Know Your Faith: What Holy Thursday Celebration Is All About by Fr Osita Eze
The Easter Triduum (Latin: three days) is that period in the Liturgical year which Catholics consider to be the Most Sacred. “It lasts from Holy Thursday evening to Easter Sunday evening”
The rhythm of the Triduum is marked by a series of liturgical assemblies, beginning with the evening liturgy of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, climaxing in the Easter vigil, and then closing with evening prayer on Easter Sunday.
Holy Thursday is also known as “Maundy Thursday”. The word ‘Maundy’ is a derivation of Latin which means the command Jesus gave to the disciple at the Last Supper, that they should love and serve one another. This is evident in the Latin text for John 13:34 “mandatum novum vobis ut diligabis invincem sicut delexi vos” (a new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another as I have loved you).
The Holy Thursday liturgy of the word narrates three stories: the Passover meal in Egypt, Paul’s story of the Lord’s Supper, and the story of Jesus washing his disciple’s feet. The Roman sacramentary indicates several topics for the homily: “the institution of the Eucharist, the institution of the priesthood, and the commandment of Christ for brotherly and sisterly love” (Komonchak 299). The service of foot washing as an act of humility concludes the liturgy of the word. Holy Thursday is the day on which Christ celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples four days after his triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. However, Holy Thursday is more than just a lead-in to Good Friday, but it is in fact, the oldest of the celebrations of the Holy Week.
HISTORY OF HOLY THURSDAY
Over the years the Holy Thursday was known as Mandatum after the Latin text of one of the antiphons sung during the washing of the feet (mandatum novum), “a new command”. It first appeared in Jerusalem in the 5th Century. In the West, the washing of the feet was in the rite of baptism. When the practice of including this ritual in the rite of Holy Thursday celebration came to the West, its inclusion in the baptismal rite was gradually removed (Uchu 32). The foot-washing service is not to be a mere reenactment of what Jesus did at the Last Supper. “It is meant to be a sign that the Church is the place where the members minister to each other through acts of loving service” (Komonchak 299). The Monasteries used this rite of washing the feet as service to the brethren and the poor. The Council of Toledo in 694 ordered the practice for the Churches in Spain and Gaul. The celebration of the Eucharist however was the dominant feature of this day in the 4th Century. Mass was celebrated only on this day during the Holy Week. The Missal of Pius V place the washing of the feet at the end of the Mass while the new 1995 Order of Holy Week places it after the Gospel and the homily (Uchu 33).
THE CELERATION OF HOLY THURSDAY
Since the reforms of Pope Pius XII, in the morning of the Holy Thursday priests and the laity of the dioceses gather together and around their bishops to celebrate the chrism mass. The consecration of the Oils since it is reserved to the Cathedral has gradually become somewhat confined to Clerical circles, a tendency further emphasized in recent times by the practice of renewal of Priestly commitment to one’s Bishop taking place within the same liturgy. There, the Bishop united with his Presbyterium, consecrates the Oil of Chrism which is a blessed mixture of Olive Oil and Balsam Oil, the Oil of Catechumens and the Oil of the sick (Adekola and Brennan 8).
In 1970, the Congregation for Divine Worship declared that if necessary, the holy oils may be from any plant and not only from olives. Traditionally, “the blessing of the oil of the sick occurs before the end of the Eucharistic prayer while the blessing of the other two comes after the communion prayer” (Kii 35). This is the opening of the ceremonies of the Great Triduum, and we feel it underlines the baptismal spirituality which culminates in a Eucharistic spirituality. These consecrated Oils will be used in the course of the year in Parishes of the Diocese. For Pastoral and practical reasons, this mass could be shifted to Tuesday of the Holy Week as some Dioceses do, but never outside Holy Week.
THE CELEBRATION OF THE LORD’S SUPER (EVENING LITURGY)
The Mass of the Lord’s Supper is celebrated in the evening, at a convenient time, with the full participation of the whole local community and with all the priests and ministers exercising their office. All the priests may concelebrate even if they have already concelebrated the Chrism Mass on this day or if they have to celebrate another Mass for the good of the Christian faithful (Theophilus 29). This mass is normally celebrated in white vestments and the altar festively decorated with flowers. “The cross is covered with white instead of purple and the tabernacle is kept empty as all are expected to receive Holy Communion from the host to be consecrated at the mass” (Kii 70). However, the significance and importance of this mass which is informed by the very important mysteries commemorated in the Mass namely: the institution of the Eucharist, the institution of the priesthood and Christ’s command to brotherly love expressed in the washing of the disciples’ feet. The evening mass of the Lord’s Supper also marks the end of the forty days of Lent.
By Christ’s action of the breaking of bread as the institution narratives, contained in the synoptic as well as in 1Cor 11:23-26, presents Christ instituted and introduced into the liturgy of the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. In Jewish tradition, breaking of bread is the exclusive function of the head of the house. This portrays Christ as a representative of God the father who gives us everything, through the earth’s bounty that we need for life, it is further a gesture of hospitality, sharing, giving and importantly of self-communication in which the Son communicates and distributes himself in the form of bread (Ratzinger,104). It is in the same view that the institution of the priesthood could be explained since the paschal meal is similar to the paschal feast of the Jews which coincidentally was being celebrated simultaneously with Jesus’ Last Supper.
The washing of feet is yet another distinguished aspect of the evening mass of the Lord’s Supper. This takes place immediately after the gospel. Usually twelve men are prepared for this ritual. The washing of feet which according to tradition is performed on this day represents the service and charity of Christ who came not to be served but to serve. There has overtime been a dispute whether women may be included among the twelve whose feet are to be washed. A case of this nature was taken by the Archbishop of Boston, Sean O’Malley in 2004 and presented it to the Congregation for Divine Worship who responded in the affirmative that “only the feet of men be washed at the Holy Thursday ritual” (Theophilus 32). However, the Congregation did “provide for the Archbishop to take a pastoral decision”. Thus, strictly speaking, the law provides that only men are to have their feet washed in the ceremony, however, the local Bishop can chose to include women in his diocese if he deems it fit.
Moreover, another important ceremony of the evening mass of the Lord’s Supper takes place after the post communion prayer. The Blessed Sacrament, accompanied by lighted candles and incense is carried through the Church to the place of reservation while the congregation sings ‘pange lingua’ or some other Eucharistic songs. Enough host is consecrated at the mass for the service on Good Friday since there will be no mass on that day. Everything therefore meant to be kept in the tabernacle are transferred to the altar of repose where adoration to the Blessed Sacrament is encouraged all through the night. Meanwhile, the altar is stripped and crosses covered until Saturday.
CHARACTERISTICS OF HOLY THURSDAY CEREMONY
SILENCE OF THE BELL: It is a practice that goes back to at least 2nd Carolingian period and thus, the silence produces in every heart, a sentiment of holy mournfulness. It is a sign of humility that imitate the Lord in his humiliation; the humble self-emptying of the Lord. It also shows that, the world lost all its melody and joy when Jesus, its saviour, was humiliated.
THE GLORIA: On Holy Thursday, forty days of Lent is said to be officially over and the Gloria is sung or chanted on this day while the bells are rung to give honour for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Thus, after the Gloria, we shall not hear the bells until the Easter Vigil.
LITURGY OF THE WORD: The readings to be taken on this day consist of the following:
- Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14: this reading describes the original Passover celebration.
- Psalm 116: thanksgiving for being saved.
- 1Corinthians 11:23-26: this is St. Paul’s account of what Jesus did at the Last Supper.
- John 13:1-15: here, John the evangelist presents how Jesus washed the feet of his disciples before the meal to show how the Apostles should treat each other.
WASHING OF THE FEET: During this rite, chosen men are led to the chairs placed in a designated place. The priest (Principal celebrant, removing his chasuble if necessary) goes to each candidate and with the help of an assistant pours water over each one’s feet and dries them with a towel (Theophilus 32). The choir chants every verse of a hymn that affirms the new law which is to change the world, the law of love, unknown to antiquity “By these men will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another” (John 13, 35) and “where love and charity abide, there God is found”.
Traditionally, normally the feet of 12 persons signifying the number of the apostles were recommended. Presently that number which even the revised rite of 1955 maintained has been dropped in the New Missal while practically, its known and seen everywhere that priests wash the feet of 12 people at the Lord’s Supper Mass.
OFFERTORY PROCESSION: In the offertory procession, the bread and wine will be brought and the gifts as a symbol of our willingness to be at the service of others either in preaching of the word or in helping the poor.
THE LITURGY OF THE EUCHARIST: It is the time when Christ gives his body and blood for our return to the Father. The preface and the Eucharistic prayer 1, extol the institution of the Eucharist. The ‘amen’ we say when we receive the body of Christ point towards that we identify with Christ’s body and we accept to be instruments of salvation to others. At an appropriate moment during Communion, the Priest entrusts the Eucharist from the table of the altar to Deacons or acolytes or other extraordinary ministers, so that afterwards it may be brought to the sick who are to receive Holy Communion at home.
THE TRANSFER OF THE MOST BLESSED SACRAMENT: After the reception of the Holy Communion, the Ciborium with the remaining communion reserved for Good Friday is left on the altar. The mass is concluded with the prayer after communion, there is no final blessing because of the procession of the Eucharist to the altar of repose and benediction. The Priest puts incense in the thurible while standing, blesses it and then, kneeling, incenses the Blessed Sacrament three times. Then, having put on a white humeral veil, he rises, takes the Ciborium and covers it with the ends of the veil. A procession is formed in which the Blessed Sacrament, accompanied by torches and incense, is carried through the Church to a place of repose prepared in a part of the Church or in a chapel suitably decorated (Theophilus 34). A lay minister with a cross, standing between two other ministers with lit candles leads off. Others carrying lighted candles follow. Before the Priest carrying the Blessed Sacrament, comes the thurifer with a smoking thurible. Meanwhile, the hymn Pange, lingua or other Eucharistic chants is sung.
THE PLACE OF REPOSE: When the Procession reaches the place of repose, the Priest, with the help of the Deacon if necessary, places the Ciborium in the tabernacle, the door of which remains open. Then he puts incense in the thurible and kneeling, incenses the Blessed Sacrament, while the Tantum ergo Sacramentum is chanted. Then the Deacon or the Priest himself places the Sacrament in the tabernacle and closes the door. After a period of adoration in silence, the Priest and ministers genuflect and return to the sacristy. This transfer is meant to change the mood of the liturgy. The adoration commemorates Christ’s own vigil in the garden of Gethsemane when he was overcome with sorrow, he said to Simon Peter and other disciples “wait and keep vigil with me”.
THE STRIPPING OF THE ALTAR: The Altar is stripped from all linens accompanied with a suitable hymn. This means that the altar is stripped of its rich and priestly vesture, namely: the antependium and altar cloths. The crosses are covered with purple veil to help convey the sober impression that our Lord has gone into his passion.
POST REPOSITION: The faithful are invited to continue Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament throughout the night, just as the disciples were invited to stay up with the Lord during His agony in the garden. After the solemn adoration of the Lord in the midnight, the Holy Eucharist is then taken away from the altar of repose and kept in the separate chapel or a suitable room. The tabernacle remains empty, there will be no Holy Eucharist in the Church, and this is because of the sober mood of Our Lord who has gone into passion.
Having seen what Holy Thursday stands for, it is paramount to note that the liturgy itself teaches that Holy Thursday’s meaning is not found in the “adoration of the Blessed Sacrament or the institution of the cultic priesthood” (Komonchak 299). The liturgy is a feast of foot-washing which proclaims that in the Eucharist is verified the acts of loving service of the worshippers. With it the Lenten reconciliation process is now completed. Christians are to prepare themselves to confront the glorified Christ at the personal cost of stripping themselves and washing the feet of marginalized people.
Adekola Patrick and Brennan John. Unpublished Lecture Note on Liturgy. Jos: SAMS, 2005.
Kii Pius. Holy Week. Enugu: SNAAP PRESS Ltd., 1999.
Komonchak A. Joseph, Collins Mary and Lane A. Dermot. The New Dictionary of Theology, Bangalore:Theological Publications, 2011.
Ratzinger Joseph. Jesus of Nazareth: Part Two. Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa, 2010.
Theophilus Malachy. Holy Week Ceremonies: Palm Sunday, Easter Triduum & Easter Sunday, Nigeria: Augustinian Publications, 2013.
Uchu Danjuma Peter. Holy Week Ceremonies Explained.