The Mass of Holy Thursday has a very special significance as the memorial of the Last Supper. There is something very touching and moving about this service. Tonight, if ever, we should take an active part in the great drama and not rest content as mere spectators. We should regard ourselves as disciples gathered about the Master in the Upper Room, a Master who serves us, speaks consolingly to us and feeds us with His own Body and Blood.
A double strain colors the Mass liturgy, one joyous, one heavy and sad. The joyous strain: the altar is adorned, the Cross on the high altar is veiled in white, the celebrant wears white vestments; the Gloria, so long absent, is solemnly sung and the bells ring for the last time. There are only a few days in the church year which touch the heart so deeply. After the Gloria no bell is sounded, a sign of mourning. For over this blessed celebration, devoted to the institution of the most holy Sacrament of the Altar, there likewise hangs a veil of deepest sorrow.
On this sacred evening only one Mass may be offered in a given church; the priest of highest rank represent Christ, the rest are His apostles and receive Holy Communion from his hands. The station church is St. John Lateran, the Pope’s own parish church. This implies, in the spirit of the liturgy, that all the members of the Church are gathered together around Christ for the Last Supper.
In the Introit we repeat Paul’s humble boast, “We must glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…” The whole good fortune of being redeemed comes before us and we almost forget the bitter suffering in the light of Easter resurrection. This reference to resurrection in the Introit finds an echo in a very sobering Collect and in the Gradual (“Therefore God exalted Him”). The Mass, then, is very definitely oriented to Easter.
Succinctly the Collect relates the deeds of Judas and the good thief to the reward each received, and directs our petition accordingly. The good thief represents the penitents who today are received back into the kingdom of God. The Offertory continues this theme, “I shall not die, I shall live and proclaim the works of the Lord.” References to Judas and his rejection are also found in various places, e.g., in the Epistle (implied, at least, by the mention of unworthy communion); in the Gospel (“the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot…”); in the Canon (note the play on words, “that most sacred day on which our Lord Jesus Christ was betrayed, traditus – that day on which our Lord Jesus Christ gave, tradidit, to His disciples the sacrament of His Body and Blood”).
The Gospel describes the washing of the feet at the Last Supper. In an act of divine humility Jesus showed how His commandment of love must be fulfilled by serving others. The two Lessons give the testament of our departing Master – His Body and His love. While the feet of twelve persons are being washed, a beautiful hymn on the love of neighbour is chanted:
Where there is love and fraternal unity,
God is present.
Let us rejoice be glad in Him.
Let us fear the living God and love Him,
And with pure hearts be joined to one another…
Breathing the spirit of charity and peace, this song rises spontaneously from the hearts of God’s children, a family now most intimately united by the bonds of divine love. Abstracting from the external ritual, the spirit underlying the act must go lost.
A well phrased Secret petitions that He who instituted the Sacrifice of the New Law on this day and instructed His disciples to repeat it in His memory may make it acceptable to our almighty and eternal Father. The kiss of peace is lacking; medieval liturgists explain this anomaly in reference to the kiss of Judas, but the real reason may be that it does not occur during the Sacred Triduum — it is lacking on Holy Saturday too.
Both proofs of our Lord's great love proper to this day, the Eucharist and the foot-washing, come to mind while singing the Communion verse. Note the profound implication: it is impossible to imitate Christ in His gift of the Eucharist, but we can imitate His example of humble service to others. Such service to others is the sign and expression of our union with Him, for which the Eucharist was established.
After Mass the ciborium with its Hosts for tomorrow's Communion service is taken to a side altar. Observing this, the modern day Catholic reflects: the Bridegroom is taken away, the church is deserted! Christians of former days thought differently, for a procession carrying the Eucharist remaining after Communion occurred with every Mass. Although the sacred Host is not reserved on the main altar, the church is never deserted; Christ remains present in the altar, and the house of God is the dwelling place of the most Blessed Trinity.
5. Uncovering the Altar. After Mass the altar is stripped, i.e., the altar cloths, the relics, and all other adornments are removed. In ancient times it was the usual custom to uncover the altar after each Mass, for the altar was regarded as a table set for the sacred banquet, even as tables are covered and set for meals in any home. This old custom has been retained during Holy Week; in general it is true that many old practices and customs of the Church are observed on these days, rites which later were interpreted as reminders of Christ's passion.
The altar is a symbol of Christ. From earliest times the stripping of the altar was associated with the crucifixion. The priest, therefore, prays Psalm 21 to the frame-verse, "They divide My garments among them, and for My vesture they cast lots" (in Psalm 21 David beheld the abandonment of Jesus suffering on the Cross). The church stripped of adornment now appears desolate and disconsolate; nor will the holy Sacrifice be offered again until the Lord has risen from the grave.
One could summarize the services of today in three phrases: the Body of Jesus, the suffering Jesus, the love of Jesus.
- Pius Parsch, The Year of Grace