Before the popular display of piety that is the Visita Iglesia, the faithful are asked to attend the In Coena Domini Mass or the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. It is usually scheduled at around 5:00 or 6:00 PM just as the hot summer day is ending, just when the sun is setting.
It is a Mass that is profoundly meaningful, bathed in rich symbolism. In fact, through tonight’s Liturgy, Holy Mother Church affords us the experience of recounting and remembering three moving instances when the Lord gives His great mandatum or command – Love.
But more than the rites of this Liturgy, one must take particular note of the timing of the Liturgy. It happens before dark. Darkness is a metaphor for evil, for sin, ultimately, of death. It is the period of sorrow, of confusion and loss.
Jesus Christ, on the other hand, is the lumen de lumine, the Light of lights, whose arrival into the world was welcomed with the sky opening and the Angels resounding with the triumphant hymn of Gloria in excelsis Deo. But Jesus did not give His greatest command in the light. No, He entered into darkness to exclaim His mandatum.
The expression of His commandment didn’t come easily. He too had struggle. The Son of God also had His moment of anguish, doubt and suffering. He too was betrayed and sold like an object for 30 pieces of silver. In Gethsamene, His apostles fell asleep as He was wrestling with the Father’s Will, his tears of blood evident of His great pain and fright.
Alas, the greatest act of His commandment occurred when “darkness covered the land”: when He Himself, the Son of God, died.
Upon His death, He brought the mercy, love and salvation of man into the world. By assuming the lowest and darkest point of human life, and then resurrecting on the 3rd day, He defeats death, sin and Satan and raises our lowly state to that of His friendship.
As we begin our Maundy Thursday reflections and prayers, let us orient ourselves closer to tonight’s Liturgy where, as I have mentioned, the Lord’s Love is expressed in three rites.
First, there is the Rite of the Washing of the Feet where the Church commemorates the institution of the priesthood. Traditionally, it should be 12 priests whose feet would be washed after the sermon. However, in our experience in the Philippines, there has always been a lack of priests. Thus, it became the norm here that laymen will act as the Apostles during this Rite.
Why does this express the Lord’s mandatum? And how can it be connected to the Catholic priesthood? When Jesus washed the feet of His disciples, His words were:
He said to them, “Do ye know what I have done to you?13 Ye call me, ‘The Teacher’ and ‘The Lord’, and ye say well, for I am; if then I did wash your feet—the Lord and the Teacher—ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given thee an example, that ye should do as I have done to ye.
By kneeling down, washing and kissing the feet of His Apostles, He has set the tone of the ministry of the priesthood – it is of service and correspondence to His teaching. The priest is His servant, the priest is called to serve others.
Secondly, this evening’s Liturgy commemorates the institution of the Most Holy Eucharist. Tonight, the Gospel account is that of the Last Supper when Jesus issued the greatest legacy of His Life – the Most Holy Eucharist. The Mass is a gift from the Lord – “the source and summit of all Christian life” according to Vatican II.
From the first Last Supper, the Mass through the centuries has repeated the words of institution:
“And as they were eating He took bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them and said, ‘Take, this is my body.’ And He took a cup and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them and they drank all of it and He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the New Covenant which is poured out for many. Truly I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.'” – St. Mark 22-26
In the Last Supper, we hear the words that the Lord says that replicates His Love and His very presence. For us Catholics, we believe that He is truly present in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist – body, blood, soul and divinity. The Mass too is an expression of His mandatum or command.
In this Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the priesthood and Eucharist are connected and related as two of the greatest legacies of Christ’s love. We give thanks that we partake and experience in the continued mission of Christ through these two institutions.
Finally, the evening reaches its climax during the Procession of the Eucharist to the Altar of the Repose. By this time, the sun has finally set, and amidst the somber sounds of the the crotalus or wooden clappers, the priest, vested in cope carries the Lord under a canopy held by men, to the Altar of the Repose. Incense wafts and the ancient Eucharistic hymns of Pange Lingua and Tantum Ergo are intoned.
What does this Rite mean? It is the Lord’s suffering in Gethsemane. From the table of the Last Supper, He proceeds to the Garden of His sorrows where He doubts Himself and questions the Father. Yes, the Lord too wrestled with His Faith.
But alas, He assumes the form of a meek lamb and accepts the Will of the Father. His apostles fall asleep but He remained steadfast in prayer.
That is the final expression of His commandment: prayer. The prayer of Christ in Gethsemane is the prayer we must emulate – deep reflection, silent introspection and dialogue with the Father.
Tonight, don’t be carried away by the Visita Iglesia. In fact, tonight’s more important act of prayer is the Mass. As you participate in the Mass and in the Visita Iglesia, make sure to pray. It’s not about tourism and it’s not about cultural appreciation.
When you go to the churches, immediately go to the Altar of the Repose, kneel and gaze at the Lord suffering, doubting, praying and ultimately obedient to the Father. His command of Love is a command to obey the Father Who is Love.