Today on Holy Thursday Christ shares His life with us. The Old Testament readings for Vespers begin with Exodus, Chapter 19, Verses 10 to 19 in which “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Make them wash their clothes and be read by the third day, because on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.” Therefore, Moses “said to the people: prepare yourselves for the third day.” So it is for us: we prepare ourselves with Christ for the third day, the day of Pascha, the day of the Resurrection. How during the next three days do we prepare ourselves for the Resurrection?
The first response of the Orthodox Church is set out in further readings from the Book of Job, Chapters 38 and 42. Just as our Lent draws to its close, so Job’s sufferings draw to their close. The sign that the sufferings of Lent and of Job have ended is that the Lord speaks to all of us. The Lord asserts to Job and to us His power to create the earth and the seas, the light and the darkness. Before the omnipotence of God, Job recognises his own limitations, that he has spoken “of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know”; and therefore, Job repents “in dust and ashes.” Like Job, this Lent we too have repented, perhaps not necessarily “in dust and ashes,” but we have repented of our sins, of our casual assumption that we know better than Christ how to live our lives. Like Job, we have to recognise that the actions of Christ on this Holy Thursday are “too wonderful for [us] to know.” Yet, like Job we have now reached a point in our lives at which we can say: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” We had all heard of Christ and of His final meal with his apostles, but how do we see Christ today? What is Christ saying to us on this Holy Thursday?
In probably the earliest book of the New Testament, First Corinthians, written by St Paul sometime between 53 to 57 AD, Chapter 11, Verses 22 to 26 set out what Christ did tonight: “The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is My body, which is being broken for you; keep on doing this in remembrance of Me. In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; keep on doing this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ St Paul adds: For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” Biblical notes indicate that the Greek verbs for “being broken” and “keep on doing” are continuing actions—that is, actions that continue into the present—just as St Paul says, because every time we eat the Bread of Christ and drink His cup we “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” In other words, on this day of Holy Thursday, Christ has set out for us a model of how to be united to Him, how to unite how bodies, our minds and our souls to Him.
St John of Damascus, a 7th century Syrian monk and priest, has posed a question that many of us have asked: “Now you ask, how does the bread become Christ’s body and the wine and water Christ’s blood? And I say to thee, ‘the Holy Spirit is present and does these things which surpass reason and thought’ . . . It is enough for you to learn that it was through the Holy Spirit . . .” Furthermore, St John of Damascus points out that by receiving communion, “we have communion with Christ and share in His flesh and His divinity . . . we [also] have communion and are united with one another through [that communion]. For since we partake of the one bread, and we all become one body of Christ and one blood, and members one of another, being of one body of Christ.” Thus every time that we receive communion we are being united not only to Christ, but to all of those who have received communion along with us. Thus the unity that we receive on this Holy Thursday is a double unity—a unity with Christ and a unity with each other as fellow Christians who believe in the divinity of Christ.
This communion with Christ that we share today is profoundly important. We become united with Christ and with each other. We renew that commitment to Christ and to each other every time we receive communion. When a man and a woman are married, they walk up the aisle separately, but after they are married they leave the church together. It is the same for all of us, whatever our ages or our marital status. We each walk up the aisle alone because we each wish to be joined to Christ; and once we have received communion, we leave this church united to Christ and united to each other. That is the primary gift of Holy Thursday—that we have become united to Christ and to each other.
After the meal that Christ shared with his apostles, the Gospel of St John, Chapter 11, Verses 3 to 7, tells us that Christ got up from the table and washed the feet of the apostles. Christ knew that many of the apostles, especially Peter, would not understand the Lord’s desire to clean their feet and their whole personalities, but Christ told the apostles, “What I do thou knowest not now, but thou shalt understand these things.” A Biblical note on those verses tells us that this initial awareness of not knowing what Christ is doing is replaced by a new kind of knowledge—“knowledge learned by experience.” That is what happens to us tonight during this Vesperal Liturgy of St Basil. We move slowly but surely from not knowing how Christ is relating to us, to learning from experience that Christ loves us and wishes to serve us—to cleanse us from our sins, to make us clean so that we can then serve him, just as He served us.
Christ then prayed intensely in the garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives, as set out in the Gospel of St Luke, Chapter 22, Verses 43 to 45. St Ambrose suggests there is one final gift that comes to each of us on this Holy Thursday. For St Ambrose, and perhaps for us, Christ is saddened not only by the failure of His disciples to pray but by “the weariness of my infirmity. For He took my sadness, in order to bestow on me His joy, and come down to our footprints, even to the hardship of death, in order to call us back to life in His own footprints.” That is what Christ did for St Ambrose; and what He can do for each of us—to call us “back to life in His own footprints.”
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise
to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Father Deacon Emmanuel Kahn