Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.
Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived;
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God's Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth himself speaks truly or there's nothing true.213
Late this afternoon the Triduum, or three-day continuous observance of the Lord’s death and resurrection, begins with the celebration of the Lord’s final meal with his disciples on the night before he died. The Triduum begins at the normal time of Vespers today, 4 or 5 PM, but this evening’s Mass replaces Vespers in the Church’s office of prayer. Generally, parishes celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at an evening time most advantageous to the entire community; my home parish’s observance is at 7 PM. Liturgical law for Holy Thursday is very clear that the Mass this evening is the central event of the parish; no other Masses or sacraments are celebrated today (except in emergency.)
I am hard-pressed to think of a solemnity in the Church calendar in which more themes of the Faith coalesce. Needless to say, the centrality of the Last Supper event as the beginning of Christ’s redemptive act for our salvation can hardly be overemphasized. At this unique meal, most likely a Passover, Jesus left his disciples and future generalizations the priceless custom of breaking bread and sharing the cup in his memory. The term “memorial” is much stronger in Jewish tradition than in common parlance today. When Jews celebrate their annual Passover, the act of memorializing returns the very moment when the Angel of Death passed over the Israelites. Past becomes present. Thus, when Jesus shared the bread and cup in his memory, he made possible his actual presence whenever the bread and cup are shared by his followers in his memory.
Thus, the Holy Thursday feast marks the institution of the Eucharistic sacrament and Real Presence. Para. 1381 quotes St. Thomas Aquinas some twelve centuries later emphasizing the need for faith in the Eucharist—one might paraphrase this as the need for understanding the act of breaking bread and bringing the proper disposition of transcending mere practical considerations. Whether St. Cyril in the fifth century understood the term “memorial” in its Jewish theological sense is hard to say, but his quotation here leave little doubt that divine authority stands behind the words of Jesus at the Last Supper. Cyril, too, challenges the believer to go beyond the confines of limited human experience into the infinite world of divine faith.
The instruction of Jesus to his disciples, “do this in memory of me,” has been understood by the Church as the institution of the priesthood, and thus Holy Thursday has long been a day of reflection upon Holy Orders. The Roman Missal (as did its predecessor) calls for a morning Mass today concelebrated by the bishop and all of his priests in the diocese in the cathedral. At this Mass, the sacred oil of consecration, or chrism, is blessed [hence the name “Chrism Mass”] and priests rededicated themselves to their mission and in obedience to the bishop. (The Oil of the Sick and the Oil of Catechumens are also blessed at this Mass.) The practice today is to celebrate the Chrism Mass on an evening earlier in Holy Week for a number of practical reasons, not least of which is the opportunity for priests to share happy hour and dinner. I remember those Chrism Mass dinners well, and as they were held on Wednesday evenings in my diocese, it was a useful coincidence that there was no scheduled morning Mass the next day, Holy Thursday.
One of the interesting points of tonight’s Holy Thursday liturgy is the Lectionary’s assignment of texts. One might have expected that the Gospel would portray the “consecration moment” of the Last Supper. Instead, the account of Jesus’ sharing of the bread and cup is presented in the second reading, St. Paul’s famous eucharistic lesson in 1 Corinthians 11. The Gospel tonight is taken from St. John’s description of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Given that the only participants of the meal were the root of the priesthood as we know it, this self-effacement by Jesus seems to be a lesson in leadership and authority. He says at the conclusion of the washing, “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do." Other translations have it “a new commandment,” from the Latin mandatum (mandate.) For this reason, Holy Thursday is also called Maundy Thursday in other churches and in civil usage. In any translation, the message is clear that whatever the disciples and their successors take from Jesus, charity and service must shape their personalities if they are to be true to Christ in the Eucharist.
I bring your attention here to the hymn cited in para. 1381, better known as Adoro Te devote by St. Thomas Aquinas and a staple of Catholic devotion to the Eucharist for centuries. The English translation here comes from the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who is acknowledged in footnote 213 of this paragraph.
The reforms of Vatican II have tampered some of the dramatics of the rubrics of my youth. The ringing of the church bells during the singing of the Gloria is retained; the bells are then silent until the Gloria of the Easter Vigil. The tabernacle is empty with the doors left open. After the distribution of communion, the celebrant and ministers process through the church (not around it) to a “place of reposition” formerly called the Altar of Repose. The Missal instructs that veneration of the Eucharist should come to an end no later than midnight for those wishing to remain and pray there when the priests return to the sacristy. The old rite encouraged veneration through the night until the Good Friday service.
The Missal notes that the stripping of the altar takes place, but after the formal close of the Holy Thursday Mass and apparently without a congregation or fanfare. I have long felt that this is a major mistake in the revised rite; in the old rite, the celebrant returned from the Altar of Repose, changed his vestments at the chair from white to purple, and personally (with attendants) removed all moveable fixtures, candles, altar cloths, etc. Interesting, the stripping rite never died; I retained it on Holy Thursday in my years as pastor. Today, my present pastor provides an option: the congregation may join the Eucharistic procession to the repose site in another building, or remain in the body of the church as the altar and sanctuary are stripped by lay ministers. It is surprising how many in attendance opt for the second option. The stripping is a striking sacramental of the abandonment and grief of Gethsemane, a very powerful moment of emotional prayer.
A pastoral note: your own parish may have late night adoration this evening if you cannot attend the primary Mass.