The Meaning of the Breaking of Bread on Holy Thursday

Holy Thursday is the day when only one hour is given the Christian to rejoice in an inestimable favor: “The Lord Jesus, on the night in which He was betrayed, took bread, and giv­ing thanks, broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which shall be given up for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ After He had supped, He took the chalice and said: ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ ”

The anniversary of that evening when the small Host arose on a world sleeping in darkness should fill us with joy.

But that very night was the one when the Lord Jesus was delivered up. His best friends could still taste the Bread in their mouths and they were going to abandon Him, to deny Him, to betray Him. And we also, on Holy Thursday, can still taste in our mouths this Bread that is no longer bread: we have not finished adoring this Presence in our bodies, the inconceivable humility of the Son of God, when we have to rise hastily to follow Him to the garden of agony.

We should like to tarry, to see on His shoulder the place where St. John’s forehead rested, to relive in spirit this mo­ment in the history of the world when a piece of bread was broken in deep silence, when a few words sufficed to seal the new alliance of the Creator with His creature.

Already, in the thought of the One who pronounced the words, millions of priests are bending over the chalice, mil­lions of virgins are watching before the tabernacle. A multi­tude of the servants of the poor are eating the daily Bread which compensates for their daily sacrifice; and endless ranks of children, making their First Communion, open lips which have not yet lost their purity. And in the vision of the Savior, an immense multitude of unchaste persons, of murderers, of prostitutes, regain the purity of their early years through con­tact with that Host; it makes them again like to little chil­dren.

This article is from adapted from a chapter in the book, Holy Thursday: The Night that Changed the World. Click image to learn more.

Already on that night, He saw the pillars of Vézelay and of Chartres rising up from the midst of the land of the Gentiles, waiting for the living Bread which would give life to the world. The whole of Holy Thursday, all this long spring day, would not suffice to exhaust a meditation so resplendent with joy.

But the Mass is already finished; we must enter the dark­ness of the Garden — it is impossible to give joy a single min­ute more. For it pleased the Lord to institute the Eucharist on the very night He was betrayed. This mystery was accom­plished at the very moment when His body was to be broken like the bread, when His blood was to be shed like the wine. Without doubt, it was necessary that the small Host should arise on the world at that moment, in those shadows in which the traitor had already betrayed, in which Caiphas’s people were plotting their crime.

Only once during His public life had the Lord spoken openly of the marvel conceived from all eternity by His love. He remembered how much this revelation had cost Him and knew how many souls had forsaken Him that day. At the synagogue, in Capharnaum (St. John relates) had been uttered strange, scandalous words. Not only the Jews but also the disciples objected in these words: “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” At first they had not understood, and when Jesus had said, “The bread of God is that which comes down from Heaven and gives life to the world,” they had in­terrupted Him, begging Him always to give them of this bread. At that moment, it seems that the Lord made so bold as to lift up a corner of the veil. “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall not hunger and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” Already the furious Jews murmured against Him because He dared to say that He was the living bread — this man, Joseph’s son, whose father and mother they knew.

Everything then happened as if Christ, seeing that there was no longer any reason to spare them, would deliver His se­cret at once and throw the inconceivable challenge to hu­man reason. “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the desert and have died. This is the bread that co­mes down from Heaven…. If anyone eat of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

And as from the stupefied and divided crowd arose the question that reasonable people will keep on asking until the end of the world (“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”),Jesus overwhelmed them with reiterated, insistent, ir­ritating affirmations. It was necessary to shout it. The luke­warm people would leave; the timid ones would be troubled: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has life everlasting and I will raise him up on the last day.”

The mystery of Holy Thursday had therefore been foretold that very day before the whole synagogue at Capernaum. And from that moment, according to the Gospel, several disciples withdrew and they no longer followed Jesus. Being for every man the touchstone of faith and love, the Eucharist, like the Cross, divided minds as soon as it was announced.

Jesus must have seen those who withdrew, and not only these few, poor, hard-hearted, but with them all those who were to be scandalized by this mystery throughout the ages. Jesus must have numbered among them the philoso­phers and the scientists who believe only in what they see; and the mockers, the blasphemers who, from century to cen­tury, would fight, with unrelenting animosity, the small silent Host, the defenseless Lamb.

When the renegades had withdrawn, Jesus was left alone with the twelve apostles. Then He asked them this question, and it seems that our ears can still hear His supplicating tone: “Do you also wish to go away?”

Thus, until the end of time, the Creator will plead with His creatures.

This article is adapted from a chapter in Mauriac’s classic book, Holy Thursday: The Night that Changed the World. It is available as an ebook or paperback from Sophia Institute Press.

We also recommend the previously-published excerpt, “The Secret of Holy Thursday” here on Catholic Exchange.


François Charles Mauriac was a French novelist, dramatist, critic, poet, and journalist, a member of the Académie française, laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and a lifelong Catholic. He was awarded the Grand Cross of the Légion d'honneur in 1958.

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