Thoughts from the Early Church

Holy Thursday
Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper

Jesus showed how perfect was his love.

This evening we devoutly recall the sacred day before our Lord's passion when he graciously took supper with his disciples, willingly accepting everything that had been written or prophesied concerning his sufferings and death, in his merciful desire to set us free. It behooves us therefore to celebrate such mysteries in a manner befitting their magnitude, so that those of us who desire to share in Christ's sufferings may also deserve to share in his resurrection. For all the mysteries of the Old Testament were fully consummated when Christ handed over to his disciples the bread that was his body and the wine that was his blood, to be offered by them in the eternal mysteries and to be received by each of the faithful for the forgiveness of all sin.

In this way Christ showed that as he suffered for our sake in his mortal body in order to ransom us from eternal death and prepare our way to the heavenly kingdom, so, in order to have us as his companions in eternal life, he would be willing to undergo the same things daily for us whenever we celebrated the sacramental reenactment of these sacred mysteries. For this reason he told his disciples: “Take this, all of you; this is my body, and this the chalice of my blood which is shed for all for the forgiveness of every sin. Whenever you receive it, you do so in memory of me.”

On the altar, therefore, Christ is present; there he is slain, there he is sacrificed, there his body and blood are received. Christ who on this Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper day gave his disciples the bread and the cup is the same Christ who today consecrates these elements. It is not the man who handles the sacramental species who consecrates Christ's body and blood; it is Christ himself, who was crucified for you. By the lips of the priest the words are pronounced; the body and blood are consecrated by the power and grace of God.

And so in all things let the purity of our mind and thought be evident, for we have a pure and holy sacrifice and must train our souls in a corresponding holiness. Having done all that needs to be done, we may then celebrate these sacred mysteries with all simplicity. Let us therefore approach Christ's altar in a fitting manner, so that we may be counted worthy to share eternal life with Christ, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

(Sermo Mai 143: PLS 2, 1238-1239)

Augustine (354-430) was born at Thagaste in Africa and received a Christian education, although he was not baptized until 387. In 391 he was ordained priest and in 395 he became coadjutor bishop to Valerius of Hippo, whom he succeeded in 396. Augustine's theology was formulated in the course of his struggle with three heresies: Manicheism, Donatism, and Pelagianism. His writings are voluminous and his influence on subsequent theology immense. He molded the thought of the Middle Ages down to the thirteenth century. Yet he was above all a pastor and a great spiritual writer.

Good Friday of the Lord's Passion

Commentary by Peter Chrysologus

The account of the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ.

“The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” But what do the sheep gain from the death of their shepherd? We can see from Christ's own death that it leaves the beloved flock a prey to wild beasts, exposed to depredation and slaughter, as indeed the apostles experienced after Jesus had laid down his life for his sheep, consenting to his own murder, and they found themselves uprooted and scattered abroad. The same story is told by the blood of martyrs shed throughout the world, the bodies of Christians thrown to wild beasts, burnt at the stake or flung into rivers: all this suffering was brought about by the death of their shepherd, and his life could have prevented it.

But it is by dying that your shepherd proves his love for you. When danger threatens his sheep and he sees himself unable to protect them, he chooses to die rather than to see calamity overtake his flock. What am I saying? Could Life himself die unless he chose to? Could anyone take life from its author against his will? He himself declared: “I have power to lay down my life, and I have power to take it up again; no one takes it from me.” To die, therefore, was his own choice; immortal though he was, he allowed himself to be put to death. 

By allowing himself to be taken captive, he overpowered his opponent; by submitting he overcame him; by his own execution he penalized his enemy, and by dying he opened the door to the conquest of death for his whole flock. And so the Good Shepherd lost none of his sheep when he laid down his life for them; he did not desert them, but kept them safe; he did not abandon them but called them to follow him, leading them by the way of death through the lowlands of this passing world to the pastures of life.

Listen to the shepherd's words: “My sheep hear my voice and follow me.” Those who have followed him to death will inevitably also follow him to life; his companions in shame will be his companions in honor, just as those who have shared his suffering will share his glory. “Where I am,” he says, “there shall my servant be also.” And where is that? Surely in heaven, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Do not be troubled, then, because you must live by faith, nor grow weary because hope is deferred. Your reward is certain; it is preserved for you in him who created all things. “You are dead,” Scripture says, “and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ your life appears, you too will appear with him in glory.” What was concealed from the farmer at seedtime he will see as he gathers in the sheaves, and the man who plows in sorrow will harvest his crop in gladness.

(Sermon 40: PL 52, 313-314)

Peter Chrysologus (c.400-450), who was born at Imola in Italy, became bishop of Ravenna. He was highly esteemed by the Empress Galla Placidia, in whose presence he preached his first sermon as bishop. He was above all a pastor, and many of his sermons have been preserved.

Vigil on the Holy Night of Easter

Commentary attributed to Hippolytus of Rome

Why look among the dead for someone who is alive?

Now the holy rays of the light of Christ shine forth, the pure stars of the pure Spirit rise, the heavenly treasures of glory and divinity lie open. In this splendor the long dark night has been swallowed up and the dreary shadows of death have vanished. Life is offered to everyone; the whole world is filled with glory. A heavenly light more brilliant than all others sheds its radiance everywhere, and he who was begotten before the morning star and all the stars of heaven, Christ, mighty and immortal, shines upon all creatures more brightly than the sun.

For us who believe in him a glorious day has dawned, a long unending day, the mystical Passover symbolically celebrated by the law and effectually accomplished by Christ, a wonderful passover, a miracle of divine virtue, a work of divine power. This is the true festival and the everlasting memorial, the day upon which freedom from suffering comes from suffering, immortality from death, life from the tomb, healing from a wound, resurrection from the fall, and ascension into heaven from the descent into hell. So does God perform his mighty works, bringing the incredible from the impossible to show that he alone can do whatever he wishes.

To show that he had power over death Christ had exercised his royal authority to loose death’s bonds even during his lifetime, as for example when he gave the commands, “Lazarus, come out and Arise, my child.” For the same reason he surrendered himself completely to death, so that in him that gluttonous beast with his insatiable appetite would die completely. Since “death’s power comes from sin,” it searched everywhere in his sinless body for its accustomed food, for sensuality, pride, disobedience or, in a word, for that ancient sin which was its original sustenance. In him, however, it found nothing to feed on and so, being entirely closed in upon itself and destroyed for lack of nourishment, death became its own death.

Many of the just, proclaiming the Good News and prophesying were awaiting him who was to become by his resurrection “the firstborn from the dead.” And so, to save all members of the human race, whether they lived before the law, under the law, or after his own coming, Christ dwelt three days beneath the earth.

After his resurrection it was the women who were the first to see him, for as a woman brought the first sin into the world, so a woman first announced the news of life to the world. Thus they heard the holy words, “Women, rejoice,” for sadness was to be swallowed up by the joy of the resurrection.

O heavenly bounty, spiritual feast, divine Passover, coming down from heaven to earth and ascending again into heaven! You are the light of the new candles, the brightness of the virgins’ lamps. Thanks to you the lamps of souls filled with the oil of Christ are no longer extinguished, for the spiritual and divine fire of love burns in all, in both soul and body.

O God, spiritual and eternal Lord, and Christ, Lord and king, we entreat you to extend your strong protecting hands over your holy Church and over your holy people, for ever devoted to you. Raise high in our defense the trophies of your triumph and grant that we like Moses may sing a hymn of victory, for yours is the glory and the power throughout all ages. Amen.

(Easter Homily: SC 27,116-118. 164-190)

Hippolytus (c. 170-236) was a Roman priest who probably came originally from the East. When Pope Callistus relaxed the penitential discipline of the Church, Hippolytus became the first anti-pope. The schism continued into the reign of Pontianus, but when Potianus and Hippolytus were both exiled to the mines of Sardinia they were reconciled before dying as martyrs for the faith.

Easter Sunday Resurrection of the Lord

Commentary by Guerric of Igny

   Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

“Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection.” Christ is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep and the firstborn from the dead. His resurrection, which is the prototype of all others, has guaranteed the rising of our souls in the first resurrection and of our bodies in the second, for he offers his own risen body to our souls as sacrament and to our bodies as exemplar. Even for our souls Christ’s single resurrection has prepared a twofold grace: through the living out of the paschal mystery in our daily lives we rise from the death of sin, and by our joyful celebration of the paschal feast today especially we rouse ourselves from the torpor of sleep. Slothful and halfhearted indeed must that person be who does not feel a thrill of joy, a sense of new life and vigor, at the glad cry: “The Lord is risen!” For myself, when I looked upon the dead Jesus I was overwhelmed by despairing grief, but in the living God, as scripture says, my heart and my flesh rejoice. It is with no mean profit to faith, no slight dividend of joy, that Jesus returns to me from the tomb, for I recognize the living God where only a little while ago I mourned a dead man. My heart was sorrowing for him as slain, but now that he is risen, not only my heart but my flesh also rejoices in the confident hope of my own resurrection and immortality.

"I slept and I arose,” Christ says. Awake then, my sleeping soul, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light! As the new sun rises from below, the grace of the resurrection already casts its radiance over the whole world, a radiance reflected in the eyes of those who have watched for him since daybreak, a dawn that ushers in the day of eternity. This is the day that knows no evening, the day whose sun will never set again. Only once has that sun gone down, and now once and for all it has ascended above the heavens, leading death captive in its train.

“This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad.” And you also, if you watch daily at the threshold of wisdom, fixing your eyes on the doorway and, like the Magdalen, keeping vigil at the entrance to his tomb, you also will find what she found. You will know that what was written of wisdom was written of Christ: “She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her. Anyone who rises early to seek her will have no trouble; he will find her sitting at his gates.” While it was still dark Mary had come to watch at the tomb, and she found Jesus whom she sought standing there in the flesh. But you must know him now according to the spirit, not according to the flesh, and you can be sure of finding his spiritual presence if you seek him with a desire like hers, and if he observes your persevering prayer. Say then to the Lord Jesus, with Mary’s love and longing: “My soul yearns for you in the night; my spirit within me earnestly seeks for you.” Make the psalmist’s prayer your own as you say: “O God, my God, I watch for you at morning light; my soul thirsts for you.” Then see if you do not also find yourselves singing with them both: “In the morning fill us with your love; we shall exult and rejoice all our days.”

(Sermon on Easter 3, 1-2: PL 185, 148-149)

Guerric of Igny (c. 1070/1080-1157), about whose early life little is known, probably received his education at the cathedral school of Tournai, perhaps under the influence of Odo of Cambrai (1807-1092). He seems to have lived a retired life of prayer and study near the cathedral of Tournai. He paid a visit to Clairvaux to consult Saint Bernard, and is mentioned by him as a novice in a letter to Ogerius in 1125/1256. He became abbot of the Cistercian abbey of Igny, in the diocese of Rheims in 1138. A collection of 54 authentic sermons preached on Sundays and feast days has been edited. Guerric’s spirituality was influenced by Origen.

**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson