Holy Thursday

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The Thursday before Easter, and first day of the Easter Triduum has had several names in the course of time; all of them point to one or another aspect of the day's celebration. The official name, and at the same time probably the oldest, is Feria Quinta in Coena Domini (Thursday of the Lord's Supper), because it chiefly commemorates the institution of the Holy Eucharist. The same idea lies behind the charming and original name given it in the calendar of Polemius Silvius (fifth century), natalis calicis (birth of the chalice), also current in southern Gaul during the sixth and seventh centuries. The term natale sacramenti (birth of the Sacrament) is similar in meaning. In some places in the past, it was called dies traditionis, referring to the many traditiones (betrayal or handing over) that occurred on that day: the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, Jesus' handing over of himself for the salvation of humanity, and the giving of his body and blood in the Eucharist. English-speaking lands often call it Maundy Thursday, a corruption of the Latin word mandatum, used to describe the rite of washing of the feet associated with Holy Thursday for centuries. The Germans call it Gründonnerstag (Grinenden, greinenden, weinenden, weeping), which appears to be a reference to the reconciliation of the penitents that took place on this day for many centuries. The most popular name in all languages, however, is Holy Thursday.

Historical Background. The celebration of Holy Thursday is very ancient. Historically, the reconciliation of penitents took place on this day, to enable them to participate in the paschal feast. Traditionally, the holy oils were also consecrated on Thursday because they would be needed for the blessing of the baptismal water, and this was the last day that would be free for their consecration. Before the seventh century, however, they were consecrated during the East Vigil. The 1955 reforms of Pope Pius XII called for a special Mass of the Chrism, distinct from the solemn evening liturgy, to be celebrated in cathedrals in the morning. The prayers and the proper preface for the Mass of the Chrism were taken from the Gelasian Sacramentary, but new readings were provided.

It was altogether natural that there should be a special commemoration of the institution of the Eucharist on the day when this great event had taken place. Already in the fourth century it was known as in coena Domini, i.e., Thursday of the Lord's Supper. The custom of celebrating the Eucharist itself on the evening of Holy Thursday about the hour when it was instituted seems to have originated in Jerusalem.

The rite of washing of the feet was originally a simple act of charity very common in the Church. It did not become a liturgical rite until about the seventh century. Its purpose is to manifest the charity and love that should motivate those who will be participating in the Lord's Supper.

The procession of the reserved sacrament to the altar of repose is the one modern survival of the earlier, more common practice of reserving consecrated hosts for Communion on those days when the Eucharist was not celebrated. Such aliturgical days occurred more frequently in earlier times. Originally, there was no special ceremony about it; as soon as Mass was over the deacon took the consecrated hosts in the pyx from the main altar and carried them to the sacristy where they were reserved until the next day. During the High Middle Ages this altogether practical procedure was transformed into an elaborate ritual. Once Good Friday had become the one day of the year when the Eucharist was not celebrated, reserving the Eucharist for Communion took place only once a year and became surrounded with greater ceremony. The first mention of a formal procession comes from the 11th century.

The stripping of the altars on Holy Thursday became a liturgical rite in the course of time. In reality it is a survival, on this one day of the year, of what was, for centuries, done every day after Mass; it was the practice to remove the altar cloths each day and put them on again the next. A simple everyday practice has thus been transformed into a religious rite.

Liturgical Structure. The present celebration of Mass of the Lord's Supper dates back from Pius XII's reforms of the Holy Week liturgy in 1955. His Holy Week Ordinal restored the Mass of the Last Supper to the evening hours. Normally, there is to be only one evening Mass in each parish and religious community; this is intended to emphasize the oneness of the Eucharistic celebration. The tabernacle is empty because all will receive Holy Communion from the bread and wine consecrated at this Eucharist. The washing of feet is placed within the Mass, instead of after Mass. After Mass the celebrant carries the ciborium containing the consecrated hosts for the communion service on Good Friday in solemn procession to the simply and soberly adorned repository. There, the Blessed Sacrament is reserved until the Communion service on the next day. Veneration of the Blessed Sacrament by the faithful is prescribed until midnight. After the Blessed Sacrament has been placed in the repository, the service concludes with the stripping of the altar.

Bibliography: w. j. o'shea, The Meaning of Holy Week (Collegeville, Minn. 1958). t. j. talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year (Collegeville 1991). a. j. martimort, ed. The Church at Prayer IV: The Liturgy and Time (Collegeville 1986). a. nocent, The Liturgical Year (Collegeville 1977). j. m. pierce, "Holy Week and Easter in the Middle Ages," in Passover and Easter: Origin and History to Modern Times, eds. p. f. bradshaw and l. a. hoffman (Notre Dame, Ind. 1999) 161185. a. adam, The Liturgical Year: Its History & Its Meaning after the Reform of the Liturgy (New York 1981).

[w. j. o'shea/eds.]

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