So, you wanna spend some time with Jesus on Holy Thursday night? Of course, unlike His loser buddies, the apostles, you intend to stay awake and pray. But how should you spend that time? Maybe this is the first year you've decided to check out this unique prayer opportunity. Or maybe you “stop in for a visit” regularly but praying for an hour, a half hour, or even ten minutes solid is a situation where you don't quite feel like you're "doing it right". Well, here are some ideas for meditations, right after a brief explanation of Holy Thursday night.
Holy Thursday is the memorial and re-presentation of the Last Supper and the events that followed for Jesus and the apostles. It has, since my teenage years, been my favorite Mass of the year. When Mass begins, the tabernacle is empty and the sanctuary lamp is out. The Eucharist has not yet come to be; Jesus will give it this night. We are "in" the 13th day of the month of Nisan. To this day, Jews speak of their being "in" the night of Passover and of "having passed through" the Red Sea. So it is for us; we are "in" the Upper Room— confused and in awe as Jesus subtly re-writes the beginning third of the New Passover: the meal. Friday, He will change the sacrifice. And on the third day, He'll give new meaning to passing from slavery and death to freedom and life. Tonight, He will wash the feet of the apostles, and so the priest washes the feet of twelve men. Tonight, He will give out to us the Body that will be given up for us tomorrow. He'll pass around the Blood that'll be poured out tomorrow. But, within minutes of our receiving Communion, Jesus will be on the move, as He was that night too. The Supper ended swiftly and they departed, singing a psalm of praise as they hiked to Gethsemane. We process with the Eucharist through the church singing Pange Lingua (Thomas Aquinas' hymn whose last two verses are the hymn Down in Adoration Falling which we know from Benediction). The one vessel of Jesus' Body is then taken elsewhere, usually downstairs, and nestled among flowers and greenery. As He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane before He was arrested, so there we can pray until midnight, when the Bridegroom will be "taken away" as He was two thousand years ago.
1) Read one, or several, chapters of John 13-17.
These are the Last Supper discourses. They begin with the foot washing and go through dinner and onto the road to Gethsemane. They culminate in the “High Priestly Prayer”— John, chapter 17. If you just want a sweet, one chapter sample, go with 14 or 15.
2) Read Pope Benedict’s homily from WYD 2005.
If you want B-16 depth and clarity with a “youth homily” touch, try: Pope Benedict's homily at WYD in Cologne
“What is happening? How can Jesus distribute his Body and his Blood? By making the bread into his Body and the wine into his Blood, he anticipates his death, he accepts it in his heart, and he transforms it into an action of love. What on the outside is simply brutal violence—the Crucifixion—from within, becomes an act of total self-giving love.”
—Papa B.,WYD 2005
3) Read "A Meditation Before the Blessed Sacrament"
This beautiful dialogue of Jesus inviting the person in prayer to open up and speak familiarly to Him about her worries and intentions is one of the best introductions to prayer ever. Fr. Tim Alkire introduced my friends and me to it in our youth. Take your time. Spend fifteen to thirty minutes on it. Answer honestly. You'll come out with a new sense of closeness to Jesus. I don't know if anyone knows who wrote it, but I'm including the sources I've seen for its distribution.
MY CHILD, you need not know much in order to please Me; only love Me dearly. Speak to Me as you would talk to your mother, if she had taken you in her arms. Have you no one to recommend to Me? Tell Me the names of your relations, of your friends; after each name, add what you wish Me to do for them. Ask a great deal: I love generous hearts that forget themselves for others.
TELL me about the poor whom you want to help, the sick whom you have seen suffer, the sinner whom you would convert, the persons who are alienated from you, and whose affections you wish to win back. For all, recite a fervent prayer. Remind Me that I have promised to grant every prayer that comes from the heart; and surely the prayers are heartfelt which we say for those whom we love, and who love us.
HAVE you no favors to ask for yourself? Write, if you like, a long list of all your withes-- all the needs of your soul-- and come and read it to Me. Tell Me simply how self-indulgent you are, how proud, how touchy, how selfish, how cowardly, how idle; ask Me to help you to improve. Poor child I do not blush! There are in heaven many saints who had the same faults as you; they prayed to Me, and, little by little, they were cured.
DO not hesitate to ask for the goods of body and mind-- for health, for memory, for success, I can give everything, and I always give when the gifts would make souls more holy. What do you want today, My child? Oh, if you knew how I long to do you good!
HAVE you no plans to interest you! Tell me all about them. Do they concern your vocation! What do you think of! What would you like? Are you planning some pleasure for your mother, for your family, for your guardian? What do you wish to do for them!
AND have you no thoughts of zeal for Me? Are you not anxious to do a little good for the souls of your friends, for those whom you love, and who, perhaps, forget Me? Tell Me who interests you, what motives urge you, what means you wish to take.
CONFIDE to Me your failures, I will show you the cause. Whom do you wish to see interested in your work? I am the Master of all hearts, My child, and I lead them gently where I please. I will place about you those who are necessary to you; never fear.
HAVE you nothing to annoy you? My child, tell Me your annoyances, with every detail. Who has pained you? Who has wounded your self-love? Who has treated you contemptuously? Tell Me all and then say that you forgive and forget; and I will give you My blessing.
DO you dread something painful? Is there in your soul a vague fear which seems unreasonable and yet torments you? Trust fully in My providence. I am here, I see everything; I will not leave you.
ARE there about you friends who seem less kind than formerly, who neglect you through indifference or forgetfulness, without Your having consciously done anything to wound them? Pray for them, and I will restore them to you, if their companionship is good for you.
HAVE you no joys to tell Me? Why not confide to Me your pleasures? Tell Me what has happened since yesterday to console you, to make you look happy, to give you joy. An unexpected visit has done you good; a fear has been suddenly dispelled; you have met with unlooked-for success; you have received some mark of affection-- a letter, a present; some trial has left you stronger than you supposed. All these things, My child, I obtained for you. Why are you not grateful? Why do you not say "I thank you"? Gratitude draws benefits, and the benefactor loves to be reminded of his bounty.
HAVE you no promises to make Me? You know I read the very bottom of your heart. Men are deceived, but not God; be frank.
ARE you resolved to avoid that occasion of sin, to give up the object which leads you astray-- not to read that book which wrongly excites your imagination; to withdraw your friendship from that person who is irreligious, and whose presence disturbs the peace of your soul? Will you go at once and be kind to that companion who annoyed you!
WELL, My child, go now and resume your daily work. Be silent, be honest, be patient, be charitable, love very much the Blessed Mother of Jesus; and tomorrow bring Me a heart even more devoted and loving. Tomorrow I shall have new favors for you.
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4) Read some parts of Holy Thursday, by François Mauriac
It is entirely possible that Mauriac is the best writer I've ever read. He writes prose that rolls like poetry. He takes huge ideas and makes them reasonable to children. He draws awe and wrings your heart. He's a realist about life, but a romantic about love. Here are some samples of his brief book about this beautiful night for your meditation benefit.
[These are in book-order. My personal favorites are: A, E, F, H, I, L.]
A.) The anniversary of that evening when the small Host arose on a world sleeping in darkness should fill us with joy. But that very night was the one when the Lord Jesus was delivered up. His best friends could still taste the Bread in their mouths and they were going to abandon Him, to deny Him, to betray Him. And we also, on Holy Thursday, can still taste in our mouths this Bread that is no longer bread; we have not finished adoring this Presence in our bodies, the inconceivable humility of the Son of God, when we have to rise hastily to follow Him to the garden of agony.
We should like to tarry, to see on His shoulder the place where St. John's forehead rested, to relive in spirit this moment in the history of the world when a piece of bread was broken in deep silence, when a few words sufficed to seal the new alliance of the Creator with His creature. […]
But the Mass is already finished; we must enter the darkness of the Garden; it is impossible to give joy a single minute more. For it pleased the Lord to institute the Eucharist on the very night He was betrayed. This mystery was accomplished at the very moment when His body was to be broken like the bread, when His blood was to be shed like the wine. Without doubt, it was necessary that the small Host should arise on the world at that moment, in those shadows in which the traitor had already betrayed, in which Caiaphas's people were plotting their crime.
B.) Only once during His public life had the Lord spoken openly of the marvel conceived from all eternity by His love. He remembered how much this revelation had cost Him and knew how many should had forsaken Him that day. At the synagogue, in Capernaum (St. John relates) had been uttered strange, scandalous words. Not only the Jews but also the disciples objected in these words: "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?" At first they had not understood, and when Jesus had said, "The bread of God is that which comes down from Heaven and gives life to the world," they had interrupted Him, begging Him always to give them of this bread. At that moment, it seems that the Lord made so bold as to lift up a corner of the veil. "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall not hunger and he who believes in me shall never thirst." Already the furious Jews murmured against Him because He dared to say that He was the living bread —this man, Joseph's son, whose father and mother they knew.
Everything then happened as if Christ, seeing that there was no longer any reason to spare them, would deliver His secret at once and throw the inconceivable challenge to human reason. "I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the desert and have died. This is the bread that comes down from Heaven. If anyone eat of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world."
And as from the stupefied and divided crowd arose the question that reasonable people will keep on asking until the end of the world ("How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"), Jesus overwhelmed them with reiterated, insistent, irritating affirmations. It was necessary to shout it. The lukewarm people would leave; the timid ones would be troubled: "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has life everlasting and I will raise him up on the last day."
The mystery of Holy Thursday had therefore been foretold that very day before the whole synagogue at Capernaum. And from that moment, according to the Gospel, several disciples withdrew and they no longer followed Jesus. Being for every man the touchstone of faith and love, the Eucharist, like the Cross, divided minds as soon as it was announced.
Jesus must have seen those who withdrew, and not only these few, poor, hard-hearted Jews, but with them all those who were to be scandalized by this mystery throughout the ages. Jesus must have numbered among them the philosophers and the scientists who believe only in what they see; and the mockers, the blasphemers who, from century to century, would fight, with unrelenting animosity, the small silent Host, the defenseless Lamb.
When the renegades had withdrawn, Jesus was left alone with the twelve apostles. Then He asked them this question, and it seems that our ears can still hear His supplicating tone: "Do you also wish to go away?" Thus, until the end of time, the Creator will plead with His creatures.
C.) This explains the mysterious mingling of conflicting feelings in the man who is about to receive Holy Communion: fear and confidence, open-heartedness and remorse, shame and love. The small Host which the sinner approaches throws an impartial and terrible light on irretrievable deeds: on that which he has done, on that which he should not have refrained from doing. No man knows himself if he has not looked at his soul in the light of the Host lifted above the ciborium. In that moment, the Church, sublimely inspired, puts on the lips of the priest and the faithful the words of the Centurion: "Lord, I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed" — a prayer that has been answered since the first day when Christ heard it in Capernaum.
D.) It is useless to know on which side peace is, for our miserable hearts love peace only when they are overcome by suffering. Hardly has the Lord cured them when they long to avail themselves of their renewed strength to venture again on the high seas. "The peace of God which surpasses all understanding": an incomprehensible text for young hearts ever eager for adventure, but a text that man meditates upon in his maturity without ever exhausting its substance."
E.) The twelve apostles are the first twelve priests; Judas is the first bad priest. They were themselves so keenly conscious of being no longer men like others that their first task, after Jesus had disappeared from their sight, was to replace the traitor, Judas: "Therefore, of these men who have been in our company all the time that the Lord Jesus moved among us, from John's baptism until the day that He was taken up from us, of these one must become a witness with us of His resurrection." "And the lot fell upon Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles."
Now they are ordained, the first members of an innumerable family. Holiness entered the world with Christ. The Church is holy and what matters to us the wretchedness of individuals, their falls, their betrayals? "The great glory of the Church," writes Jacques Maritain, "is to be holy with sinning members."
The grace of Holy Thursday will be transmitted unto the end of time, unto the last of the priests who will celebrate the last Mass in a shattered universe. Holy Thursday created these men; a mark was stamped on them; a sign was given to them. They are like to us, and yet so different—a fact never more surprising than in this pagan age. People say that there is a scarcity of priests. In truth, what an adorable mystery it is that there still are any priests. They no longer have any human advantage. Celibacy, solitude, hatred very often, derision and, above all, the indifference of a world in which there seems to be no longer room for them-such is the portion they have chosen. They have no apparent power; their task sometimes seems to be centered about material things, identifying them, in the eyes of the masses, with the staffs of town halls and of funeral parlors. A pagan atmosphere prevails all around them. The people would laugh at their virtue if they believed in it, but they do not. They are spied upon. A thousand voices accuse those who fall. As for the others, the greater number, no one is surprised to see them toiling without any sort of recognition, without appreciable salary, bending over the bodies of the dying or ambling about the parish schoolyards.
F.) But if they did not find their joy even in this world, would they persevere? "What are you going to do?" said Abbe Perreyve to Christ, the day before he was ordained, "You are delivering Yourself; You are abandoning Yourself to me. You surrender Your Body to me. I shall use it for my needs and for the needs of other souls.... I shall touch You, I shall carry You, I shall handle You and You will allow me to do it; I shall place You on the lips of whom I will; You will never refuse...." Indeed, priests, holy priests, are repaid by an immense love.
[I put this quote on the back of the holy card for my Ordination in 2005.]
G.) Each verse which is chanted during the ceremony of the washing of the feet affirms the new law is to change the world, the law of love, unknown to antiquity: “By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” And furthermore: “So, there abide faith, hope, and charity, these three; and the greatest of these is charity.” And finally: “Where charity and love are, God is also there.” Nothing is less congenial than this love to the nature of man. Since Holy Thursday, the charity of Christ has been making its way painfully against human cruelty. Men used it for selfish purposes, even when they pretended to adopt it. Love flourishes only in Christ.
Foolishness, St. Paul himself calls it. Truly, it is a folly of love that Holy Thursday spreads in the world, but it meets with opposition that will end only with the world. Paganism, apparently conquered (and even at that, only in one part of the planet), survives in its lowest forms in every living heart. But it is, above all, limited human reason which struggles against the fire that Christ came to light during the night between Thursday and Friday. Such reason fights against Him with all its might. […] The worshippers of he Sacred Heart claim that they rely on the reasons of the heart which reason ignores. “The heart has its order; the mind has its.” To Pilate who asks “What is truth?” Christ does not give any answer. The state official, the serious and important man, could not understand.
H.) But even those who speak of this stumbling block with most hatred and fear do not know anything about it. They are almost as puzzled by this enigmas the chief priests and rulers who ravaged the first little Galilean church. The secret of Holy Thursday is spread over the whole world, but nevertheless it remains impenetrable to those outside. One must be of it; one must be incorporated in it; one must be part of the vine; one must be among the branches.
Why do young girls accept the ascetic life of the Carmelites, of the Poor Clares? Why do strong young men choose a scorned black robe, the sign of chastity and renunciation? What motivates them? Why do men and women suddenly stop in the midst of a dissipated life and turn from their evil ways? And those who used to enjoy nothing but uncleanness become anxious to be pure in every one of their thoughts?
I.) Jacques Rivière says: “No other religion every used love as an intermediary between the faithful and his God; love with its tremendous disturbances, with its extravagant logic, with the confusion it puts in the soul.” One should add, “love, with its flashing light, with the self-knowledge which suddenly awakens the soul and keeps it, as it were, standing on watch, on guard—love which compels one to remain armed, always ready, because the Bridegroom is at the door.”
Holy Thursday’s mystery of love gives strength to the weak, daring to cowards, freedom to slaves, nobility to vile individuals, purity to the debased, mercy to the implacable. To all, it unveils both the wretchedness of human pride and the tremendous power of heroic humility.
J.) The blood of the paschal lamb was to be “put on both the side posts and on the upper door posts” in order that the death-dealing angel would recognize the houses of those who were to be spared. In the same way, the blood of Jesus Christ is put upon us: after we have received Communion, the gate of our heart is dripping with the blood which wards off the evil spirit.
K.) [St. Thomas Aquinas said in his last words of adoration on receiving his last Communion:] “I receive Thee, price of my redemption, viaticum of my pilgrimage, for love of whom I have studied and kept vigil, toiled, preached, and taught. Never have I said aught against Thee; if I have done so, it was through ignorance and I do not persist in my intention, and if I have done anything ill, I leave the whole to the correction of the Roman Church. In that obedience, I depart from this life.”
L.) The God who, as the psalmist said, built His tabernacle in the sun, now establishes Himself in the very core of the flesh and the blood. The ineffable union is nevertheless accomplished, and not only with the most holy souls but with the humblest sinners, when they are forgiven. Thus the foolish demand of human desire is at once purified and satisfied. “When enraptured by human love,” writes Bossuet, “who does not know that men consume themselves, that they waste themselves, that they wish they could mingle and embody their own substance in the very substance of the loved one? As the poet said, they wish they could ravish even with their teeth what they love—in order to possess it, to feed on it, to unite with it, to live by it.”
M.) Just as the world makes us gradually men of the world, so, too, frequent Communion refashions our souls. The Eagle hollows out in our being a nest commodious to Himself. He impresses therein the shape He loves to repose in: the shape of His own body. Thus shaped—or rather transformed—our heart will conform itself less and less to the demands of outward things. But, irresolute a he may be, will not he who has known the ardent silence of the Eucharist conclude by leaving to God the final word?