Joseph Koh OFM
Lent is a season of soul-searching and repentance, a season of deep reflection. Holy Week brings Lent to a close. It is the holiest time of the liturgical year. As Christians, the purpose of Holy Week is to relive and to participate in the Passion of Christ. The high points of Holy Week are Palm Sunday and the Easter Triduum, which includes Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.
Holy Thursday is also known as Maundy Thursday. The word "Maundy" comes from the Latin for “command” (mandatum). It refers to the command given by Jesus at the Last Supper to His apostles, “A new commandment I give you: love one another” (John 13: 34).
However, the true climax of Holy Thursday is the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, which leads to the institution of the Eucharist and the institution of the ministerial priesthood by Christ Himself. In His last supper with the disciples, a celebration of the Passover, He is the self-offered Passover Victim. Every ordained priest to this day presents this same sacrifice, by Christ's authority and command. The Last Supper was also Christ's farewell to His assembled disciples, who would betray, deny or desert Him.
2.0 Biblical Reference
3.0 History and Tradition
In the 7th century usage, three separate Masses were provided for Holy Thursday. Two survived till modern times, namely the Chrism Mass and the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Holy Thursday has also from an early period been distinguished by the service of the Maundy, or Washing of the Feet, in memory of the preparation of Christ for the Last Supper, as also by the stripping and washing of the altars.
In the Middle Ages, Maundy Thursday was sometimes called Shere Thursday, "shere" meaning "pure" or "guilt-free." ("Shere" also had something to do with shearing, as it was customary for medieval men to cut their hair and beards on this day.) Medieval Christians achieved purity by performing penance throughout Lent. The Catholic Church recognized the achievement by formally reconciling penitents and, in some areas, by giving them a green branch. New converts who had prepared their hearts and memorized the Creed during Lent were purified through baptism in the Thursday celebration.
Because of Maundy Thursday’s connection with baptism, it has long been Catholic custom to consecrate the year's supply of holy oils for baptism, anointing the sick, and Confirmation on this day.
3.1 Origins of Chrism Mass
As early as in the 3rd century, the earliest witnesses to the baptism ritual (Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Cyprian) all agree that some “blessed oil” was used in the rite. Hippolytus alone indicates it was part of the baptismal liturgy itself.
The existence of three separate oils was ancient. The consecration of chrism was reserved to bishops from the beginning, and later centuries insisted upon this practice. The blessing of the oil of exorcism (later, of “catechumens”) and of the oil of the sick quickly became the provenance of presbyters, since they were baptizing and caring for the sick in their pastoral duties.
The time for the celebration of the blessings was gradually fixed on Holy Thursday. This would be for practical reasons. New oils were required for baptisms at the Easter Vigil. Rather than weigh down the Vigil with yet another rite, the blessings were moved to the next earliest day when the Eucharist was celebrated, that is, Holy Thursday. This also allowed time for presbyters, deacons, or sacristans to bring the chrism from the cathedral to the parishes in outlying areas.
By the Middle Ages, the blessing of all three oils at one service had evolved, and the rituals became more elaborate. By the 13th century, the priests gathered for the service were invited to join with the bishop in the prayers of blessing. With relatively minor adjustments, the liturgy remained the same till the 20th century.
In 1955 the rites of Holy Week were revised for the universal Church. The celebration of Holy Thursday became marked by two separate Masses, one in the morning for Chrism, the other in the evening for the Lord's Supper. But in the late 1960’s historical developments around the world forced yet another revision of the Mass of Chrism. Many priests were resigning from their ministry, clerical celibacy was widely questioned, acquiescence in the hierarchy was rattled by fallout from Humane vitae, and the Bishops of Holland met in council to seek further dramatic reforms. In response, John Cardinal Wright, Prefect of the Congregation of the Clergy, wrote to the presidents of episcopal conferences suggesting that "on Holy Thursday morning every priest, whether he be present at the Mass of the Chrism or not, renew the act whereby he dedicated himself to Christ and promised that he would carry out his priestly duties", as "an expression of the communion between the priests and their bishop." The revised lectionary included a new second reading from Revelation 1: "He makes us a kingdom of priests to his God and Father." Thus, the Chrism Mass was becoming for the first time in history a "feast for priests." This was built on a celebration that began as a practical necessity to consecrate chrism for baptism and expanded into a celebration for the blessing of three oils.
4.1 Chrism Mass
There are only two masses allowed on Holy Thursday, the Chrism Mass and the evening Mass of the Lord's Supper. In each diocese there is a Chrism Mass, usually said in the morning at the cathedral of the diocese. Its purpose today can be summarized as follows:
v The role of the bishop as the high priest of his flock, and source of unity for the ministers of the entire diocese.
v The blessing of oils for liturgical use, namely, for Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Orders and Anointing of the Sick.
v A celebration of the institution of the ministerial priesthood.
v The renewal of commitment to priestly service.
v The priesthood of all believers.
v The gathering of the diocese in the cathedral.
4.2 Mass of Lord's Supper
The Mass of the Lord's Supper is celebrated in the evening of Holy Thursday because the Passover began at sundown. There is only one Mass, at which the whole community and priests of the parishes participate. This is a joyful Mass, as we recall the institution of the Holy Eucharist and the priesthood. The priests wear white vestments, the sanctuary is adorned with flowers, the Gloria is sung and the bells are rung. After the Gloria, we shall not hear any music or bells until the Easter Vigil.
First Reading: Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14
The law of the Passover meal.
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, "This month shall be for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month they shall take every man a lamb according to their fathers' houses, a lamb for a household; and if the household is too small for a lamb, then a man and his neighbor next to his house shall take according to the number of persons; according to what each can eat you shall make your count for the lamb. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old; you shall take it from the sheep or from the goats; and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs in the evening. Then they shall take some of the blood, and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat them. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it.
“In this manner you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord's passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you, upon the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall fall upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.
"This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as an ordinance for ever.”
The First Reading is the account of the establishment of the first Passover meal. In the events leading up to this point, the Israelites, who had been held captive in Egypt, were under the leadership of Moses who had his older brother Aaron to speak for him. Moses and Aaron had gone to Pharaoh repeatedly and asked that their people be allowed to leave Egypt to go into the desert for three days to offer sacrifice to Yahweh. However, Pharaoh had repeatedly denied them permission. After each denial a plague came upon Egypt, nine of them in all, although in each case the Israelites were spared. Then the tenth plague was announced to Pharaoh (Exodus 11:4-7). Even this failed to convince Pharaoh so Moses and Aaron returned to their people to prepare them. This was God's instruction to Moses and Aaron who then conveyed this information to their people.
The sacrifice was to be shared in a family setting. It was a sacrificial offering to Yahweh and as such was to be the finest that was available, not old, deformed, diseased or infirm. The lambs were to be sacrificed in the community of Israel, not as individual sacrifices. Like all other covenants, this covenant with God had a sign - the blood marking the doorposts and lintel.
According to the Israelite tradition, even if they didn't like lamb, they had to eat the sacrifice as a mark of family unity. Failure to eat the sacrifice would invalidate the offering and the firstborn would die.
Part of the rite that forges the covenant involves eating the sacrifice. This may be reflected in the communion (peace) offerings of Leviticus 3, 7:11-21. The unleavened bread was to show that it was done in haste, there was no time to allow the dough to rise. As they fled Egypt there would be no time to bake, and the sun would beat down on the dough as they carried it. The bitter herbs were to serve as a reminder of the bitterness that they had endured as slaves.
An important point to note is that a memorial feast is the type of sacrifice that is repeated on a regular basis (as can be seen in verses in 18 and 19). A memorial feast didn't simply recall what was once done. It made the participants in the memorial present as participants in the original sacrifice.
Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Until the Lord comes, every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim his death.
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when He was betrayed took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, "This is My body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of Me." In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes.
The Second Reading contains the words of consecration that we hear at Mass. What Saint Paul is recalling here is the private revelation and instruction that he received from Our Lord at the time of his conversion (Acts 9).
For the Hebrew, "remembrance" is not sitting back and recalling fond memories. It is in fact the participation in the memorial sacrifice that makes the participants present at the first institution. This event is the only time when Jesus mentions the "new covenant," the covenant that will fulfil the covenants that were made with the Chosen People during Old Testament times.
Thus, by proclaiming the death of the Lord, the participants are uniting themselves with Him as He celebrates the Last Supper, is tried, and is crucified on Calvary. If the bread and cup were only symbols, rather than being Jesus' Body and Blood, the participants would not be present at the original event (re-presenting the original sacrifice), but instead would be participating in a re-enactment (a representation) of the event.
Gospel Reading: John 13:1-15
Now he showed how perfect was his love
Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. And during supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray Him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside His garments, and girded Himself with a towel. Then He poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. He came to Simon Peter; and Peter said to him, "Lord, do you wash my feet?" Jesus answered him, "What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand." Peter said to Him, "You shall never wash my feet." Jesus answered him, "If I do not wash you, you have no part in Me." Simon Peter said to Him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" Jesus said to him, "He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but he is clean all over; and you are clean, but not every one of you." For He knew who was to betray Him; that was why He said, "You are not all clean."
When He had washed their feet, and taken His garments, and resumed His place, He said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.
This Gospel reminds us that Jesus himself said that He came into this world not to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45). While the disciples are concerned about pride and vanity, Jesus teaches humility by the example of His deeds.
The acceptance of God’s will is noteworthy here. Peter initially could not accept Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet. This action typifies Jesus' life work, which Peter must accept as God's will. If Peter persists, he will not share in the "place" which Jesus offers His disciples (see John 14:3, 17:24); he will be cut off. Probably, Saint John wanted his readers to relate Jesus' words to their own life and to remind them of the function of baptism.
Finally, when Jesus had completed the washing of his disciples’ feet, He began to ask them whether they realized what He was doing. The meaning of the action is now explained to the apostles quite clearly. Not only do the apostles and all Christians share in the fruits of Jesus' lifework, but they must also act in its spirit. Jesus' whole life was an example of service towards people, fulfilling His Father's will to the point of dying on the cross. Our Lord promises us that if we imitate him, our master and teacher, in all that we do, we will find true happiness that no one can take away from us.
4.3 Washing of the Feet.
Jesus, in washing the feet of His disciples, shows both the worth God ascribes to the humility of service, and the need for cleansing with water (a symbol of baptism). The hymn Ubi Caritas is usually sung at this time.
After the Communion Prayer, there is no final blessing.
The action of the Church on this night, in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, witnesses to the Church's esteem for Christ's Body present in the consecrated Host. The Blessed Sacrament is carried in solemn procession to the Altar of Repose, usually a side chapel, where it will remain "entombed" until the communion service on Good Friday. No Mass will be celebrated again in the Church until the Easter Vigil proclaims the Resurrection.
The hymn Pange Lingua is usually sung at this time. We should remain in quiet prayer and adoration, keeping Christ company. There is a tradition, particularly in big cities with many parishes, to try and visit seven churches and their altars of repose during this evening.
4.5 Stripping of the Altar
After the Mass, we recall the Agony in the Garden, and the arrest and imprisonment of Jesus. The altar is stripped bare, crosses are removed or covered, symbolising the moment in the Passion of Christ when the Jews stripped Him of His garments. The celebrant (assisted by deacon and subdeacon) removes altar-cloths and all ornamentation from the altar. The altar, left bare, is transformed from the communion table of Maundy Thursday into the tomb slab of Good Friday.
4.6 Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament
The Eucharist has been placed on an altar of repose, and most churches are open for silent adoration, to answer Christ's invitation "Could you not, then, watch one hour with me?" (Matt 26:40).
A conversation with a Christian, non-Catholic, triggered these questions: “What sets Jesus apart from the other prophets such as Moses or John the Baptist? What would the Church of today be, (or would there even be one) if Jesus were merely a great preacher and nothing more than that? Or was it because Jesus could sing the psalms (Tehilium in that case) so well that He attracted many to follow Him? The difference that made Jesus the Messiah was that He died and rose from death. That was and is still the climax of our human salvation history.
As a Catholic, one of my fundamental understandings of faith is about the Eucharist? I would say that it is the centre of my faith. What if I do not enjoy the preaching of the priest? Or what if the choir in the church, which I attend, is terrible? Would that mean that this is the end of my church-going days? As Jesus has clearly said, “Whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh…” (John 6: 51). Jesus clearly instituted the Eucharist for the sake of sinners. This shows the importance of the Eucharist as the centre of my faith. No longer is my faith based shallowly on external factors, but primarily on the Eucharist itself.
I sum up the celebration of Holy Thursday in the Cross of Jesus. First of all, Jesus leads a sinner like myself to God, from earthly pilgrimage vertically to heaven. But to live is also to love one another from east to west, with Jesus among us, to see each brother and sister as Jesus himself, as He has taught us. Thus, the centre of my Christian life is Christ Himself. He alone can lead me to salvation.
The celebration of Holy Thursday, the celebration of the very act of the Institution of the Eucharist, and the command given to us to love one another, is significant!
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