Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 and John 13:1-15
On the night he was handed over to the priests and politicians who would murder him the next day, Jesus shared one last meal with his friends. During this meal, Jesus gave to his friends two departing gifts. Today, on Holy Thursday, we celebrate both.
The first of Jesus’ gifts was the sacrament of the Eucharist, and the second was his “new commandment”: “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (Jn 13:34). The first gift is recounted in our second reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and the second gift is dramatized in our gospel reading from John.
These two gifts are intimately related. Jesus gives us the first gift of the Eucharist in order that he can also give us the second gift of the new commandment. For we could not “love one another” as Jesus has loved us unless we could give up our own identity and take on the identity of Jesus himself—only by becoming Jesus could we embody Jesus’ love. And yet this is exactly what Jesus’ first gift, the gift of the Eucharist, makes possible. How can this be?
Let me try to explain using a theatrical analogy.
When we attend a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, we grasp that what we are seeing is only a play. We know that the past event commemorated by this tragedy—the assassination of Julius Caesar—does not really become present in the theatrical performance itself.
In the drama of the Eucharist, by contrast, Jesus’ last supper is not merely commemorated as a past event. For the liturgical performance of Jesus’ supper really does retrieve that supper into the present time of our performance. In this play, moreoever, we find ourselves collectively cast in one and the same singular role: that of Jesus.
This is what Paul is trying to get across to the Corinthians when he writes: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.” For it was Jesus, after all, who in this way first proclaimed “the death of the Lord”—that is, his own death. It was Jesus, after all, who “took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “‘This is my body that is for you.’” How else could our eating of this bread and our drinking of this cup by itself proclaim “the death of the Lord until he comes” unless because, whenever we do so, we become the (comically) imperfect embodiments of Jesus himself?
The Eucharist is a play whose every performance changes its actors into the role they are intended, quite literally, to become. When its many actors have become indistinguishable from the single role they are called to play, the drama will come to an end. For then the new commandment—which was the point of the play all along —will have finally been fulfilled.
Dr. William Junker
Assistant Professor, Catholic Studies; Co-Director, Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law and Public Policy