.16-17.

[4] 1 Cor 3.16.

[5] Jer 51.37.

[6] Jane Austen, Persuasion, ch. 11.

[7] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, II.5.

[8] See Addendum, below.

[9] Cf. Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, IV.7.