The Traditional Catholic Liturgy

Adapted from The Liturgical Year by Abbot Gueranger

Holy Thursday

The Church intends, on this day, to renew in a most solemn manner the mystery of the Last Supper: for Our Lord Himself, on this occasion of the institution of the Blessed Sacrament, said to His Apostles, "Do this for a commemoration of Me" (Luke 22:19).

Jesus is in the supper chamber, where the Paschal lamb is to be eaten. All the Apostles are with Him; Judas is there also, but his crime is not known to the rest. His disciples stand around Him. The ceremonies prescribed by God to Moses are religiously observed. At the beginning of the repast, Jesus speaks these words to His Apostles: "With desire have I desired to eat this Pasch with you, before I suffer" (Luke 22:15).

During the repast, Jesus, who reads the hearts of all men, utters these words, which cause great consternation among the disciples: "Amen I say to you that one of you is about to betray Me – he that dippeth his hand with Me in the dish, he shall betray Me" (Matt. 26: 21, 23). The sadness with which He speaks is enough to soften any heart; and Judas, who knows his Master's goodness, feels that they imply a merciful pardon, if he will but ask it. But no: the passion of avarice has enslaved his soul, and he, like the rest of the Apostles, says to Jesus: "Is it I, Rabbi?" Jesus answers him in a whisper, in order not to compromise him before his brethren: "Thou hast said it!" But Judas yields not.

Last SupperThe legal repast is over. It is followed by a feast, which again brings the disciples around their divine Master. It was the custom in the east, that guests should recline two by two on couches round the table: these have been provided by the disciple who has placed his house at Jesus' service. John is on the same couch as Jesus, so that it is easy for him to lean his head on his Master's breast. Peter is on the next couch, on the other side of Jesus, who is thus between the two disciples whom He had sent, in the morning, to prepare the Pasch, and who represent Faith and Charity. The second repast is a sorrowful one, in consequence of Jesus having told the guests that one of them is a traitor. The innocent and affectionate John is overwhelmed with grief, and seeks consolation in the Heart of his dear Lord.

But the Apostles little expect a third supper; Jesus has not told them of His intention; but He had made a promise, and He would fulfill it before His Passion. Speaking, one day, to the people, He had said: "I am the living bread that has come 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… He that eateth My Flesh and drinketh My Blood, abideth in Me, and I in him." (John 6: 51 et seq.) As it was both His Flesh and His Blood that He promised us, He waited till the time of His sacrifice. His Passion has begun; He is sold to His enemies; His life is already in their hands. He may at once, therefore, offer Himself in sacrifice, and give to His disciples the very Flesh and Blood of the Victim.

As soon as the second repast is over, Jesus suddenly rises, and, to the astonishment of His Apostles, takes off His upper garment, girds Himself as a servant with a towel, pours water into a basin, and prepares to wash the feet of the guests. It was the custom, in the east, to wash one's feet before taking part in a feast; it was considered as the very extreme of hospitality, when the master of the house himself did this service to his guest. Jesus is about to regale His Apostles with a divine banquet; He wishes to treat them with every possible mark of welcome and attention. But in this, as in every other action of His, there is a wealth of instruction: He would teach us, by what He is now doing, how great is the purity wherewith we should approach the holy Table. "He that is washed," says He, "needeth not but to wash his feet" (John 13:10); as though He would say: "The holiness of this Table is such, that those who come to it should not only be free from grievous sins, but they should, moreover, strive to cleanse their souls from those lesser faults, which come from contact with the world, and are like the dust that covers the feet of one that walks on a dusty road." Having finished washing the feet of the twelve, Jesus resumes His place, side by side with John.

Then taking a piece of the unleavened bread that remained from the feast, He raises His eyes to Heaven, blesses the bread, breaks it, and distributes it to His disciples saying: "Take ye, and eat; this is My Body" (Matt. 26: 26). Then the Apostles take the bread, which is now changed into the Body of their Divine Master; they eat: and Jesus is now not only with them, but in them. But, as this sacred mystery is not only the most Holy of the Sacraments, but moreover a true Sacrifice; and as a Sacrifice requires the shedding of blood; our Jesus takes the chalice, and changing the wine into His own Blood, He gives It to His disciples, saying: "Drink ye all, of this; for this is My Blood of the new testament, which shall be shed for many, unto the remission of sins" (Matt. 26: 27-8).

Such is the history of the Last Supper, of which we celebrate the anniversary on this day. But there is one circumstance of the deepest interest to us, to which we have, so far, made only an indirect allusion. The institution of the Holy Eucharist, both as a Sacrament and a Sacrifice, is followed by another: the institution of a new Priesthood. How could Our Savior have said: "Except you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His Blood, you shall not have life in you" (John 6: 54), unless He had resolved to establish a ministry upon earth, whereby He would renew, even to the end of time, the great mystery He thus commands us to receive?

To offer the faithful an outward expression of the greatness and the unity of this Supper, which Our Savior gave to His disciples, and, through them, to us, the Church forbids her priests to offer private Masses on this day, except in cases of necessity. She would have but one Sacrifice to be offered in each church, at which the other priests are to assist, and receive Holy Communion from the hands of the celebrant.

The Mass of Holy Thursday is one of the most solemn of the year; and although the feast of Corpus Christi is the day for solemnly honoring the mystery of the Holy Eucharist, still the Church would have the anniversary of the Last Supper to be celebrated with all possible splendor. The color of the vestments is white, as it is for Christmas and Easter; the decorations of the altar and sanctuary all bespeak joy, and yet, there are several ceremonies during this Mass which show that the holy Bride of Christ has not forgotten the Passion of Her Jesus, and that this joy is transient. The celebrant intones the angelic hymn, Gloria in excelsis Deo! and the bells ring forth a joyous peal, which continues during the whole of the heavenly canticle; but from that moment they remain silent, and their long silence produces, in every heart, a sentiment of holy mournfulness. This is to show us that this world lost all its melody and joy when its Savior suffered and was crucified. Moreover, the Church would hereby remind us how the Apostles (who were heralds of Christ, and are figured by the bells, whose ringing summons the faithful to the house of God), fled from their divine Master and left Him a prey to His enemies.

The holy Sacrifice continues as usual; but at the solemn moment of the elevation the bell remains silent. When the time of Holy Communion is near, the celebrant does not give the Kiss of Peace. Our thoughts turn to the traitor Judas, who on this very day profaned the sign of friendship by making it an instrument of death. It is out of detestation for this crime, that the Church omits today the sign of fraternal charity: it would too painfully remind us of the sacrilegious hypocrisy. Another rite peculiar to this Mass is the consecration of the Hosts needed for the Mass of the Presanctified on Good Friday. The reason is that tomorrow the Church suspends the daily Sacrifice. Such is the impression produced by the anniversary of Our Savior's death, that the Church dares not to renew upon her altars the immolation which was then offered on Calvary; or rather, her memorial of it will be by fixing all her thoughts on the terrible scene of that Friday noon. The Hosts are reserved from today's Mass because tomorrow the celebrant does not consecrate, but only receives and distributes the reserved Hosts.

Holy ThursdayBut although the Church suspends, for a short time, the oblation of the perpetual Sacrifice, She does not wish that Her Divine Spouse should lose any of the homage that is due to Him in the Sacrament of His love. Catholic piety has found a means of changing these trying hours into a tribute of devotion to the Holy Eucharist. In the church there is prepared a richly ornamented Altar of Repose where, after today's Mass, the Church places the Body of Her Divine Lord. Though veiled from their view, the faithful will visit Him in this His holy resting-place, pay Him their most humble adorations, and present Him their most fervent supplications. Thus a concert of prayer, more loving and earnest than at any other period of the year, will be offered to our Jesus, in reparation for the outrages He underwent, during those very hours, from the Jews.

As soon as the Mass is over, a procession is formed to the Altar of Repose. The celebrant carries It beneath a canopy, as on the feast of Corpus Christi; It is not however exposed, as on that day of Its triumph, but concealed under a veil. Let us adore this divine Sun of Justice, whose rising at Bethlehem brought gladness to our hearts: He is now setting; soon His light will be eclipsed. Our earth will then be buried in gloom, until on the third day, He will rise again with renewed splendor.

After the procession, the celebrant returns to the sanctuary. He goes to the altar, and takes off the cloths and ornaments. This ceremony signifies the suspension of the Holy Sacrifice. The altar shall be left in this denuded state, until the daily offering can be again presented to the Divine Majesty; that is, when the Spouse of Holy Church shall arise from the grave, the Conqueror of death. He is now in the hands of His enemies, who are about to strip Him of His garments, just as we strip the altar. He is to be exposed to the insults of the rabble; for this reason, the Psalm selected to be recited during this mournful ceremony is the 21st, wherein the Messias speaks of the Roman soldiers dividing His garments among them: They divided My garments among them, and upon My vesture they cast lots.

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