When one studies paintings, sometimes you have what is called a “detail”. It is just a portion of the whole painting. So for instance, in the current issue of MAGNIFICAT there is an article on the painting “The Agony in the Garden” by Andrea Mantegna and there is a detail of just the angel coming down to strengthen Jesus.
Many important things happened on Holy Thursday. We have the institution of the Eucharist, the origin of the ordination of priests and bishops, the washing of the feet, the farewell discourse, and the agony in the garden—to name some of the highlights. I would like to see that as the large painting and do a detail of the hands of Christ in all of these events.
We can see the hands of Christ on the Shroud of Turin. They are nice hands with fairly long fingers. Because Jesus was Jewish, I see him speaking with his hands. I believe he was an animated speaker and would gesture with his hands when he was unfolding a parable. His listeners would be drawn to his face, for sure, when he was talking; but I think they would have also sometimes just watched his hands.
And so we come to the Last Supper. As Catholics, one of our biggest treasures is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the Real Presence that comes from it and is reserved in our tabernacles. Jesus knew he was about to leave this world and return to his Father and he wanted to leave behind a way that he could be physically present to us, although in a veiled way. He also wanted to find a way to perpetuate, in an unbloody way, the tremendous event he was going to accomplish the next day, and enable us to present it to the Father time after time until the end of the world. Therefore, we see his majestic hands picking up a large piece of bread, with his apostles looking on, and saying, “This is my body, which will be given up for you.” We can see this moment captured by the famous painter Peter Paul Rubens in today’s email mailing of “The Loop”. Jesus’ hands are so expressive. They realize, like we will never be able to, the incredible depth of the gift that is being passed on to us.
Likewise, those same holy hands took up the cup as Jesus pronounced, “This is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Those same hands would be sticky with blood within 24 hours, that same blood which he is now offering in perpetuity to those whom he loves.
In hindsight we can say that Jesus was instituting a sacrament. So in the course of the meal he also instituted the ministers of this sacrament and the six other sacraments that would unfold as the Church grew in understanding. He endowed his twelve apostles with the power to do what he had just done and change common bread and wine into his Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. In effect, he was ordaining the first bishops of our Church and at the same time giving them the authority to pass on that ordination to other bishops, priests, and deacons. It was an intimate moment with his closest friends, and I see his hands gesturing toward the Sacred Species as he says, “Do this in memory of me.”
What incredible power he has just given to a select group of human beings! To keep them from getting puffed up from their newly bestowed authority, we see Jesus’ hands slowly taking off his outer garments, wrapping a towel around his waist, and pouring water into a basin. The all-powerful hands of a Being who had participated in the creation of the universe and literally keeps all things in existence—those same hands are now taking the role of a slave and washing and drying the feet of his disciples. Those hands are demonstrating in a very concrete way that the ministry of the New Covenant is principally a ministry of service rather than authority.
Next, after Jesus had used his hands to put his outer garments back on, he reclines and starts speaking in a very intimate way with the eleven apostles who are left. They must have been spell-bound as they watched the expressions of his face and the gesturing of his hands. The words were so poignant. Little did they know that Jesus was giving his Farewell Discourse. Many spiritual-minded individuals see John’s Gospel as the cream of the Gospels, and the Farewell Discourse as the “creme de la creme.” It starts with chapter 14 and culminates with the Priestly Prayer of chapter 17. A portion of it will be read by Fr. Justin today after Communion.
Finally, in our meditation today, we focus our attention on the hands of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Many artists have given their rendering of the event. I mentioned earlier the elaborate creation of Andrea Mantegna in this year’s Holy Week issue of MAGNIFICAT. We see in the face and hands of Jesus the anguish of his soul as he pleads with his Father to let this cup pass him by. Those same hands which had healed and relieved so many who were in distress during his public ministry are now themselves in distress and begging for relief.
My brothers, what a lot to ponder on this momentous day. May we not let it pass us by like any other Thursday.