The Last Supper – Great and Holy Thursday
The Last Supper – Great and Holy Thursday
By Fr. Alexander Schmemann
Two events shape the liturgy of the Great and Holy Thursday: the Last Supper of Christ with His disciples and the betrayal of Judas. The meaning of both is in love. The Last Supper is the ultimate revelation of God’s redeeming love for man, of love as the very essence of salvation. And the betrayal of Judas reveals that sin, death and self-destruction are also due to love, but to deviated and distorted love, love directed as that which does not deserve love.
Here is the mystery of this unique day, and its liturgy, where light and darkness, joy and sorrow are so strangely mixed, challenges us with the choice on which depends the eternal destiny of each one of us.
“Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). To understand the meaning of the Last Supper we must see it as the very end of the great movement of Divine Love which began with the creation of the world and is now to be consummated in the death and resurrection of Christ.
Love, Life, Communion
God is Love (I John 4:8). And the first gift of Love was life. The meaning, the content of life was communion. To be alive man was to eat and to drink, to partake of the world. The world was thus Divine love made food, made Body of man. And being alive, i.e., partaking of the world, man was to be in communion with God, to have God as the meaning, the content and the end of his life.
Communion with the God-given world was indeed communion with God. Man received his food from God and making it his body and his life, he offered the whole world to God, transformed it into life in God and with God.
The love of God gave life to man, the love of man for God transformed this life into communion with God. This was the paradise. Life in it was, indeed, eucharistic. Through man and his love for God the whole creation was to be sanctified and transformed into one all-embracing sacrament of Divine Presence and man was the priest of this sacrament.
But in sin man lost this eucharistic life. He lost it because he ceased to see the world as means of Communion with God and his life as eucharist, as adoration and thanksgiving… He loved himself and the world for their own sake; he made himself the content and the end of his life. He thought that his hunger and thirst, i.e., his dependence on his life on the world — can be satisfied by the world as such, by food as such.
But world and food, once they are deprived of their initial sacramental meaning — as means of communion, with God, once they are not received for God’s sake, and filled with hunger and thirst for God, once, in other words, God is no longer, their real “content” can give no life, satisfy no hunger, for they have no life in themselves…
And thus by putting his love in them, man deviated his love from the only object of all love, of all hunger, of all desires. And he died. For death is the inescapable “decomposition” of life cut from its only source and content. Man thought to find life in the world and in food, but he found death. His life became communion with death, for instead of transforming the world by faith, love and adoration into communion with God, he submitted himself entirely to the world, he ceased to be its priest and became its slave.
And by his sin the whole world was made a cemetery, where people condemned to death partook of death and “sat in the region and shadow of death…” (Matthew 4:16).
But if man betrayed, God remained faithful to man. He did not “turn Himself away forever from His creature whom He had made, neither did He forget the work of His hands, but He visited him in diverse manners, through His tender mercies” (Liturgy of St. Basil).
A new Divine work began, that of redemption and salvation. And it was fulfilled in Christ, the Son of God, Who, in order to restore man to his pristine beauty and to restore life as communion with God, became Man, took upon Himself our nature, with its thirst and hunger, with its desire for and love of, life. And in Him life was revealed, given, accepted and fulfilled as total and perfect Eucharist, as total and perfect communion with God.
He rejected the basic human temptation: to live “by bread alone,” He revealed that God and His Kingdom are the real food, the real life of man. And this perfect eucharistic Life, filled with God, and, therefore Divine and immortal, He gave to all those who would believe in Him, i.e., find in Him the meaning and the content of their lives. Such is the wonderful meaning of the Last Supper.
He offered Himself as the true food of man, because the Life revealed in Him is the true Life. And thus the movement of Divine Love which began in paradise with a Divine “take, eat…” (for eating is life for man) comes now “unto the end” with the Divine “take, eat, this is My Body…” (for God is life of man…) The Last Supper is the restoration of the paradise of bliss, of life as Eucharist and Communion.
But this hour of ultimate love is also that of the ultimate betrayal. Judas leaves the light of the Upper Room and goes into darkness. “And it was night” (John 13:30). Why does he leave? Because he loves, answers the Gospel, and his fateful love is stressed again and again in the hymns of Holy Thursday. It does not matter indeed, that he loves the “silver.” Money stands here for all the deviated and distorted love which leads man into betraying God.
It is, indeed, love stolen from God and Judas, therefore, is the Thief. When he does not love God and in God, man still loves and desires, for he was created to love and love is his nature, but it is then a dark and self-destroying passion and death is at its end. And each year, as we immerse ourselves into the unfathomable light and depth of Holy Thursday, the same decisive question is addressed to each one of us: do I respond to Christ’s love and accept it as my life, do I follow Judas into the darkness of his night?
The Services of Thursday
The liturgy of Holy Thursday includes: a) Matins, b) Vespers and, following Vespers, c) the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great. In the Cathedral Churches the special service of the Washing of the Feet takes place after the Liturgy; while the Deacon reads the Gospel, the Bishop washes the feet of twelve priests, reminding us that Christ’s love is the foundation of life in the Church and shapes all relations within it.
It is also on Holy Thursday that Holy Chrism is consecrated by the primates of autocephalous Churches, and this also means that the new love of Christ is the gift we receive from the Holy Spirit on the day of our entrance into the Church.
At Matins, the Troparion sets the theme of the day: the opposition between the love of Christ and the “insatiable desire” of Judas.
When the glorious disciples were enlightened
At the washing of their feet before the supper,
Then the impious Judas was darkened, ailing with avarice
And to the lawless judges he betrays Thee, the righteous Judge.
Behold, O lover of money, this man who because of money hanged himself.
Flee from the greedy soul which dared such things against the Master.
O Lord, who art good towards all men, glory to Thee!
After the Gospel reading (Luke 12:1-40) we are given the contemplation, the mystical and eternal meaning of the Last Supper in the beautiful canon of St. Cosmas. Its last “irmos” (9th ode) invites us to share in the hospitality of the Lord’s banquet:
Come, O faithful! Let us enjoy the Master’s hospitality:
the Banquet of immortality!
In the upper chamber with uplifted minds,
let us receive the exalted words of the Word, Whom we magnify.
At Vespers, the stichera on “O Lord, I have cried” stress the spiritual anticlimax of Holy Thursday, the betrayal of Judas:
Servant and deceiver,
disciple and betrayer, friend and devil,
Judas has been revealed by his deeds.
While following the Master, he plotted His betrayal…
After the Entrance, three lessons from the Old Testament:
1) Exodus 19:10-19; God’s descent from Mount Sinai to His people as the image of God’s coming in the Eucharist.
2) Job 38:1-23, 42:1-5; God’s conversation with Job and Job’s answer: “who is this that hides counsel without knowledge? Things too great and wonderful for me, which I did not know…” — and these “great and wonderful” things are fulfilled in the gift of Christ’s Body and Blood.
3) Isaiah 50:4-11; the beginning of the prophecies on the suffering servant of God.
The epistle reading is from I Corinthians 11:23-32; St. Paul’s account of the Last Supper and the meaning of Communion.
The Gospel reading (the longest of the year) is taken from all four Gospels and is the full story of the Last Supper, the betrayal of Judas and Christ’s arrest in the garden.
The Cherubic Hymn and the hymn of Communion are replaced by the words of the prayer before Communion:
“Of Thy mystical supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant;
For I will not speak of Thy Mystery to Thine enemies,
Neither like Judas will I give Thee a kiss,
But like the thief will I confess Thee:
Remember me, O Lord, in Thy kingdom.
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