It is with great expectations that I approach the high holy days of the Easter Triduum. The season of Lent builds toward the celebration of the Triduum. The technical term is the Principle of Progressive Solemnity. Every Sunday is an Easter celebration, but not every Sunday is equal in solemnity. Some are more solemn than others, and the most solemn of all is the celebration of the Easter Vigil. The three service of the Triduum, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, the Good Friday Celebration of the Lord’s Passion, and the Easter Vigil Mass combine to form a continuous liturgical celebration that spans three days.
Every year I enter the Triduum with great expectations, but I am a realist, and I have to steel myself for the almost inevitable disappointment that comes when the actual celebration of the liturgy is not everything that it could be. A very high standard was set by the parish to which we belonged when I was a naval officer stationed in Northern Virginia. The pastor of that parish has since moved on to another assignment, and I suspect that the liturgical excellence that we enjoyed during those years has moved on with him.
The Holy Thursday celebration, at least as I would like to see it celebrated, ends with the procession of the Blessed Sacrament around the church and to the altar of repose, typically in the sacristy. During the procession, the full Pange Lingua is sung, and the mass ends in silence, with the procession leaving the body of the church and the tabernacle standing empty. The altar of repose should remain available for several hours after mass for those who wish to pray before the sacramental presence of Our Lord. The symbolism is profound. After celebrating the Last Supper, Christ and his disciples have departed for the Garden of Gethsemane, where they will spend the night in prayer. We pick up the drama on Good Friday, when we commemorate the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Christ. Liturgically, Good Friday begins with the end of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday.
Being liturgically sensitive as I am, I find that celebrating fellowship with a dessert buffet following mass on Holy Thursday strikes a discordant note. As you might guess, I tend to avoid significant liturgical celebrations at my own parish.
I try to guard myself against being too puritanical, but I don’t want to lose or compromise my sense that the liturgy opens up spiritual realities. Whether the liturgy is well done or not, the reality remains. When well done, however, the liturgy teaches. When poorly done, the wrong lessons are learned.
I remain open to the argument that some form of fellowship celebration following the Holy Thursday mass is appropriate. Like most people, I am influenced by those that I respect, and so my eyebrows were raised when I read this from the funeral homily for Fr. Richard John Neuhaus:
The great Christian convivium on earth is the Last Supper. I remember being here at this parish for Holy Thursday in 1997, in my first year as a seminarian. Fr. Neuhaus celebrated the Mass together with his brother priests and then we all repaired to the rectory for a festive meal to celebrate the institution of the holy priesthood. It was only a few months after the celebrated FIRST THINGS symposium on the judicial usurpation of politics, and the priests were eager to ask the editor in chief all about it. Over drinks and then dinner, Richard put on a remarkable performance. Those who only heard him in the pulpit or read him in print missed perhaps his most gifted forum: the dinner table. He was a world-class convivialist.
After several hours, the dinner was sinding down and Richard had been the center of the entire evening. Nobody resented that, but Richard evidently thought that a Holy Thursday celebration of the priesthood should not be all about him. So he shifted to homiletic mode, and spoke of the wonder and awe in which he held the holy priesthood. More than ten years later I vividly remember his words as he recalled the Eucharistic procession to the altar of repose: "How utterly promiscuous is the love of God!" he began, using idiosyncratically another of his favorite words. Then he preached to us at the dinner table, using those cadences he long ago perfect at "St. John the Mundane" in inner-city Brooklyn: "The Son of the Eternal Father commends himself to our hands; the Word made flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary commends himself to our hands, . . . the innocent Lamb who died for the redemption of the world, the Risen One who restores us all to life, . . . this same Jesus, my brothers, allowed me to carry him in my hands. How utterly promiscuous is the love of God!"
I imagine, however, that even a celebratory dinner with Fr. Neuhaus would have maintained a degree of solemnity that would have made it somewhat more appropriate to the occasion than a dessert buffet at which I would have no expectation of a homiletic expression of appreciation for the promiscuity of God's love.