I am always very moved every year at this time, as I look up into the sky and see the full Paschal moon, and remember it is the very same moon that lit the sky on the night of the Last Supper. Perhaps it shone through the windows of the cenacle, or helped Jesus and the disciples pick their way across the Kidron valley.
Looking at the moon, which can seem both serene and sinister, we're reminded of both the joy and the sorrow of Holy Thursday. In the time of Jesus it was of course a sign of great joy, of the Feast of the Passover. One Jewish writer, Philo, from about the time of Jesus describes it thus:
Accordingly, in this month, about the fourteenth day of the month, when the orb of the moon is usually about to become full, the public universal feast of the Passover is celebrated, which in the Chaldaic language is called pascha; at which festival not only do private individuals bring victims to the altar and the priests sacrifice them, but also, by particular ordinances of this law, the whole nation is consecrated and officiates in offering sacrifice; every separate individual on this occasion bringing forward and offering up with his own hands the sacrifice due on his own behalf. Therefore all the rest of the people rejoiced and was of joyful countenance, every one thinking that he himself was honoured by this participation in the priesthood. On the Life of Moses II:224-225.
Thus the people were rejoicing in their exercise of their national priesthood, while happily taking part in the great Temple liturgy presided over by the ministerial priesthood.
This served as a model for what Jesus did on the night of the Last Supper. While, as St Peter reminds us in his first letter, we are all part of a consecrated nation, a royal priesthood, a people set apart (1 Pet 2:9; Ex 19:6), on Holy Thursday night Jesus instituted not only the sublime sacrament of the Eucharist but also the sacrament of Order.
By this sacrament the apostles were given authority to carry on the celebration of the Eucharist, and to make Christ sacramentally present until the end of time. This authority the apostles themselves passed on, down to the bishops, priests and deacons of our own time.
This authority is, however, to be excercised in humility. By the eloquent gesture of washing the disciples feet Jesus showed that their exercise of his priesthood was to be done in a spirit of service. A spirit of service to the people, and above all of service to the truth. The truth of what happened in the Upper Room, the truth that Christ taught, and was to teach, his disciples. So the institution of these sacraments is a cause of great joy.
Holy Thursday is also tinged with sadness, a sadness all the more poignant given the great festivities taking place all around. Jerusalem, packed with happy pilgrims preparing for the great day; the singing and dancing around the camp fires and in the houses; the shopkeepers, the innkeepers and stockmen happy with their takings! These scenes form the backdrop to the terrible events of the Passion.
It was as he showed his greatest love to his disciples and to the Church, that Jesus was betrayed. Betrayed by the very people he had just invited to share in his own High Priesthood.
In many ways this is deeply shocking. It is also, however, a cause for hope. Jesus knew how frail and false his disciples could be. From the prophecies of the Scriptures he knew the Messiah would be opposed and abandoned in his critical hour:
In the face of all my foes
I am a reproach,
an object of scorn to my neighbours
and of fear to my friends.
Despite knowing all this, Jesus still hands on his authority, and continues to hand on himself in the Eucharist. Let us pray for those given that responsibility, that they will carry it out faithfully and humbly.
The Eucharistic presence has accompanied the two thousand years of the Church's history, and it will do so until the end of time. For us it is both a joy and a source of responsibility to be so closely linked to this mystery. Today we want to become more deeply aware of this presence, our hearts filled with wonder and gratitude, and in this spirit to enter the Easter Triduum of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ. (Letter of Pope John Paul II to Priests, Holy Thursday 2000)