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The Last Supper

Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius
Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Christ washed the feet of His disciples. “Amen, Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me. A new commandment I give you, that you love one another that as I have loved you, you also love one another. By this you will all men know that you are my disciples that you have love for one another.” He instituted the Holy Eucharist and the Holy Priesthood. Divine humility, high ecclesiastical betrayal, humanly impossible love, then He gave us His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity to make that which for we humans is impossible possible. What a grace to have a holy, humble priest to open our minds and hearts to understand, Fr. Hardon.

Good evening, suppose we start with our prayer.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Hail Mary, full of grace the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen
Seat of Wisdom, pray for us.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our conference this evening is on The Last Supper. I would like to elaborate on the title and say that we shall speak on the Last Supper and the Eucharist, the Eucharist as foundation of the Christian family and of Christian society. Needless to say, this is an immense subject. Our plan for this meditation is to first say something about how there is a need for a foundation for the Christian family and Christian society. Then, that neither the family nor Christian society, I don’t think, can survive, can even exist without selfless, Christ-like charity. Then and this will be the cornerstone of our meditation. It is through the Holy Eucharist which Jesus Christ instituted at the Last Supper, that both Christian families and Christian societies are provided with the means for the practice, lifelong practice of that selfless, if need be, heroic, Christ-like selfless charity.

First then the foundation:

The foundation of the Christian family and of Christian society or more generically, of a Christian community, is the virtue in practice of selfless love. A family means that the members of the family live together, they associate together, they work together, they talk together, they enjoy life together, they suffer together, ah, but they must believe together. In the Acts of the Apostles as described by St. Luke, no sooner was the first baptism on Pentecost Sunday performed, when some three thousand people were baptized, and we are told just a few verses, after they were baptized Luke tells us, and they formed (a koinonea,) they formed a community, and behind the Greek verb (koinonea) is the concept of togetherness, one with another, we may say, before the coming of Jesus Christ, the family as we now know it, honestly, did not exist. There’s a profound, both theological and historical sense in which we can say as a family, authentic family, came into existence with the rise of Christianity. We go on.

The very existence either of a Christian family or of a Christian society or more broadly of a Christian community depends on selfless, selfless charity. This selfless charity we see already lived out in practice in the Apostolic Age. As the earliest writers in Christianity tell us, unlike the pagans, among whom the Christian communities were formed, most remarkably there was one husband, one wife, there was no divorce, no concubinage. The Christians accepted the children that God wanted to give them. And as we read the history of the early Church, we see that, and this is no cliché, what created original Christianity, was the practice of Christ-like selfless charity. So much so that, that is the way the Christians were identified. And their identification as Christians derived from their common faith in Jesus Christ and the love of Him and out of love for Him, their love for one another. We go on.

Neither the Christian family has a domestic society. Nor we may say the religious family or Christian society as such, can exist, could exist without the practice of Christian charity. This was the common experience of the early Christians. As a Christian family grew, so grew Christian society and with it grew the Church. Our modern popes keep stressing, re-stressing, the future of the Church depends on the soundness of our families. But they go further, they tell us who have the true faith that we who believe in Jesus Christ, we ought to provide the inspiration even to those who are not Christian. The inspiration to follow our example because, how this needs to be shouted from the mountain tops, it is selfless, generous, if need be, heroic Christian charity that converted the selfish, murderously selfish, pagan Roman world two thousand years ago. Well, we go on.

It is one thing to say that the kind of selfless charity which every form of Christian society requires, one thing to say, it requires selfless love. It is something else to say, ‘where do you get that selfless love?’ I have taught the Theology of Grace for years to my own Jesuit priests and scholastics, I told them what I’m sharing with you, the principle function of divine grace is to make possible our practice of selfless charity. Human nature, shall I repeat the word, is naturally selfish. Human beings are naturally self-centered. Human beings are naturally, naturally, spontaneously envious, human beings are congenitally jealous, human beings as human beings cannot, and the verb is cannot, be selfless by their own native power. That’s the verdict of two thousand years of Christianity. Either human beings have access to divine grace or they will be as selfish as they lack that grace. This is the absolute law of the supernatural life. Christ is ready, He must be ready you might say in sheer justice, to provide the grace we need to love one another as He told us to, even as He has loved us. And this is where I never tire clarifying to my students, the meaning of Christ’s words when He said, “I give you a new Commandment”. What’s new about Christ’s new commandment as spelled out at the Last Supper? It is new over that which is old. It is new over the Old Commandment of the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament, and the Old Testament could not be clearer. The chosen people were told to love to love their neighbor. Love their neighbor as much as they loved themselves. That my friends, in any language, in any vocabulary is plenty. There could not be an eleventh commandment of God, ‘thou shalt love thyself’, no need, we love ourselves, spontaneously from, I don’t say the moment of birth, from conception. We love ourselves constantly, we love ourselves patiently, we love ourselves endearingly, in a word we love ourselves. And the Decalogue told the chosen people that they were chosen to love their neighbor as much as they loved themselves. Which, I repeat, was extraordinarily high Old Testament ethics. Then God became man, without denying the precept of the Old Testament, Christ elevated the Old Testament commandment; “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”, by telling us, watch the plural, “love one another as I have loved you”. Two profound ways in which Jesus made His commandment of love, new beyond any conception of the Old Testament. He first told His followers to love one another. It is to be a mutual love, a love which is exchanged, a love which is given and a love that is returned. In other words the love of friendship as the foundation of the Church, which He founded. The Catholic Church is sound, and safe, and dare I say sane only where there are still Christians who really, honest to Godly love one another. By the norm, Christ’s new norm is no longer to love another person as much as we love ourselves but to love one another even as God who became man precisely, (comma) precisely, for this reason to reveal the meaning of love. God became man, the God who is love from all eternity, became man to reveal in a man how God loves and wants us to love accordingly, how is that? Ah, how this needs to be underlined, God become man in the person of Jesus Christ loved us sufferingly, loved us painfully, loved us even to dying on the cross out of love for us. Over the years I’ve been telling both my students and people that I speak to, there are two monosyllables that must never, (comma) never be separated, and they are love and pain, you separate those and you temper with the essence of Christianity. When St. Paul tells us that the second Person of the Holy Trinity having joy set before Him, chose the cross, he is telling us everything, that’s love, everything else is an approximation. And God, we know, did not have to become man. And having become man, He did not have to, well, undergo the passion and least of all, be nailed to the cross and spend three hours on Calvary bleeding to death. God chose to reveal the meaning of love, love gives, love gives in, love gives up. Gives in to it’s own self-love, love gives up to the one who loves, spontaneously and naturally, except for loving someone else, would with all the powers of his soul, hold on to. Now we get deeper into our subject.

Remember our basic theme for this evening’s meditation is the Last Supper. Christ our Lord, at the Last Supper, chose to do two things, He chose to reveal what we have been talking about, the meaning of true love as He who is God and God is love understands love. The God who is love chose the cross out of love. And then He tells us to follow His example and love one another accordingly. As inspired as we can be by Christ’s injunction, immediately, our, well, our natural mind tells us, ‘my God, how can I do it?’ and Christ tell us, ‘you cannot do it’. So what do I do? It is here, forty-seven years in the priesthood, over forty years of teaching theology, this is the key to understanding the Holy Eucharist. God having chosen to become man, and as man, choosing to die on Calvary. He chose, let’s be sure we know what we’re saying, He chose to rise from the dead in order that, having been on earth in His mortal humanity until Good Friday, He might remain on earth in His now glorified humanity on earth. I repeat, on earth, in His glorified humanity in the Holy Eucharist. And why, what else? It is one thing to speak speculatively or using theological language and say, we need God’s grace to love as Christ tells us, we must love one another if we are to be His disciples. True, but, it is not just, not just that the Jesus who gave us that humanly impossible commandment to observe would provide us with the grace we need to live it, no, no. Jesus Christ provides us with Himself to give us the indispensable means we need to live up to what only He by the power that He confers through the Holy Eucharist on those who believe. And that is why we may say that in sheer justice having first given His followers that humanly impossible imperative of loving one another as Who is God has been loving us. He had to provide the means, and they’d better be potent means. Dare I say it, they better be omnipotent means. And they are the omnipotent means to enable us to love one another as He has loved us, is Himself, which He provides us in the Blessed Sacrament.

At this point we enter on the vista that is as broad and far reaching as Christianity. I should add, that the present Holy Father unquestionably will go down as one of the greatest papal minds in history. My business in teaching theology is to know, well, the teaching of the Popes. Pope John Paul II is profoundly intelligent. Coupled with his superb intelligence, is of course, the grace of his office as Vicar of Christ. What I’ll share with you from now on has been taught over the centuries by the Church, but, never so clearly expressed as by the present Holy Father. Says the pope; “The Holy Eucharist is the Sacrament of Love, but the Sacrament of Love, three times over. It is the Sacrament of Love by enabling us to practice self-immolation. Again, the Sacrament of the Eucharist is the Sacrament of Love enabling us to practice selfless generosity. And finally the Holy Eucharist is the Sacrament of Love in enabling us to practice the selfless vision of Christ in others, which the Eucharist allows us to see Jesus Christ in everyone who touches our lives.”

At this point we will now open up a vista of theological insight. First then, the Holy Eucharist provides us with the grace of selfless immolation. In order to cover these three ways in which the Eucharist is the Sacrament of Love, the Holy Father distinguishes the Eucharist as a Sacrament three times over. First, it is the Sacrifice Sacrament of the Eucharist. In other words, the Sacrifice of the Mass is a Sacrament. Just because Mass is offered on tens of thousands of altars throughout the world, grace is conferred. Just because the Sacrifice of the Mass is offered, grace is given. What kind of grace? The grace of enabling us to follow Christ’s example. In other words, the Holy Eucharist confers three distinctive kinds of graces of charity corresponding to the Eucharist as Sacrifice, the Eucharist as Communion, and the Eucharist as Real Presence. On each level it is the Sacrament of the Eucharist, and in each case it is the Eucharist providing us with the grace of love to love one another as Christ has told us even as He has loved us. First then, we obtain the grace of sacrificial love of others. How? From the Sacrifice of the Mass being offered throughout the world 24 hours a day. How we need the grace to surrender, surrender what we prefer to what others want, the grace to surrender our self-will, not even selfish will, just our self-will. The grace we need to live a life of sacrifice. Where do we get this grace? From the Holy Eucharist, be more clear, from the Holy Eucharist as the Sacrifice Sacrament of the Altar. In other words, Jesus Christ the same identical Jesus that died on the cross on Good Friday, is now offering Himself, He must be the same one, and remember the essence of sacrifice is in the will, in the will. Jesus Christ is really present on the altar once the words of consecration are pronounced, Jesus Christ is present on the altar, and hear it, present with His human will. His body can no longer die, but His will, His readiness, His willingness to die, if He could. This is the source of the grace we need to live lives of sacrifice, self-immolation, giving up ourselves out of love for those whom God put into our lives, and I repeat, every time the Sacrifice of the Mass is offered, it’s the same identical Jesus Christ now glorified. He can no longer suffer but He can be willing to suffer. But He wants us, He wants us to join our sacrifices with His. On the cross He could suffer, through the Mass we join His generosity and by joining our sacrifices with His in the Mass we grow in our self-surrender to the will of God. We go on.

In order to live up to Christ’s humanly impossible commandment of loving one another as Christ wants us to love them we must practice generosity. And for that Jesus Christ instituted the Eucharist and more specifically the Eucharist as Holy Communion. Could Christ Himself be more generous than to institute the Blessed Sacrament so that at Mass we can receive into our bodies the self same body that Mary carried for nine months in her womb. And why? Why does Christ come into our bodies? So that by the generosity of His entering our bodies, our bodies and our souls might be animated with such generosity toward others as without Holy Communion would be impossible. Over the years I have counseled married people, if it is humanly possible receive Holy Communion every day. The most powerful source of grace that married people have access to, to love one another, love their children is Jesus Christ received in Holy Communion. And the same holds true for living with others and the more difficult people are, the more demanding, the more we need, dear Lord, how we need, what only Christ can give us by receiving Him in what we casually call Holy Communion. But hear it, it is Holy Communion because by Christ’s coming into our bodies He sanctifies us by enabling us to love others and in today’s world, this is not an exaggeration, heroically, and if need be, to love others even to dying for them. It is Holy Communion, I never tire repeating, in the early Church, the Church of Martyrs as we call it, hear it and don’t forget, Christians went to Mass and Holy Communion, hear it, every day. The Latin Fathers tell us (cotidiae) daily. They knew they needed it. Loving the very persecutors who are throwing them into prison or throwing them to be devoured by the lions in the coliseum. We continue.

The Holy Eucharist has a third level of providing grace. The grace of self-sacrifice through the Sacrifice Sacrament of the Mass, the grace of selfless generosity through Holy Communion. And the grace, how we need this, to see Jesus Christ in other people, ah, the faith this takes. We believe, of course, that Jesus Christ is really, truly and substantially, corporately and physically present on earth in the Holy Eucharist. But we are to believe that every human being that enters our lives, hear it, that every human being who enters our life is placed there by Jesus Christ, no pious cliché that. Sent into our lives maybe momentarily, like the drunken telephone call at two o’clock in the morning or the brute who threw me off the New York subway train, or over the years, dear God, thank You, for my enemies. To see Jesus Christ behind them and with Jesus Christ as He, dying on Calvary, could beg His heavenly Father, “forgive them for they know not what they do”, not a word of animosity, no hatred, no cruelty, no vengeance, love. To be able to do this, to see divine providence, and more specifically Christ directing people into our lives and to see beyond, beneath, within, above, every person in our lives Jesus Christ, takes, I’m not exaggerating, miraculous faith. And this is the faith provided by the Real Presence. Prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, the prayer of faith, seeing, say, behind the closed tabernacle Hosts that look and taste like bread a man, behind that man the living God. But hear it, this is the divinely ordained condition, we will see Jesus Christ in the people whom He placed into our lives in the measure of our devotion to Jesus present in the Holy Eucharist. Over the years, I’ve spent too many hours before the Blessed Sacrament not know what I’m talking about. What we need, what we especially need from God and only He can provide, is to see what the eyes of the body cannot see, what only the eyes of faith can behold. To obtain that grace, that supernatural insight, of recognizing that nothing in our lives ever happens, no such thing as chance, everything, (comma) everything, is part of the mysterious providence of God. And the most mysterious of this mysterious providence of God, needless to say, is the people that God puts into our lives. The way they act, what they say, what they don’t say, especially to me, or about me, or against me. It is surely not coincidental that the United States has the highest suicide rate of any major nation in the world. As a priest, I’ve dealt with enough, both would be and actual suicides. For five years while teaching at a state university chaplain at a state mental hospital, most of the suffering, most of the agony of human souls is the result of cruelty, cruelty on the part of other human beings. Ah the faith we need to see the loving hand of God behind even human injustice. To see Jesus, and the word, that cuts me to the heart and to be able to tell Him, ‘my Jesus, it’s for You’, and mean it. We need grace and the principle source of that grace is Jesus Christ on earth. Precisely to provide us with the light and strength we need. Dear God, how we need it, to live in a Christ-less world as men, women and children who are deeply in love with the Savior. I have a somewhat longer than usual prayer in conclusion.


Lord, Jesus Christ, You gave us the Holy Eucharist to remain with us on earth until the end of time. It is only, only through the Holy Eucharist as Sacrifice Sacrament, as Communion Sacrament, and as Present Sacrament that Christian families, Christian communities and Christian society, even can come into existence, not to say, survive and thrive. It is only through the Holy Eucharist that Christian societies can grow and be a witness to Your love to the unbelieving world in which we live. It is only through the Holy Eucharist that our families, communities, and society can grow, grow and develop as living witnesses of Your divine love. Deepen our faith in the Holy Eucharist so that, dear Jesus, You can perform the miracles in our societies as You did nineteen centuries ago in Palestine. Dear Jesus, to halt the murder of so many unborn children, to provide faithful charity, selfless love for the married, to provide heroic generosity and the grace of patient suffering in union with You, Our Lord. Mary, Mother of the Holy Family, our plea for us, something of your deep faith in your Divine Son hidden on earth in the Blessed Sacrament. Dear Mother Mary, except for you, we would not have the Holy Eucharist. Mother of the Holy Eucharist, pray for us. Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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