This brings me to a word about the Catholic sense of time. We all know how the story will end before we even begin the Triduum – so are we supposed to listen as if we don’t know or as if this time Jesus won’t suffer and die? No. We read the passion narrative knowing that on Easter Sunday we will see light triumph over darkness, love over hate, and hope over despair. The events we commemorate have already happened in time, and so we are not reliving them but reenacting them. Then again, though, unlike anything else we can describe, the Paschal Mystery is an on-going event which continues to unfold. We worship throughout these days with the whole picture in mind, and as we pray we deepen our understanding of what Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection mean to us. Our services this week allow us to lift up and examine each piece of the Paschal Mystery –not just to hold them at arm’s length – but to embrace each component, to draw the events into our hearts because they are our lived reality.
The primary focus of Holy Thursday is the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist, and we see this in the Eucharist itself as well as in the washing of feet. This symbolic act of foot washing shows us, before we even journey to the cross, that Christ’s love is self-sacrificing. And we are called to do likewise. Besides the foot washing, we realize its importance of Holy Thursday through some other symbols as well. On this night we’ll sing the Gloria and ring the church bells, and then the bells will be silenced until Easter. In addition, at the end of Mass, there is no final dismissal. Why? Because this Mass does not end until Easter. After communion, the presider places the consecrated hosts into a ciborium, a special vessel that displays a host. He then goes forth with the Eucharist, and the assembly follows in a somber procession. There is time for silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, and then people depart one by one. After this glorious event, this celebratory meal and demonstration of Christ’s love and service, we are not sent forth but exit in silence and darkness instead. The altar is stripped, turning the church into a house of mourning. We are left waiting without consolation, and we each leave the church separately.
So, what is it that we hold up to examine and embrace on Holy Thursday? For me it is the sacrificing nature of Christ’s love and the clear call to love and serve people as Jesus did. It is the range of emotions evoked by the events of this night and the ones that follow –love, union, betrayal, confusion, and the sense of separation. My leave-taking from Holy Thursday puts me in mind of the first followers of Jesus, and I try to connect with their worry, sadness, and confusion, even though I know that resurrection is coming. I leave church feeling unsettled and bewildered, looking toward the sad events of the next day, and feeling like resurrection is a long way off. I set my hope in Christ, even as I depart in darkness.