Certainly the highlight of Holy Thursday is the institution of the Mystical Supper by our Lord Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, in the current liturgical practice of Orthodoxy, the Vespers-Liturgy of Thursday evening is sometimes de-emphasized and the service is often relegated to a more minor role in the spiritual life of a parish. I’m guessing this occurred in the years or centuries in which Holy Communion was de-emphasized in the weekly life of Orthodox Christians. As piety made Communion less frequent, the significance of the Vespers-Liturgy of Holy Thursday also waned. Since people weren’t going to Communion anyway, Matins of Holy Friday and the drama of the events of the crucifixion replaced in piety the celebration of the institution of the Eucharist and the participation of the faithful in the Mystical Supper of Christ.
The Eucharist like the sacraments of Baptism or Unction is a way for us to actually participate in the saving grace of the incarnation of the Word of God in Christ Jesus. The profundity of this saving event cannot be over emphasized. It is somewhat sad that we replace the reception of the Word of God in the Eucharist with only hearing of the Word in the Gospel lessons when in our parish celebration of Holy Week we focus on the Matins of Holy Friday rather than on the Vespers-Liturgy. It doesn’t seem quite Orthodox to me. We have our icons to “look at”, but the Divine Liturgy of the Church takes us beyond just “looking” and beyond a re-enactment or drama to actual participation in the Body and Blood of the incarnate God. It is my hope and prayer that some day all of Orthodoxy will again make the Vespers-Liturgy the main liturgical focus of Holy Thursday evening.
We can meditate on the Mystical Supper of Christ and our participation in the incarnation of the Word by considering the “Prayer of Joseph the Visionary” from the Syriac Orthodox tradition. The ancient Syriac Fathers composed poems to express their prayers and sermons. In them we find beauty and we encounter their efforts to take us beyond the literalness of words into the mystery which is salvation in Christ the Lord.
May my mind travel inwards
towards the hiddenness of your sacrifice,
Just as you have travelled out into the open
and been conjoined to your Mysteries.
The Christian life is a sojourn – we are always traveling toward the Kingdom of Heaven. Prayer, charity, fasting, scripture reading, service, ministry, evangelism and all that we do as Christians is movement, journeying toward God. We move, we sojourn, even when standing still in prayer. So the first stanza reminds us that prayer itself is a sojour: our mind/heart/soul are moving toward the kingdom. In prayer we approach the Mystical Supper of Christ. We are going to receive the Bread and Wine in which the incarnate God is mystically hidden, and also revealed. Christ, God’s own Son, journeyed from His throne in the Kingdom to His incarnate life of earth. He crossed every barrier that might separate God from humanity, to come to us and to unite us to the Triune God.
And now, when your Spirit descends from heaven
upon your Mysteries,
may I ascend in spirit from earth to heaven.
Joseph in his prayer sees the movement in the Liturgy as occurring in both directions: from Heaven (God) to earth and also in each of us our minds traverse the spiritual realms to enter into heaven. “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8). The Liturgy is always movement, drawing us ever closer to God and the Eternal Kingdom.
At this time
when your power is mingled in with the bread,
may my life be commingled
with your spiritual life.
At this moment
when the wine is changed and becomes your blood,
may my thoughts be inebriated
with the commixture of your love.
In Joseph’s prayer, it is not only the Bread and Wine which are transformed by the Liturgy. Indeed they do become the Body and Blood of Christ – God’s power mixing in with things of earth and transfiguring them. But simultaneously with God entering into the Bread and Wine, Joseph prays that God may also enter into him and into his own spiritual life. It is not just the Bread and Wine which become the Body and Blood of Christ, but we, the community of believers also are transformed into the Body of Christ. We want God’s incarnate presence not only in the Eucharist but in our own lives, bodies, minds and souls. Holy Thursday commemorates Christ initiating this most miraculous change of the things of earth, including ourselves, becoming the things of Heaven. So Joseph’s prayer continue with these most marvelous words and images:
May my body be purified by you
of every image and form here on earth,
and may my thoughts be cleansed by you,
and my limbs be sanctified by you;
may my understanding shine out,
and may my mind be illumined by you.
May my person become a holy temple for you;
may I be aware in my whole being of your majesty.
May I become a womb for you in secret;
then do you come and dwell in me by night
and I will receive you openly,
taking delight spiritually
in the Holy of Holies of my thoughts.
Then shall I take delight in your Body and your Blood
in my limbs.
(THE SYRIAC FATHERS ON PRAYER AND THE SPIRITUAL LIFE, pp 356-359)
All of these things are what we commemorate on Holy Thursday as we celebrate the Vespers-Liturgy and bring to mind the mystical supper of Christ in that upper room. We as disciples are called into this same experience that the original Twelve had.
This morning, I was at the London Correctional Institution to give Holy Communion to some inmates there. We recited together one of the hymns of Holy Thursday:
Come, O faithful, let us enjoy the Master’s Hospitality: the banquet of immortality. In the upper chamber with uplifted minds, let receive the exalted words of the Word, whom we magnify.
The Master’s Hospitality extends throughout the world, even into prisons, and into Hell itself. The banquet of immortality was served in a prison today, and the cell became the upper chamber with Christ present. The One Who descends into Hell, fills also the prison cell in which the faithful gather, and He fills the hearts and minds of each disciple. Such are the miracles and grace of our Holy Thursday commemoration of the Mystical Supper of Christ.
I will add one more idea, somewhat related to the above, but the power and importance of the Holy Thursday Liturgy continues to resonate in my heart so I want to add this about Christ’s initiating the mystical supper with His disciples on the day before He is sacrificed on the cross.
In Psalm 78:24-25 we read that “God rained down upon them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven. Man ate of the bread of the angels…” John repeats this line in his Gospel in John 6:31. But, it is interesting to note that while the Fathers found so many typologies in the Old Testament prefiguring Christ, a number of them did not see the story in Exodus of God feeding the Israelites manna in the wilderness as a typology or prefiguring of Holy Communion. Jean Danielou, for example, says that for Origen in the 2nd Century:
“Manna is not a type of the Eucharist. It is the bread for the imperfect, those still going forward and needing instructors. . . . The bread of the Promised Land is the type of the Eucharist and the true food for those who are perfected.”
Origen goes on to say :
“’Hence it is written in the same Gospel: Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness and are dead (John 6:49): if anyone eateth of this bread he shall live forever.’ For the manna, though it was given by God, yet was bread of travel … bread supplied to those still under discipline, well fitted for those under tutors and governors. But the bread Joshua managed to get from corn cut in the country, in the land of promise, others having labored and his disciples reaping—that bread was more full of life, distributed as it was to those who, for their perfection, were able to receive the inheritance of their fathers.”
The Eucharist in the minds of the early Church Fathers was not like the manna in that manna was a special bread supplied by God to sustain the Israelites on their sojourn. But the manna did not continue forever. For once the Israelites crossed the Jordan River they began to eat and enjoy the bread of the harvest of the Promised Land. It is this bread which Joshua provided them in the Promised Land. This is the bread which prefigures the Eucharist: it is not the bread of the sojourn but the bread of the Kingdom. They bread which signifies that we have entered into Heaven and have reached the goal of the long sojourn on earth.
Holy Thursday is the day upon which we celebrate this new bread of the Kingdom which causes us to live forever.