Holy Thursday: John Paul II at “the altar of the world”

Holy Thursday: John Paul II at "the altar of the world"

Today is Holy Thursday. The documents of Vatican II reiterate the doctrine of Trent concerning the Eucharist that “At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a paschal banquet in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.” (SC #47)

A favorite writer of mine, Gerald Vann, an English Dominican who died in 1963, elegantly said in The Divine Pity:
“’I draw all things to myself’; and ‘Behold I make all things new’; that is the summary of the doctrine of the Eucharist; and to say that we must share in this double movement is to summarize our part in the doctrine of the Eucharist. Through the Eucharist we are drawn into communion with Christ and we share in the renewal of the Holy Spirit, restoring all things in Christ.”

I found the most moving part of Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion (always worth viewing again sometime this week) the moment in which Our Lady runs to her son after he fell under the weight of the cross and the blows of the Roman soldiers. He looks up at her with his bloodied face – it is a powerful image which reminds me of the bloodied face and mouth of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. Jake’s was a senseless violence leading to his own spiritual destruction. But Christ looks at Mary and said “Behold, I make all things new.” That scene took my breath away and filled me with wonder and gratitude. That is the perfect line. That is the blessing of our faith and the blessing of the great sacrament. We are made anew and through us – all things can be made new.

Without fail the Eucharist “draws all things to Christ” and “makes all things new.” We participate in the sacrifice and must thereby draw all things to Christ and work to make all things new. I found it striking that the famous passage from Vatican II that the liturgy is the “summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows,” is followed by a sentence not usually mentioned in the same breath, although it should be: “For the goal of apostolic endeavor is that all who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of his Church, to take part in the Sacrifice and to eat the Lord’s Supper.” (SC #10) So the source and summit of the life of the Church must frame for us an “apostolic goal,” that is, the Eucharist must send us forth to draw things to Christ and to renew the world in the Spirit. In receiving the sacred Body and Blood of Our Lord, must we not desire to serve him in love?

Pope John Paul II wrote a marvelous encyclical letter on the Eucharist – Ecclesia de Eucharistia. In it we find a beautiful statement about the renewal and restoration of the world through the Eucharist: “Even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world. It unites heaven and earth. It embraces and permeates all creation. The Son of God became man in order to restore all creation, in one supreme act of praise, to the One who made it from nothing. He, the Eternal High Priest who by the blood of his Cross entered the eternal sanctuary, thus gives back to the Creator and Father all creation redeemed. He does so through the priestly ministry of the Church, to the glory of the Most Holy Trinity. Truly this is the mysterium fidei which is accomplished in the Eucharist: the world which came forth from the hands of God the Creator now returns to him redeemed by Christ.” (§8)

The “coming forth” and “return” is a variation of St Thomas Aquinas’ account of the structure of Summa, called in Latin the “exitus/reditus.” All things come forth from God as good and as a blessing; rational creatures return to God through reason and virtue, law and grace. But we spoil their goodness and struggle feebly to live the life of virtue. We sin and we need redemption.

Father Vann says that Thomas Aquinas is the Doctor of the Eucharist because he is “the expounder of this great affirmation: all things are good in themselves though evil has damaged and twisted them.” To restore what is damaged by sin; to straighten what is twisted and perverted by human willfulness – that is the effect of the Eucharist; that is the challenge to the lay faithful to bring to the altar, God’s good creation, now wounded by sin, but redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ.

We thank God for Holy Thursday.


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