There is a famous episode (often cited by the Holy Father) illustrating the devotion to the Eucharist in the early Church. In the year 304, a group of Christians from the town of Abitinia in North Africa gathered on Sunday, in defiance of orders from Emperor Diocletian, for the celebration of Mass. They were “caught” and promptly hauled into court. When asked why they disobeyed, one of the worshippers, Emeritus, gave this simple and profound answer: “Sine Dominico non possumus” (“Without the Lord’s thing, we cannot …”). Emeritus and 48 others eventually died martyrs’ deaths because they simply could not live without the “Lord’s thing,” that is, without the Eucharist.
A question naturally emerges: How did the Abitene martyrs come to regard the Eucharist as something they could not live without? How did it become for them, not just an external duty, but an inner necessity? The answer, briefly stated, is that they came to view the Eucharist much as the liturgy presents it to us tonight. They came to see the Eucharist as 1) freedom to worship, and 2) as power to serve.
1) The first Passover, which we hear in the first reading, foreshadows the spiritual freedom that participation in the Eucharist brings. For the Israelites were slaves to Egypt not just politically, but spiritually. If you remember the story, they asked Pharaoh for permission to worship in the desert, as the Lord required. When Pharaoh refused, God began to fight on Israel’s side. Hence, the Passover commemorates celebrates the moment at which God set Israel free to worship Him.
In the second reading, St. Paul’s account of the Last Supper, we glimpse the dawn of an even more profound freedom. Whereas the Passover gave external freedom to worship, the Last Supper gives internal freedom to worship, liberating us from the limitations of our ignorance and selfishness. Spiritually sensitive persons have always felt that any worship we “invent” is inadequate to Almighty God. In desperate attempt to please God, many nations were even driven to sacrifice their own children. This is one form of slavery. At the other extreme, there is the danger of tailoring worship to suit our own tastes and prejudices. We become a prisoner of our emotions and comfort, worshiping God in the way that makes us “feel good” rather than the way He deserves. This is also slavery.
That’s why the Last Supper is truly a new beginning in human history. Today God becomes man and himself teaches us how to pray. He not only provides words; He himself offers the prayer on our behalf: “This is my body that is for you …” And He promises to continue offering this prayer through His Church, through His priests: “Do this in remembrance of me…” At the Last Supper, in other words, Christ frees prayer from our human limitations. Even the Masses of sinful priests gain a hearing before the Father. Even the masses of sinful congregations advance the salvation of the world. At the Last Supper, He gives us the worship that corresponds, not to our talents and personal creativity, but to God’s will. We are finally free to worship without anxiety. Once one has tasted this freedom and understands it, then St. Emeritus’ response becomes entirely understandable: “Sine Dominico, non possumus …”
2) This brings us to our second point: that the “Lord’s thing” unleashes the power to serve. In the Eucharist, we not only offer fitting worship to God, we receive God himself in return. When we receive the body and blood of Christ worthily, we are strengthened in the core of our being, strengthened for love and for service. This seems to be why Christ chose the last supper as the moment for washing his disciples’ feet. In this gesture he reveals the inner nature of the exchange, the communion, that takes place at each Mass. God himself, out of love, condescends to be present among us in the form of bread and wine. Without ceasing to be God, he places himself entirely at our disposal. In a similar way, Christ, loving “his own in the world … to the end,” strips himself of his glory and washes feet. Without ceasing to be Lord and Master, He makes himself the slave of all. And He expects us to do the same.
This is a heavy charge. But Christ does not command without first making what he commands possible. He does not ask us to spend ourselves in love without first loving us “to the end.” This seems to be the point of a famous remark by Mother Teresa. As the story goes, a reporter once saw her cleaning a foul-smelling leper that she had collected from the streets of Calcutta. The reporter admitted, “I couldn’t do that for a million dollars.” Mother Teresa replied, “Neither could I.” Mother Teresa knew there was only one source of motivation strong enough to sustain her commitment. That’s why she spent hours daily before the blessed Sacrament. That’s why she often refused to send her sisters anyplace where they could not have Mass. Like the Abitene martyrs, she knew, “Sine Dominico non possumus …”
Happily, we do not have to live “sine Dominico.” The Lord continues to honor his covenant, to accept our offerings, and to give his strength, his freedom, His very self in return. This is the mystery—and the joy—of Holy Thursday.