Each year, as Maundy Thursday comes around, the Catholic Church celebrates three mysteries tightly bound together: the institution of the Most Holy Eucharist, the institution of the Christian priesthood, and the great commandment of charity that the Lord left with His disciples. They are bound together for many reasons, but this one above all: God is asking us to love in a way that is impossible to our unaided human nature. The Word became flesh, the Word became Victim, the Word became food. He took on our humanity, that we might take on His divinity. He loved with a human heart and gave that heart to us, that we might love with God’s own love.
O admirabile commercium — O wondrous exchange!
No priesthood, no Mass; no Mass, no Eucharist; no Eucharist, no life within us; no life within us, no love within us, either. The Holy Sacrament of the Altar is the concentration of all of God’s saving works: they come together here like all the threads of a grand story in the final chapter. His abiding desire to save and His indescribable generosity find in this Sacrament their most outstanding — indeed, one might almost say, outlandish — expression. He is the Lover who can make reality bend to His will for the sake of reaching, touching, entering into, and taking possession of the beloved.
Do we appreciate what He has done and is doing for us, upon the altar of sacrifice, in the simple elements of bread and wine? Even when we lavish upon them all the beauty and ceremonial pomp we can muster, it is still far too little for the gift He gives us: Himself.
Isn’t God taking a risk that what He gives for free will be held in contempt? Don’t people value things because they cost a lot? We think that a mansion or a yacht is special because so few can possess it. What about grace? In one sense, it is free; in another sense, it has a cost that cannot be counted. For its price is the soul of man. The one who opens his soul to God’s invasion is the one who is visited by Him, taken possession of, and divinized. This requires the most important and most difficult act of all: surrender.
How much do we value grace, in spite of its being freely given? Or do we hold it lightly because it doesn’t force its beauty upon us, it doesn’t glitter like gold? Jesus is asking us to take His word for it: “Without me, you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). Whatever we want to do in life, without Jesus, we cannot do it in any meaningful way. Whatever we do without Him will be lost, worthless, a cause more of disappointment or despair than of fulfillment.
All the truth we can attain, all the good we can achieve, all the beauty we can sense or dream of — all of this is already contained there, at the altar, in a mysterious form. In the Blessed Sacrament is the sum total of reality as it streams forth from God’s hands and as it carries us back to Him. If we but eat that truth, it will nourish our souls as no amount of studying or learning or thinking can ever do. All the love we will ever find in friendship is there first in the Divine Lover — the One who makes us His friends, who makes us worthy of love and equips us to love ourselves and each other. Without Him there can be no love, no friendship. If you are one who loves or one who wants to be loved — and who does not fit this double description? — know that your love comes from Him and should return to Him, together with all that you love here below.
This is the inexhaustible mystery of the Last Supper: the final meal of the Master with His disciples, the communion of the divine Lover with His beloved friends, the anticipation of His supreme act of love on the Cross, the institution of that unbloody sacrifice that will never cease to resound in churches until the end of time, when He brings all symbols to an end in the new Heavens and the new Earth.
Judas is the only sour note in this symphony of Maundy Thursday. He is the one disciple who knows better than the rest — who, it seems, knows better than the Master. He is impatient of all this solemnity and sublimity; he wants concrete results, here and now. He is the model and inspiration of all the pragmatists down through the ages who prefer a bit of bureaucratic philanthropy to a lofty espousal of souls. Had he lived in a different century, he might have been made the secretary of the Consilium, entrusted with the great task of making liturgy safe for democracy, more efficient, more participatory, more suited to the common man. No free grace for him, no; thirty pieces of silver. Now, that’s something you can handle and count, as any tax collector might do. Judas is the patron non-saint of all horizontalists.
Jesus is uncompromising. Horizontalism fails every time, as Judas failed when he chucked his bag of coins away in disgust and hanged himself with a horse’s headgear. Judas chose a death of despair. Christ chose a death of love, lifted up vertically on the Cross, so that He might draw all men upward to His kingdom, which is not of this earth.
It does no good to try to live a horizontal life, a life that keeps God somewhere at the margins, pursued after a number of other finite goods have been pursued. God is at the center of reality, and we are on the outside. We need to get inside, into the center, if we are going to become as real as we can be, rather than shadows or stick figures.
He is the magnet drawing us toward Himself; we are perverse iron filings that resist His magnetism. Don’t resist; surrender and let Him draw you. His grace will not be lacking. Will your free choice be lacking? Do you want to be a stick figure or a fully fleshed out human being? You want to be fully human. The only way to be fully human is to be divinized, to be united with the font of all life, the maker of man.
Many Catholics experience pain because they cannot make it to Mass. Perhaps their work schedule allows them no time for it, or the church is too far away, or there is no reverent priest in their area, or no traditional Latin Mass. Such people would give almost anything to have a Mass close by that they could attend for their spiritual profit. What about those of us who have a worthily celebrated Mass close by, and take little advantage of it?
We should be brutally honest with ourselves. Sometimes we feel no attraction to the Holy Mass or the Holy Eucharist; sometimes we go out of a sense of obligation or human respect. If this is how you feel, it’s time to ask the Lord, beg the Lord, for a change of heart. Ask Him to soften your resistance, to give you a hunger and thirst for Him. “Lord, you know how it looks to me; I don’t see in myself any real desire for holiness. Please give me that desire. Make me want to be holy. Move me to do what I should do.” It is a great thing to be humble enough to realize that we must ask for help, even when we don’t feel like being helped.
Make no mistake about it: we have to train for the battle that surrounds us, the battle that awaits our personal engagement. The most important part of our training is not what we do for ourselves, but what we allow God to do in us. Putting ourselves in God’s presence so He can shape us and strengthen us from deep within, as only He can do — that is what we do every time we go to Mass and receive Our Lord. We need the grace He gives if we are going to be soldiers for Christ, playing our individual parts in the vast saga of human history. Each of us truly has a part to play — and only with God’s help can each of us succeed.
The Church mandates attendance at Mass on Sundays and Holy Days but not on weekdays. The reason is that we are required by divine law to worship God regularly, and the Church has determined that the minimum fulfillment of this law is to meet once a week, on the “little Easter” of Sunday. Yet no one has become a great saint, a great missionary, a great kindler of fires in this world, by doing the minimum. King St. Louis IX, the best ruler the world has ever seen, attended two Masses each day. Saint Thomas Aquinas, the best theologian the world has ever seen, celebrated his morning Mass and then immediately served Mass for a fellow friar.
I’m not suggesting that all of us ought to go to Mass twice a day. The point is that difficult times, like the new and darker Dark Ages we are in, require spiritually strong men and women, and that heroic deeds can only be done by heroic souls. Such souls derive their nourishment, strength, and consolation from the sacrificial banquet of the Mass. Our Lord knew what He was doing when He instituted the Mass on Maundy Thursday.
The Lord knows how much we need prompting, how much we need opportunities to be rolled out in front of us so that we can be reminded to take advantage of them. That is why he created a Church in which the sacrifice of His Son would be renewed each and every day; that is why Jesus taught us to pray for our daily bread: panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie. We know that we are supposed to pray, to listen to God’s word, and to ask for His grace; we know we need these things. By going to Mass, we do them all, and not according to our own preferences or ideas, but in the way that Jesus Himself conceived in His Heart, instituted with His own hands, and commanded us to do in remembrance of Him, before achieving the foreshadowed reality by stretching out those hands on the Cross and letting that Heart be pierced with a lance.
I am invited, you are invited, to that sacred banquet. The once-for-all sacrifice of Calvary is offered to God, for us. The fruit of the Tree of Life is ours to eat.
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, Thomistic theologian, liturgical scholar, and choral composer, is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and The Catholic University of America. He has taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria, the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, and Wyoming Catholic College, which he helped establish in 2006. He writes regularly for Catholic blogs and has published seven books, the most recent being Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018). For more information, visit www.peterkwasniewski.com.