Today is Holy Thursday, also known colloquially as “Maundy Thursday,” which begins the Easter Triduum. What does “Maundy” mean? It’s a derivative of the language used in the “new commandment” given by Christ as he washed the feet of the apostles at the Last Supper. “Maundy” comes from “Mandatum” in the expression, “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos” (“A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you”).
You might also recognize an English word that finds its origin in “mandatum” – mandate. That’s a word with more than one meaning. As a noun, it means, “an official order or commission to do something” ; but as a verb, it signifies “giving (someone) authority to act in a certain way”. And considering that Christ was speaking to the apostles, His bishops, on the very night he initiated the Catholic priesthood, we can safely take it to mean both things – an order given, and an authority handed on to do the same.
And yet the scriptures say only a little about what transpired at the Last Supper.
For the Christian interested in learning more, there is great value to be found in another text. Though they are only private revelations and thus not required of us to believe, the visions of Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich contained in the book The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ offer absolutely stunning detail and insight about what transpired on this night two millenia ago:
Jesus gave his Apostles some private instructions; he told them how they were to preserve the Blessed Sacrament in memory of him, even to the end of the world; he taught them the necessary forms for making use of and communicating it, and in what manner they were, by degrees, to teach and publish this mystery; finally he told them when they were to receive what remained of the consecrated Elements, when to give some to the Blessed Virgin, and how to consecrate, themselves, after he should have sent them the Divine Comforter. He then spoke concerning the priesthood, the sacred unction, and the preparation of the Chrism and Holy Oils.7 He had there three boxes, two of which contained a mixture of oil and balm. He taught them how to make this mixture, what parts of the body were to be anointed with them, and upon what occasions. I remember, among other things, that he mentioned a case in which the Holy Eucharist could not be administered; perhaps what he said had reference to Extreme Unction, for my recollections on this point are not very clear. He spoke of different kinds of anointing, and in particular of that of kings, and he said that even wicked kings who were anointed, derived from it especial powers. He put ointment and oil in the empty box, and mixed them together, but I cannot say for certain whether it was at this moment, or at the time of the consecration of the bread, that he blessed the oil.
I then saw Jesus anoint Peter and John, on whose hands he had already poured the water which had flowed on his own, and two whom he had given to drink out of the chalice. Then he laid his hands on their shoulders and heads, while they, on their part, joined their hands and crossed their thumbs, bowing down profoundly before him—I am not sure whether they did not even kneel. He anointed the thumb and fore-finger of each of their hands, and marked a cross on their heads with Chrism. He said also that this would remain with them unto the end of the world.
James the Less, Andrew, James the Greater, and Bartholomew, were also consecrated. I saw likewise that on Peter’s bosom he crossed a sort of stole worn round the neck, whilst on the others he simply placed it crosswise, from the right shoulder to the left side. I do not know whether this was done at the time of the institution of the Blessed Sacrament, or only for the anointing.
I understood that Jesus communicated to them by this unction something essential and supernatural, beyond my power to describe. He told them that when they should have received the Holy Spirit they were to consecrate the bread and wine, and anoint the other Apostles. It was made known to me then that, on the day of Pentecost, Peter and John imposed their hands upon the other Apostles, and a week later upon several of the disciples. After the Resurrection, John gave the Adorable Sacrament for the first time to the Blessed Virgin. It is a festival no longer kept in the Church on earth, but I see it celebrated in the Church triumphant. For the first few days after Pentecost I saw only Peter and John consecrate the Blessed Eucharist, but after that the others also consecrated.
Our Lord next proceeded to bless fire in a brass vessel, and care was taken that it should not go out, but it was kept near the spot where the Blessed Sacrament had been deposited, in one division of the ancient Paschal hearth, and fire was always taken from it when needed for spiritual purposes.
All that Jesus did upon this occasion was done in private, and taught equally in private. The Church has retained all that was essential of these secret instructions, and, under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, developed and adapted them to all her requirements.
As Catholics, we believe that the pillars of our faith are both Scripture and Tradition. If these visions of Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich are accurate, we can see the importance of Tradition in the passing on of instructions which Our Lord made privately to the apostles – instructions that scripture simply does not contain. The scenes as she describes them make perfect sense: we see all of the events depicted in the Gospels, but each is extrapolated. The apostles would need to have been given such detailed instructions and even rubrics for carrying out their priestly ministry. Furthermore, we see them receiving the sacramental forms – most notably in this section the anointing and consecration of hands in the sacrament of Holy Orders.
Bl. Anne Catherine also saw aspects of the initiation of the Eucharist that are fascinating to contemplate:
John and Peter poured some water on his hands, which he held over the plate on which the azymous loaves had been placed; then he took a little of the water which had been poured on his hands, in the spoon that he had taken out of the lower part of the chalice, and poured it on theirs. After this, the vase was passed round the table, and all the Apostles washed their hands in it. I do not remember whether this was the precise order in which these ceremonies were performed; all I know is, that they reminded me in a striking manner of the holy sacrifice of the Mass.
Meanwhile, our Divine Lord became more and more tender and loving in his demeanour; he told his Apostles that he was about to give them all that he had, namely, his entire self, and he looked as though perfectly transformed by love. I saw him becoming transparent, until he resembled a luminous shadow. He broke the bread into several pieces, which he laid together on the paten, and then took a corner of the first piece and dripped it into the chalice. At the moment when he was doing this, I seemed to see the Blessed Virgin receiving the Holy Sacrament in a spiritual manner, although she was not present in the supper-room. I do not know how it was done, but I thought I saw her enter without touching the ground, and come before our Lord to receive the Holy Eucharist; after which I saw her no more. Jesus had told her in the morning, at Bethania, that he would keep the Pasch with her spiritually, and he had named the hour at which she was to betake herself to prayer, in order to receive it in spirit.
Again he prayed and taught; his words came forth from his lips like fire and light, and entered into each of the Apostles, with the exception of Judas. He took the paten with the pieces of bread (I do not know whether he had placed it on the chalice) and said: ‘Take and eat; this is my Body which is given for you.’ He stretched forth his right hand as if to bless, and, whilst he did so, a brilliant light came from him, his words were luminous, the bread entered the mouths of the Apostles as a brilliant substance, and light seemed to penetrate and surround them all, Judas alone remaining dark. Jesus presented the bread first to Peter, next to John and then he made a sign to Judas to approach.6 Judas was thus the third who received the Adorable Sacrament, but the words of our Lord appeared to turn aside from the mouth of the traitor, and come back to their Divine Author. So perturbed was I in spirit at this sight, that my feelings cannot be described. Jesus said to him: ‘That which thou dost, do quickly.’ He then administered the Blessed Sacrament to the other Apostles, who approached two and two.
Jesus raised the chalice by its two handles to a level with his face, and pronounced the words of consecration. Whilst doing so, he appeared wholly transfigured, as it were transparent, and as though entirely passing into what he was going to give his Apostles. He made Peter and John drink from the chalice which he held in his hand, and then placed it again on the table. John poured the Divine Blood from the chalice into the smaller glasses, and Peter presented them to the Apostles, two of whom drank together out of the same cup. I think, but am not quite certain, that Judas also partook of the chalice; he did not return to his place, but immediately left the supper-room, and the other Apostles thought that Jesus had given him some commission to do. He left without praying or making any thanksgiving, and hence you may perceive how sinful it is to neglect returning thanks either after receiving our daily food, or after partaking of the Life-Giving Bread of Angels. During the entire meal, I had seen a frightful little figure, with one foot like a dried bone, remaining close to Judas, but when he had reached the door, I beheld three devils pressing round him; one entered into his mouth, the second urged him on, and the third preceded him. It was night, and they seemed to be lighting him, whilst he hurried onward like a madman.
Our Lord poured a few drops of the Precious Blood remaining in the chalice into the little vase of which I have already spoken, and then placed his fingers over the chalice, while Peter and John poured water and wine upon them. This done, he caused them to drink again from the chalice, and what remained of its contents was poured into the smaller glasses, and distributed to the other Apostles. Then Jesus wiped the chalice, put into it the little vase containing the remainder of the Divine Blood, and placed over it the paten with the fragments of the consecrated bread, after which he again put on the cover, wrapped up the chalice, and stood it in the midst of the six small cups. I saw the Apostles receive in communion these remains of the Adorable Sacrament, after the Resurrection.
I do not remember seeing our Lord himself eat and drink of the consecrated elements, neither did I see Melchisedech, when offering the bread and wine, taste of them himself. It was made known to me why priests partake of them, although Jesus did not.
Here Sister Emmerich looked suddenly up, and appeared to be listening. Some explanation was given her on this subject, but the following words were all that she could repeat to us: ‘If the office of distributing it had been given to angels, they would not have partaken, but if priests did not partake, the Blessed Eucharist would be lost—it is through their participation that it is preserved.’
There was an indescribable solemnity and order in all the actions of Jesus during the institution of the Holy Eucharist, and his every movement was most majestic. I saw the Apostles noting things down in the little rolls of parchment which they carried on their persons. Several times during the ceremonies I remarked that they bowed to each other, in the same way that our priests do.
If you have never before read The Dolorous Passion, the Easter Triduum is the perfect time to dive in to the rich tapestry of detail and unspoken significance it contains.
For example, she notes that the supper room itself was built by King David’s men; that it has previously housed the Ark of the Covenant, been in the possession of Solomon, and given shelter to the Prophet Malachy.
She mentions also that the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper — what moderns might call the “Holy Grail” — had
“formerly been in the possession of Abraham; Melchisedech brought it with him from the land of Semiramis to the land of Canaan, when he was beginning to found some settlements on the spot where Jerusalem was afterwards built; he made use of it then for offering sacrifice, when he offered bread and wine in the presence of Abraham, and he left it in the possession of that holy patriarch. This same chalice had also been preserved in Noah’s Ark.”
The visions Bl. Anne received connect time and place of the final events of the life of Christ to those that happened throughout salvation history in a way that intrigues and delights the reader, for they seem to represent just the sort of unheralded subtlety and inexplicable congruence that is befitting the secret, perfect working of Our Lord throughout time to fulfill prophecy and symbolism and to complete all things according to His divine plan.
If you want to delve more deeply into contemplation of Our Lord’s Passion, this is the most useful guide I have yet discovered.
Originally published on April 2, 2015.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.