Holidays and Holy Days

Holy Thursday: What It Means Today

Lent is over and now we begin to celebrate these three most sacred days that commemorate the center of our Christian faith. Paying homage to our Jewish roots, we begin after sunset “on the night before he died,” and keep a modified vigil. Tomorrow, we will lift high the cross. On Saturday & Sunday, we will light the Easter flame, discover anew the empty tomb, and proclaim for ourselves and for the world that he is not among the dead, but here, with the living.

For this reason, it is important that we not get distracted today by some of Holy Thursday’s evocative traditions. Some still dwell on the ordained priesthood. Others focus on the solemn procession and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Still others spotlight the moving ritual of the washing of the feet.

However, as inspiring as these may be, none are the heart of the first of the Sacred Triduum celebrations during the three days that lead up to Easter. For this, we turn to today’s appointed scripture readings that, each in its own way, draws us to the irremovable, yet not gentle, core of these days:

The first reading from Exodus confronts us with the “blood of the lambs and the guts of the Egyptians” as the price for the Jews’ Passover liberation from slavery in Egypt.

Paul’s letter taught the Corinthian Christians and reminds us: “that when we share this meal, we proclaim his death.”

And in a more euphemistic and elegant way the evangelist John informs us of Good Friday’s agonizing crucifixion by announcing “this is the hour for Jesus to pass to the Father.

Grace: Not Cheap or Easy

As we look for contemporary analogies for this meal, we best look past a celebratory farewell meal for a retiring friend and rather to the more ominous last prison meal of the condemned man on death row. Let not the fine vestments and refined music of mass on Holy Thursday mask the harsh reality that this day signals. We are not on the eve of cheap or easy grace – then or now. Our focus is no longer the animal lambs of the Passover, but rather riveted on the human Lamb of God, Jesus, whose blood will be poured out for the salvation of the world.

As uninviting and unseemly as this path of salvation may be, could there be a more relevant way of salvation for our age? This Sacred Triduum cannot be isolated from the sufferings of our contemporary world – both global and personal. The first century cross of Jesus Christ, which we commemorate in the unbloody sacrifice of the Mass, is relived in the painful and, too often, bloody sacrifices of millions in the 21st century.  

Bloody Crosses around Us

Then, in one small Roman province, it was the conspiracy between the religious Jewish leadership, the political Roman surrogates and an insider confidential informer named Judas that killed the innocent Lamb of God. Now, across the globe, conspiracies between political and religious leaders kill, ostracize and bully those of all faiths, in many nations, in self-righteous attempts at self-preservation, religious rationalization, and perpetuating inequalities of power and wealth.

On personal levels, we need only mention a few categories – work & career, relationships, health, retirement, finances. Each of us can populate these with firsthand experiences of the cross of Jesus being lived out in very personal and sometimes private ways in countless lives.  

Our world does not permit us to ignore the global and personal crosses around us. Our faith requires that we proclaim the cross of Jesus as a saving cross that leads to the transformation of new life on Easter Sunday. This is the fullness and fulfillment of these sacred days.

Lens to Understand Contemporary Events

We fittingly begin this Sacred Triduum with the Eucharist, the ceremony of consecrating and consuming bread and wine to commemorate the Last Supper, because this night marks Jesus’ handing over to us the great gift that makes him and his salvation present to believers until he comes again.

The beautiful rituals and music of this season call us to enter into the mysteries of our faith not just inside churches but as they intersect outside those walls and within our lives and those of our neighbors. These celebrations are not ends in themselves, but rather are the lens to better understand contemporary events, globally and personally. They provide the inspiration and grace to better bring the saving cross of Jesus and the transforming power of the resurrection to our world.  

Today’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper begins and leads into the remainder of this Sacred Triduum season that culminates with the victory of Easter. Now, as in the beginning, let us recommit to recognizing the crucified one as the risen Lord.


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