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Why we have an altar, and not just a communion table

Eucharist, Priesthood instituted at Last Supper represent love, service of Jesus

Published: April 2, 2024   
Bishop Anthony B. Taylor

Today begins the sacred Triduum, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday — the days when evil did its worst, but Jesus rose victorious and now offers us a share in his victory.

The first of these days has an older name which some of you may remember: Maundy Thursday. Maundy comes from the Latin “mandatum” and means commandment or mandate, in this case referring to Jesus’ commandment to “love one another.” 

The foot washing, which we have in today’s Gospel and will re-enact during this Mass, not only symbolizes this love and service, but it — along with the other events at the Last Supper recorded in today’s second reading — also sets the stage for all that follows on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. 

In other words, the Eucharist and the Priesthood instituted at the Last Supper are not only about Jesus’ real and enduring presence, body and blood, soul and divinity. They are also about the love and service with which Jesus gives himself to us … and as a consequence of which we are now commanded — mandated — to pour ourselves out for others. Let’s look at this a little more closely.

The opportunity to receive Jesus’ body and blood offered in sacrifice for our salvation was not to be a one-time event at the Last Supper.

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and in the synoptic Gospels, we have the account of Jesus offering us his real body and blood under the sign of bread and wine following his prayer of blessing or consecration during the Passover meal, which was his Last Supper with his disciples. He applied all that was said of the Passover Lamb to himself. 

Meanwhile, in the Bread of Life discourse in John chapter 6, Jesus proclaims the following: “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world ... for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” Hence Jesus’ real presence, his real body and blood offered to us in the unbloody sacrifice of the Eucharist. 

Recent surveys have suggested that a significant number of Catholics have lost sight of the reality of this greatest treasure that the Lord has left us. So for that reason, we in the United States are in the third year of a process of Eucharistic Revival. Here in Arkansas, we have dedicated a new shrine of Divine Mercy at St. Edward Church in Little Rock and have provided many more opportunities for Eucharistic adoration in parishes throughout the state.

Of course, to offer a sacrifice, you have to have a priest and an altar, so in addition to instituting the Eucharist, Jesus also institutes the priesthood, saying to the apostles: “Do this in memory of me.” The opportunity to receive Jesus’ body and blood offered in sacrifice for our salvation was not to be a one-time event at the Last Supper. 

Jesus now appoints his apostles to continue to make him present for future believers in the Eucharist offered in his memory. That is why in every Catholic Church, we have an altar of sacrifice — not merely a communion table — and in every Mass, we have Scripture readings and a Eucharistic prayer, in which we refresh our memory, recalling Jesus’ teachings and actions, and especially his gift of self at the Last Supper and from the altar of the cross on Good Friday and then rising from the dead on Easter Sunday.

Footwashing, on the other hand, is unlike the Eucharist and the priesthood in as much as it has to do with a mandate rather than a sacrament. And the mandate is that we undertake acts of humble, selfless service. 

Our Gospel says of Jesus, “He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end,” which he showed by washing their feet and then saying, “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, so you also should do.”

On Holy Thursday, this all comes together, and then at the end of this Mass, just as Jesus leaves the Last Supper headed for his Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, we will transfer the Blessed Sacrament to the chapel of reposition for a time of adoration, keeping vigil with the Lord at the very time when his Apostles were having a hard time staying awake. And at the same time, the betrayer — identified as Judas in today’s Gospel — sets in motion the events that will lead to Jesus’ arrest and execution.


Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this homily on Holy Thursday, March 28.

Bishop Taylor wants you to know more about your faith and the Church: Read Arkansas Catholic's free digital edition.

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