Monday, March 25, 2013


I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you: in the night in which he was betrayed

The word ‘tradition’ naturally springs to mind during Holy Week, when the Church observes the most ancient and primitive rites and ceremonies of the liturgical year. But ‘tradition’ is most especially and profoundly connected with Maundy Thursday.  Indeed one of the most ancient names for this day is ‘the day of the tradition.’ Like Palm Sunday Holy Thursday has a double aspect: it is a day of joy, bells ringing and the singing of the Gloria, because God gives himself to man and it is a day of sorrow, bells silenced and the altar stripped, because God had to be murdered for man to receive the gift.

The word ‘tradition’ comes from the Latin tradere which means both ‘to hand down’, in the sense of ‘to pass on’ but also ‘to hand over’ in the sense of ‘to give someone into the hands of an enemy or the authorities or to death’.  So the Latin version of the Epistles reads something like: I received from Lord what I also traditioned or handed down to you. . .In the night in which he was traditioned or handed over.

The Maundy Thursday liturgy glides back and forth between both senses, the giving of the Eucharist and the giving over to death, between the light and the darkness. In either case we are talking about ‘giving’. I give something away wholly and it passes out of my possession into that of another. When I have so given something, I have no right over it, nor power over it. Right and power pass to the new owner. Such giving can be a noble, if painful, renunciation of a loved one, when that is necessary. The purest joy can also exist when a great love for the receiver makes the gift a wholly free gift given out of love.

On the other hand, giving can be treason and infidelity, a lack of conscience to give away something which ought not to be given away, something which we are bound to defend with our life, if that should that prove necessary. It is also betrayal when we know that the hand into which we give a gift is not careful, not faithful, but rather careless and that it will desecrate and destroy the gift.

This is true of people and of things and most especially of the mysteries of faith and love, the presence of God among men, the gift of this Thursday.

And this is why the Epistle continues with words of warning:

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.”

This gift was entrusted into the hands of the Apostles, given by Jesus, He in whom God bodily dwelt, the good news of the Father’s love, and through the Apostles given to us, the mystery of the Eucharistic bread and wine, Christ’s blood and flesh, the sacrifice which reconciles and gives us life, the food which makes us immortal.

It should cause us to "tremble, tremble' as the old spiritual says. We should draw back as men from the greatness of the gift, before the daring of God, who gives such gifts, --his own Son—into such miserable hands, so little able to give the protection due them.  But from the very beginning, in the very night –this night – as the priest says in the Canon of the Mass on Maundy Thursday, God’s gift is betrayed, man sold Christ short, Judas sold him who had been entrusted to him, murdered him. Just at the moment when God offers Himself to man in the sacrificial meal of praise, anticipating that of the cross, man struck the hand offered to him.

This is the frightful aspect of the day, the thing which is so terrifying, the indissoluble union of God’s love and man’s faithlessness. Not only Israel turns away from the Messiah, faithless Jerusalem, not only Judas but Peter denying the Lord as well.

The Church ever stands under the temptation to break faith, to commit treason and denial. But even this sorrow is not just our own, for

“He has borne our grief and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.”

For us this night there is left only the duty of watching for one hour, being with Jesus, guarding Him, but guarding ourselves as well, into whose hands He has been given.

I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you: in the night in which he was betrayed.

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