Maundy Thursday

Tonight marks the beginning of the Paschal Triduum, with the Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday Mass.[1] Like last year, many churches across the globe are closed, including the churches of the Church of Norway. Here in Britain some remain open. But since many churches remain closed, I choose to do a revised version of my reflections from last year, on what the Eucharist means for us, also when we are in the middle of a pandemic, as many places will, again, only be able to offer streamed or pre-recorded celebrations.

First, I want to quote the Psalm for tonight’s celebration, 116:1-2, 12-19 (according to the Revised Common Lectionary), before I reflect on how ‘online celebrations’ of Mass actually have value for those who watch them:

I love the Lord,
because he has heard my voice and my supplications.
Because he inclined his ear to me,
therefore I will call on him as long as I live.

What shall I return to the Lord
for all his bounty to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord,
I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people.
Precious in the sight of the Lord
is the death of his faithful ones.
O Lord, I am your servant;
I am your servant,
the child of your serving-maid.
You have loosed my bonds.
I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice
and call on the name of the Lord.
I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the Lord,
in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise the Lord!

This Psalm is part of the Hallel (Psalms 113-118) which is sung during the Passover Seder or Passover Meal. And this Psalm is sung specifically in conjunction with the blessing for the fourth cup. But how can ‘online celebrations’ have any effect on us? In her seminal work on the liturgy, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy, Catherine Pickstock notes that the Eucharistic celebration is not for the individual alone but is a communal celebration. She cites a rhetorical question supposedly posed by Martin Luther (but actually from British cleric and Protestant reformer Thomas Becon): “Can my eating slake your hunger?”[2] The claim made by Becon is that your eating of the sacrament cannot do me any good. But this is a very individualistic understanding of liturgy. To me it seems obvious that if you are blessed, so will I, in some sense. We are members of the same body of Christ, as St. Paul reminds us (Romans 12:1-8; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31). And, as he states: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). The mere fact that liturgy is being celebrated on our behalf – even if we cannot be there physically – is beneficial. Yes, many cannot partake fully at the moment, and that is a loss, but we can still remain assured that priests all over the globe are celebrating on our behalf and that Christ’s sacrifice is lifted up for the world to see.[3] Therefore, if you cannot go to a physical celebration tonight, tune in – on Facebook, YouTube, or wherever. Let us pray together with those who celebrate on our behalf. For some good reflections on this, see and listen to Fr. Thomas Plant’s reflections on this; “Church buildings, Eucharistic participation and pastoral care.”

And as you tune in to one (or more) of the many celebrations, you can pray this simple prayer of spiritual communion from the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament (found at this resource for praying at home, p.8, produced by the Anglo-Catholic Church Union and the Society under the patronage of S. Wilfrid and S. Hilda):

My Jesus, I believe that you are in the Blessed Sacrament. I love you above all things, and I long for you in my soul. Since I cannot now receive you sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. As though you have already come, I embrace you and unite myself entirely to you; never permit me to be separated from you. Amen.

Notes:

[1] ‘Maundy’ refers to the foot washing and Christ’s command to do the same. It comes from the Latin mandatum, ‘command’ in Vulgate version of John 1:34. In Norwegian we call it ‘skjærtorsdag.’ Skjær means ‘clean,’ coming from the Norse word skíra.

[2] Pickstock (After Writing, 155-156, n.122) cites an article by John Bossy, “The Mass as a Social Institution 1200-1700” (Past & Present, No. 100, 1983, 29-61, here: 44). He cites Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961), 283. The quotation, however, is not found there but is found in Thomas Becon’s “The Displaying of the Popish Mass,” 280, found in Prayers and Other Pieces of Thomas Becon, S.T.P., ed., Rev. John Ayre, M.A. (Cambridge: The Parker Society / Cambridge University Press, 1844), 253-286. Also see Seymour Baker, “Becon, Thomas” (in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).

[3] For a Lutheran argument for a sacrificial understanding of the Eucharist, see my article.

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