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Throughout Holy Week, we walk with Jesus Christ and keep him company during each part of his ministry. On Palm Sunday, we join our Lord in his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!” On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, we walk with our Lord during his ministry in Jerusalem and prepare with him for his Crucifixion. Now, on Holy Thursday, we join him and his disciples for the Last Supper.
The night before his Crucifixion, Jesus and his apostles gathered for the Passover meal to eat unleavened bread and drink wine. They did not sacrifice a lamb, for Jesus Christ himself was the Passover lamb. Before supper, St. John tells us that Jesus washed the feet of his apostles, showing them a true act of charity. When St. Peter protested, Jesus still insisted on washing his feet and only his feet. Afterwards, he told them, “Know you what I have done to you? You call me Master and Lord. And you say well; for so I am. If then I being your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so you do also.” Jesus also told his disciples, “A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” Jesus, the incarnate God, who is love itself and loves mankind perfectly, admonishes us also to love each other perfectly. It is for this reason that Holy Thursday is also commonly called “Maundy Thursday,” after the the Latin word mandatum, meaning “commandment.” On this day, God gives us a new commandment, that we love each other as Christ loved us.
The Last Supper is recalled at every Mass:
Who, the day before he suffered, took bread into his most sacred and venerable hands, and with his eyes lifted up towards heaven, unto thee, God, his almighty Father, giving thanks to thee, he blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: Take and eat ye all of this,
For this is my Body.
In like manner, after he had supped, taking also this excellent chalice into his holy and venerable hands, he blessed it and gave it to his disciples, saying: Take and drink ye all of this,
For this is the Chalice of my Blood, of the new and eternal Covenant: the mystery of faith: which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.
As often as ye do these things, ye shall do them in remembrance of me.
Jesus commanded his apostles to continue observing the Passover in memory of him. With this command, Jesus instituted the Holy Mass, which since that day has been the lifeblood of the Christian religion. The Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday celebrates the institution of the Mass. It is therefore a joyful feast. The vestments are white, flowers are placed on the altar, the organ is played before Mass, and the Gloria is sung for the first time since before Septuagesima (except on feasts).
In ancient times, there were three Masses on Holy Thursday. The first was the Mass of the Holy Oils, at which the bishop, together with all the priests, deacons, and subdeacons of his diocese, blessed and consecrated the holy oils for use in the following year. The second was a Mass of Reconciliation for public penitents to be reconciled with the Church before Easter. Since public penance is no longer practiced, this Mass no longer takes place. Finally, there was the Mass of the Lord's Supper in the evening, celebrating the institution of the Mass. In the pre-1955 Holy Week liturgy, there is only one Mass, that of the Lord's Supper. Private Masses are forbidden on Holy Thursday.
Blessing of holy oils
The blessing of holy oils, which has been done on Holy Thursday since the fourth century, remains part of the liturgy of Holy Thursday. In the pre-1955 practice, the bishop of each diocese blessed the holy oils at the Mass of the Lord's Supper in the cathedral. There are three types of holy oil. Oil of Catechumens is used for the anointing of catechumens prior to their Baptism. It is also used for some blessings of objects, such as bells (the so-called “Baptism of Bells”). Oil of the Sick is used to administer Extreme Unction to those who are gravely ill. Finally, the most sacred type of oil is Sacred Chrism, used to anoint new Christians after Baptism, in administering the sacraments of Confirmation and Holy Orders, and for consecrating objects set apart for sacred use, such patens, chalices, and the walls of a newly built church. Olive oil is traditionally used for the holy oils, though any vegetable oil is valid. The oil for Sacred Chrism is also mixed with a sweet perfume, traditionally balsam. The use of balsam comes from the balm of Gilead, a medicinal plant mentioned several times in the Old Testament (Genesis 37:25, 3 Kings 10:10, Jeremiah 8:22, Ezekiel 27:17).
As one of the most solemn blessings of the church, the blessing of holy oils is done in the context of the Mass. Moreover, since it is a function of a bishop in his office as chief pastor of the diocese, the bishop is joined by twelve priests, seven deacons, and seven subdeacons. In ancient Rome, all of the clergy of Rome joined the Pope for the blessing of holy oils. In the middle of the Canon of the Mass, before the bishop says, “Per quem haec omnia...et praestas nobis,” he washes his hands and descends from the altar. The ampulla (pl. ampullae), or vessel of oil, for Oil of Catechumens is brought into the sanctuary by one of the subdeacons.
Mass of the Lord's Supper
Mass begins like any other Mass with the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar (pages 4-5). Since it is still Passiontide, Psalm 42 is omitted. The Introit is the same as on Holy Tuesday, from Galatians 6:14 and Psalm 66:2, extolling the glory of the Cross (pages 5-6). Since it is a joyful feast, after the Kyrie, the priest intones the Gloria (pages 7-8). While the sacred ministers are reading the Gloria to themselves, the organ is played, and all the bells in the church are rung joyfully. (Under no circumstances is it permissible for the congregation to jingle their keys in place of bells. Our editor, Kermit, has actually seen that more than once.) Once the sacred ministers sit down, the choir sings the rest of the Gloria. At the conclusion of the Gloria, the organ and bells are silent. They will not sound again until the Gloria at the Easter Vigil.
The collect acknowledges God's perfect justice, addressing him, “O God, from whom Judas received the punishment of his guilt, and the thief the reward of his confession.” It then prays that we may receive the grace of our Lord's Passion. Whereas most of the focus on Holy Thursday is on the Last Supper, the collect does not mention the Last Supper at all. It is nevertheless a beautiful prayer, coming from the ancient Gallican liturgies and having been used in the Roman Rite since at least 1225. In addition, it is the same as the collect of Good Friday, demonstrating the connection between these two liturgies. There is only ever one collect. No commemorations are allowed.
The Epistle for the Mass of the Lord's Supper is the account of the Last Supper from St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (pages 9-10). This is the earliest account of the Last Supper, which St. Paul received by word of mouth from the apostles, and it is the account on which the Catholic Mass is most closely based. St. Paul begins by chastising the Corinthians for their irreverent practices in the Mass. He then gives his account of the Last Supper, in which Jesus takes bread and declares, “This is my Body,” takes the chalice of wine and declares, “This is my Blood,” and commands his apostles to do the same for a remembrance of him. St. Paul also warns of receiving the Body and Blood of Christ unworthily, which is why only practicing Catholics in a state of grace are permitted to receive Communion.
The Gradual for Holy Thursday is the antiphon Christus factus est from Philippians 2:8-9, which is also sung at the end of Tenebrae of Holy Saturday (page 10). There is just this Gradual, with no Tract.
For the Gospel, we hear St. John's account of Jesus washing his disciples' feet at the Last Supper (pages 11-12). St. John never includes the account of the institution of the Eucharist, but he devotes a full five chapters to the evening of the Last Supper. In these five chapters, Jesus commissions his apostles to continue his earthly ministry, instituting the sacrament of Holy Orders. In John 15:15, he says, “I will not now call you servants: for the servant knoweth not what his lord doth. But I have called you friends: because all things whatsoever I have heard of my Father, I have made known to you,” which is sung at the ordination of priests.
In today's Gospel in particular, Jesus washes the feet of his apostles, giving them an example of the charity and humility with which they ought to serve others as the first priests and bishops of the Church. St. Peter, the prince of the apostles whom Jesus appointed to be the first Pope, doubts Jesus, saying at first, “Thou shalt never wash my feet,” and then, “Lord, not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.” Jesus, however, insists on washing his feet and only his feet. Jesus admonishes his disciples to follow his example and obey his commandments. As he says later in John 14:15, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” This verse was adapted as a motet by the great English Catholic composer Thomas Tallis in 1565. Although the motet was written for Pentecost, it is commonly sung on Holy Thursday. It is clear that one of the biggest themes of St. John's account of the Last Supper is the necessity of following Jesus's commandments.
Since it is a major feast day, the Credo is sung. The Offertory Verse is from Psalm 117:16-17, a word of hope from our condemned Savior (page 15). “The right hand of the Lord hath wrought strength: the right hand of the Lord hath exalted me. I shall not die, but live, and shall declare the works of the Lord.” We can apply this to ourselves as well, strengthened by the Holy Eucharist.
At the Offertory, two large hosts are prepared on the paten (instead of the usual one), as one will be consecrated and reserved for the next day, when no Mass is offered. Otherwise, the Offertory is normal. The Preface is still that of the Holy Cross. At the Sanctus, since the bells are silent, a wooden clapper or rattle (in some sources called the crotalus) may be used instead.
The Canon of the Mass is special on this day in three different places. The Communicates is modified to begin, “Communicating and celebrating the most sacred day in which our Lord Jesus Christ was betrayed for us: and also honoring the memory...” (page 22). Likewise, the Hanc igitur is modified to:
We therefore beseech thee, O Lord, graciously to accept this offering of our service, and that of thy whole family, which we make to thee in memory of the day on which our Lord Jesus Christ gave to his disciples the Mysteries of his Body and Blood to be celebrated; and to dispose our day in thy peace preserve us from eternal damnation, and rank us in the number of thine elect. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
Finally, Holy Thursday is the only day of the year in which the Qui pridie is modified (page 23). The priest says, “Who, the day before he suffered for our salvation and that of all men, that is, on this day, took bread...” Holy Thursday is the quintessential Mass of the year, since we are commemorating the institution of the Mass at the Last Supper, the institution of the priesthood, and the Crucifixion of our Lord, the true Paschal Lamb. The liturgy reflects this, even in the Canon.
At the elevations, the clapper is sounded instead of the bell. The rest of the Canon is as usual. The Agnus Dei is sung and the three following prayers are said as usual, but the kiss of peace is not given. In the Passion of our Lord, the kiss is not a symbol of love and peace, but of betrayal (Luke 22:47-48). We do not give the kiss of peace on this day so as to not imitate Judas's treachery.
During the singing of the Agnus Dei, a second chalice is brought to the altar, with a paten, pall, and a silk veil. After the priest receives Communion, the priest places the second consecrated Host into the chalice and covers it first with the pall, then with the paten upside-down, and finally with the veil, tied with a ribbon. It is placed at the center of the corporal.
Communion is always distributed to the faithful at this Mass, and everyone is encouraged to join our Lord at his supper through the reception of Communion. As this is the quintessential Mass of the year, it is laudable to participate in it as intimately as we can by receiving Communion. In the book of Apocalypse, the angel of the Lord commands St. John to write, “Blessed are they that are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” The angel adds, “These words of God are true” (Apocalypse 19:9). The Holy Week schedule from Westminster Cathedral in London (not to be confused with Westminster Abbey) in 1939 mentions Holy Communion being distributed outside of Mass throughout the morning so that more people could have a chance to receive Communion this day, even if they could not make it to Mass.
After Communion, the Chalice with the reserved Host remains on the altar, so the remainder of the Mass follows the rules for a Mass in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed. In particular, nobody ever turns their back on the Blessed Sacrament. When the priest turns to the people to sing, “Dominus vobiscum,” he steps to the side so as to not turn his back on our Lord. Otherwise, the ending of Mass is as usual. The deacon sings Ite Missa est, and the priest gives the final blessing and reads the Last Gospel.
Translation of the Blessed Sacrament
On Good Friday, the day our Lord died, we abstain from celebrating the Mass. However, the priest still receives Communion from the Host consecrated on Holy Thursday. It is for this reason that the liturgy on Good Friday is known as the Mass of the Presanctified. Between the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday and the Mass of the Presanctified on Good Friday, the Host is reserved at the Altar of Repose, a side altar in the church that is adorned with candles and flowers. After the Last Gospel, all go in procession to the Altar of Repose, with the priest carrying the Chalice containing the reserved Host. This ceremony is known as the translation of the Blessed Sacrament. A canopy is held over the Blessed Sacrament, and lanterns are carried on either side. The clapper may be sounded during the procession.
During the procession, we sing the hymn Pange lingua gloriosi, composed by St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century for the feast of Corpus Christi (pages 32-35). It is a hymn to the Blessed Sacrament. The final two stanzas are the familiar hymn Tantum ergo, sung at Benediction. The faithful can gain a plenary indulgence under the usual conditions by singing or reciting the Tantum ergo on Maundy Thursday, in any language.
Upon arriving at the Altar of Repose, the deacon takes the Chalice from the priest and places it in the tabernacle prepared at this altar. The Tantum ergo is sung, the Blessed Sacrament is incensed, and finally the tabernacle is closed. Henceforth, anyone passing before the Altar of Repose makes a prostration, as if the Blessed Sacrament were exposed. All now return to the main altar in silence by the shortest way. Vespers may be recited in choir.
Stripping of the altar
Before his Crucifixion, Jesus was stripped of his garments (Matthew 27:35). In art, Jesus is usually depicted with at least a small covering for the sake of decency, but he was in fact stripped naked. When Adam committed his sin and condemned the world, he saw that he was naked and clothed himself. When Jesus, the new Adam, died for the redemption of the world's sins, he was stripped naked.
The altar, being the focal point of the church, represents Christ. The altar mensa, or table-top, has five crosses engraved in it to represent the five wounds of Christ. Just as Jesus was stripped, the altar is stripped of everything except the veiled Crucifix and the six extinguished candles. The linen altar cloths, frontal, flowers, relics of saints, icons, statues, sacred images, carpet, everything on the credence table, and everything else adorning the sanctuary is all removed.
During the stripping of the altar, the choir sings Psalm 21, a haunting prophecy of our Lord's Crucifixion that we also hear in the Tract on Palm Sunday and at Tenebrae of Good Friday (pages 35-37). When this is completed, all exit in silence.
Everyone is encouraged to spend some time with our Lord at the Altar of Repose on Holy Thursday, so that we can give a firm answer to our Lord's question, “Could you not watch one hour with me?” (Matthew 26:40). One may make a pilgrimage to different churches on Holy Thursday to visit our Lord. The traditional number of churches to visit is seven, originating from the seven pilgrim churches of Rome, though one can visit any number of churches. Most churches close at midnight. I have heard this explained as representing the presence of Christ taken away on Good Friday, but it seems to be a very modern practice (none of my usual sources mention it), and it is probably more for practical and security reasons than for symbolism.
Washing of the feet
The ceremony of the mandatum or maundy or simply washing of the feet may take place this day outside of the Mass. This ceremony has taken place since the apostles.
All sources say that it is to be done sometime after the stripping of the altar, but this is written with the implicit assumption that the Mass of the Lord's Supper is in the morning, and the foot washing is later in the day. It is unclear whether, if the Mass of the Lord's Supper is in the evening, the foot washing may instead be held earlier in the day. Of the FSSP parishes currently using the traditional Holy Week, I am not aware of any that do the foot washing ceremony.
The priest wears violet stole and cope, and the deacon and subdeacon wear white vestments with maniples. They are assisted by acolytes and other servers as at Mass. The deacon takes the Book of Gospels and lays it on the altar. The full ceremony for the Gospel of the Mass is followed. The deacon sings the Gospel from the Mass of the Lord's Supper, the story of Jesus washing the feet of his apostles. The deacon and subdeacon then remove their maniples, and the priest removes his cope. The priest washes the feet of thirteen poor men (though I have also seen it done with altar boys). Meanwhile, the choir sings a series of chants, including the beautiful and well-known chant Ubi caritas. Afterwards, the poor men are given alms.
Oil of Catechumens – Holy oil used to anoint catechumens before their baptism and for some blessings.
Oil of the Sick – Holy oil used for the sacrament of Extreme Unction.
Sacred Chrism – The most sacred type of holy oil, used for the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders, and for the most solemn blessings.
ampulla (pl. ampullae) – A vessel of holy oil.
crotalus or clapper – A wooden rattle or clapper used instead of the bell during the Triduum.
translation of the Blessed Sacrament – The ceremony of carrying the Blessed Sacrament to the Altar of Repose.
mandatum or maundy or washing of the feet – The ceremony of foot-washing that takes place on Holy Thursday outside the Mass.