Today is Maundy Thursday
This day, Maundy Thursday (also “Holy Thursday” or “Shire Thursday”1) commemorates Christ’s Last Supper and the initiation of the Eucharist. Its name of “Maundy” comes from the Latin word mandatum, meaning “command.” This stems from Christ’s words in John 13:34, “A new commandment I give unto you.” It is the first of the three days known as the “Triduum,” and after the Vigil tonight, and until the Vigil of Easter, a more profoundly somber attitude prevails (most especially during the hours between Noon and 3:00 PM on Good Friday). Raucous amusements should be set aside…(1)
Feast of Holy Thursday
(by Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876)
The Church observes the fast of Lent with the intention of preparing her children, in as perfect a manner as possible, for the glorious Easter-tide, that they may arise from a sinful, tepid, and imperfect state to a pure, holy, and even saintly life–a life most precious in the sight of the Lord. It is, therefore, the earnest wish of this most tender mother, that each of her children be penetrated with the greatest horror of sin, and, that every Christian, as he arises from the death of sin, shall also make fast the sepulcher of tepidity in which his soul has been for years, perhaps, buried. To this wish, and to the manner in which its realization can be accomplished, I will direct the attention of all whom I address during these three days of grace, asking them to consider with me the lives of three persons of whom Holy Scripture makes special mention in the history of the passion.
The first of the three is Judas, as he sat with the Lord at the Last Supper. Let us follow him until we behold him commit the dreadful crime which sealed his eternal ruin.
That the infinite merits of Christ may be effectually bestowed upon us, the first and most essential condition is, that we renounce sin entirely and forever, and thus, with hearts perfectly cleansed from the dust thereof, render ourselves worthy of the Table of the Lord, and thus, at this holy Easter-time, receive His precious Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. A glance at Judas, the traitorous Apostle, will promote this condition of heart.
He is a mirror in which we may behold sin in all its depravity; in which every sinner, especially if he be a member of our Holy Church, may see reflected his own image, disfigured and distorted by the malignity of the crimes he has committed. This will be made clear to you today,–the day, upon which, in ages long gone by, our loving Saviour bequeathed to us His sacred Body and Blood.
O Mary, refuge of sinners, obtain for us a perfect knowledge of our sins and the grace of true repentance, that we may make a sincere confession of all our offenses against the law of God! I speak in the most holy name of Jesus, for the greater honor and glory of God!
Several circumstances conspired to render the sin of Judas so enormous, the first one of which was his exalted position. He had been selected from among the millions of men who had lived up to that period on earth, and who would live until the end of time, to be constantly in the society of Jesus. Oh, what an honor! In proportion to it, therefore, his fall was immeasurably great.
Another serious aggravation of his crime was his abuse of the graces bestowed upon him to fit him for his vocation as one of the twelve Apostles,–one of the favored few who, for three years and a half, enjoyed the privilege of walking with the Saviour of mankind. He had, therefore, before him the most perfect example of virtue; he heard all His admirable discourses; witnessed His many miracles; beheld even the body of Lazarus, already touched with the blight of decay, arise at the word of the Lord, and yet all this was without effect! Oh, what emptiness of heart! what an abuse of grace! For his sin there was no excuse!
The next aggravating circumstance was the terrible indifference of Judas. Christ, in order to watch over and rescue the soul of this ungrateful sinner, endeavored to win his love and awaken his interest by selecting him from the twelve Apostles as the one to whom He entrusted the care of His own temporal affairs and those of the other Apostles. As a mark of confidence, He gave into his charge the alms they received to procure the necessities of life. This gave him occasion to speak often with the Blessed Virgin Mary, who followed Jesus, with other holy women, to minister to the wants of the little band. And yet Judas remained cold and indifferent to all these proofs of the searching love of Christ for him. Unhappy wretch!
Thirdly, the sin of Judas was enormously aggravated by his astonishing obduracy. Even, though already guilty of the basest treason, he dared to place himself, with the rest of the Apostles, at the table of the Lord– the Last Supper! There Christ, elevating His voice, pronounced those awful words: “One of you is about to betray Me!” Awe-stricken, the disciples asked, in trembling tones: “Is it I, Lord?” Judas remained obdurate. And again the Son of God broke the deep silence, saying: “The Son of man indeed goeth, as it is written of Him: but woe to that man by whom He shall be betrayed; it were better for him if he had not been born.” Terrible sentence! Mighty enough to move the mountains to their very foundations, and to penetrate to the inmost recesses of the ocean caves! And still that obdurate heart remained untouched; nay, he even dared to ask: “Is it I?” Then the divine eyes of the dear Saviour rested with loving pity upon him, as He replied: “Thou hast said it!” Obdurate still, his heart closed to the softening influence of grace; he received the Body and Blood of Christ unworthily; and thus, for the first time, was the sacrilege of an unworthy communion committed, and in that moment Satan took possession of his heart!
Fourthly, the crime of Judas was enormously aggravated by the incredible baseness of the treason. To betray his Lord and Master–his Saviour, who had given him such testimonials of His love–for thirty pieces of silver, the price demanded for slaughtering a head of cattle!–Can more unprecedented baseness be imagined? The enemies of Christ would gladly have paid him ten, fifty, a hundred times more for his most abominable treason had he but asked it. And with what bold assurance did he perpetrate the crime! He kissed the Saviour–the token of friendship to become the signal of treason! What greater hypocrisy can be imagined!
The last and most terrible characteristic of the crime of Judas was that hardness of heart which, culminating in despair, condemned him on the very day of redemption, when Christ gave Himself a willing sacrifice to die that he and all sinners might enter eternal life. This miserable being, unable to bear the weight of his crime, perished by his own vile hand! Oh, horrible sin! Oh, incomprehensible atrocity! Yes, well might Christ declare that it were better for that man had he never been born.
O sinner, you who, while listening to my voice, endure the gnawings of that worm which never dies– the reproaches of a guilty conscience–do you not shudder at the picture of that monster who, chosen of Christ to be one of His dearest friends, betrayed his Lord, and then put an end to his own wretched life? He longed to escape from the night of despair which darkened his wretched life; but the refuge he found was the deepest, blackest pit in the abyss of hell! Oh, that the tree upon which the despairing suicide ended his days, and the halter which deprived him of his life, were here before you, that you might witness the agony and pain of the faithless Apostle who betrayed the innocent Jesus! What a mirror of sin in all its blackest deformity! What a hideous reflection is therein presented! Sinner, do you not recognize it as your own? Do you not find it a perfect representation of your iniquitous soul? And O! may the grace of God so touch your hearts tonight that you repent, and tears entirely blot out that hideous image!
Many of you have, perhaps, heard an anecdote connected with a celebrated painting of the “Last Supper.” One who had been a dear friend of the painter happened to offend him so deeply that the painter, in order to make him feel his wrath, in depicting the traitor Judas upon the canvass, gave to him the face of the friend whom he had loved so well. When the king, who had ordered the picture and was well aware of the recent enmity, first saw and examined it, he smiled, and, turning toward the knight, said: “Excellent, my lord; you are drawn to the very life!”–Yes, sinner, look at the picture of Judas; you, too, are drawn to the very life!
What increased the malignity of the sin of this traitorous Apostle was the sublimity of his election. Sinner, Christ has also chosen you from among the multitude of nations who have lived and are living still in the darkness of infidelity and heresy! You are a Catholic! Glorious dignity to which you have been elevated through the infinite mercy of God; and yet, through your own choice, by the commission of mortal sin, you became a child of Satan. Oh, what a deep and damning fall!
What also aggravated the guilt of Judas was his wanton abuse of the graces granted him by the Saviour, that he might live and die as became a worthy Apostle of the Lord. What a multitude of graces, O sinner, has not God bestowed upon you through your call to the true Church? With what frequent instructions and encouragement have you been favored! how many confessions and holy communions have been vouchsafed to you! how many holy masses have you heard! and yet these graces have yielded no fruit! Oh, fatal instability of the human heart!
The treachery of Judas was aggravated by the manner in which he abused the grace of God. Imitate him not; but pause before it is too late! Judas was coldly indifferent to that love which impelled the Son of God to go in search of him, that He might win a return of love. Sinner, you know how mercifully Divine Providence has followed you! how lovingly the Saviour has gone in quest of you! Take courage from the very fact of your having come hither tonight. It is an effect of the endearing love of the Good Shepherd, who longs to bring you once more to the protecting shelter of His fold. Oh, hide no longer; but meet that loving Guardian, and let Him guide you home.
What rendered the sin of Judas so terrible in its enormity was his shocking obduracy of heart. You, also, are guilty in this regard; for, although you have received all the graces with which he was favored, you have also been endowed with many which were never bestowed on him. Judge, therefore, whether his obduracy was greater than yours.
Furthermore, Judas never had an opportunity of approaching the Sacrament of Penance. You enjoy that privilege; yet, perhaps, for years you have looked upon it with cold indifference, if not contempt. It may be that you have allowed years to pass without making a confession; or that, when you have attempted to blot out the sins of your life, you have but added to the long list of your crimes the damning guilt of sacrilege. And why, O sinner, is this? Because your heart refuses to give up its darling passions, and you continue to commit the same offenses as of yore. Judas did not, of himself, petition for the Holy Communion; while you have presumed to challenge the priest to open the tabernacle and place the Sacred Host upon your guilty tongue, that you may drag the Body of our Lord into the mire of your heart. When the agony of despair drove Judas to hang himself, he knew not of the prayer that went up that day from the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive!” Neither had he the example of the millions who, for nineteen centuries, have been guilty of grievous sin, yet repented and found grace, as you have ever before your eyes, O faithless child of the Church!
Judas betrayed his Lord but once, and upon that very day the grace of God forsook him and he perished miserably, while for you Christ has waited for years; and oh, for His dear sake–for the love of Him who, for three and thirty years, suffered cold and hunger, contempt and derision, and, at last, a painful death on the cross–let Him not wait in vain!
The crime of Judas was increased by the unprecedented baseness of his selling his Divine Master for thirty pieces of silver; but is there not some sinner in this very Church whose darling passion is impurity? who would betray his Saviour for the gratification of the most shameful desires? Is there no drunkard listening to my words who, to gratify his depraved and vicious appetite for drink, would give, if not his own existence, why, then, the lives of his wife and little children? Yes, I say the lives of those whom he is bound to love and cherish, for he is slowly murdering them by his neglect! You, then, O drunkard, betray your Master for a price even more base than thirty pieces of silver! Yes, sinners, by your crimes–be they what they may–you have all betrayed Him over and over again for the basest considerations!
Judas betrayed the Son of man with a kiss–the token of friendship and love; and the faithless Catholic would fain pretend to be a friend–an adorer of Christ–while he crucifies Him by his interior life.
Judas yielded to despair and hanged himself; but, for the love of God and His blessed mother, I beseech you, poor sinners, let the resemblance between you and the wretched suicide stop before you yield to the temptation of despair! He forgot Mary! Had he hastened to her, and implored her to intercede with Jesus for him, she would, doubtless, have done so, and Judas would have been saved. Do not imitate him in this forgetfulness of Mary. Fly to her; throw yourselves at the feet of the Mother of Mercy and refuge of sinners. Judas did not hear the words of Christ upon the cross: ” Woman, behold thy Son; thy Child.” You, beloved Christians, who have yielded to the tempter’s voice, may listen to them in spirit and in faith.
O Mary, Mother of Mercy, grant to my fervent prayer a gracious answer, and obtain tonight for every Christian present here, who, listening to the tempter, has betrayed thy Son, the grace of sincere conversion, that in these days of grace he may be reconciled to God, and no longer be deaf to the voice of grace. Pray for him, O dearest Mother, that, when appalled at the weight of his sins, the demon of despair draws nigh, he may remember the dreadful fate of Judas, and fly for refuge to thy maternal love–the surest haven for all repentant souls. Amen!
“Now, there was leaning on Jesus’s bosom one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved.”–John xiii, 23.
We all know the four divisions of the day–midnight, day-break, noon, and eventide; and each of them is marked by a special divine fact which speaks in the most emphatic manner to the heart. At midnight Christ entered the world; He was born in a poor stable at Bethlehem; and in the birth of this little Infant we behold the coming of Him Who was the Expected and Desired of nations. At midday was raised aloft the cross by which He redeemed the world. At earliest dawn the Saviour, bursting the trammels of the grave, arose to life once more, and gave to the world a splendid proof of His divine power. But there remains an eventide, glorified indeed through the divine love of the Saviour, which led Him thereon to leave us the most precious, the most sweet, the most consolatory legacy that a God could bestow. It is the evening of Holy Thursday, when the Sacrifice of the New Law was instituted to bless the children of men.
Where is the Christian who can speak or even think of this evening without the most holy sentiments of love arising in his heart as the scene of the Holy Paschal Table, round which Jesus and His disciples were seated, rises up before his spiritual view? What mighty love was that which impelled the Son of God to institute this Most Holy Sacrament, that He might remain with us even to the consummation of the world! What a pledge of this faithful love! And, of all the Apostles, none more fully realized this than St. John, the disciple whom Jesus loved; and who, on that evening, enjoyed the privilege and happiness of being nearest the Lord at the Last Supper, and of leaning his head on the bosom of Jesus. In the whole course of his life St. John never forgot that evening. He styles himself the disciple whom Jesus loved, and to whom this great grace was granted; but gives us to understand that we also are permitted to participate therein in its plenitude, for he says expressly: “Those whom Jesus loved, He has loved until the end of time.”
Yes, we may all, through the grace of Holy Communion, not only rest on the bosom of our Lord, but receive Him into our hearts. That we may do so with the purity of soul and fervor of love which distinguished the communion of the beloved disciple, let us glance at him as he sat at the Paschal Table on this happy eve. O Mary, obtain for us some portion of that ardent love which inflamed the heart of the beloved disciple toward thy divine Son! I speak in the most holy name of Jesus, for the greater honor and glory of God!
To receive the Blessed Eucharist in as perfect a manner as St. John, depends, first, upon the preparation we make to approach the Table of the Lord; and, secondly, on the manner in which we make use of His presence in our hearts, rendering to Him our gratitude after the example of St. John.
But, alas! with too many Christians, the first requisite is wanting. Even in the time of St. Paul, as the Epistle for today asserts, many of the faithful did not make due preparation, so that there were frequently communions which, if not unworthy, yielded but little spiritual fruit. St. Paul writes: “Therefore many among us sleep, because they do not judge themselves, before they approach the Table of the Lord, whether they are worthy to receive His Body and Blood; “from which we are to understand that, even if they were not in a state of sin, the coldness of their hearts, and the little degree of fervor they evinced, prevented them from deriving the benefits and graces which were poured forth upon St. John after his fervent reception of the Body and Blood of Christ. I said: “Even if they were not in a state of sin;” but, of course, if the sin were mortal, such a communion would not only be ineffectual, but a fearful sacrilege.
That our reception of the Holy Communion, therefore, may be indeed like that of the beloved disciple, it suffices not that we are free from the guilt of mortal sin; but we must leave nothing undone to cleanse our souls from the dust of venial sins and deliberate imperfections.
The ceremonies attendant upon the institution of the Most Holy Sacrament, as described by St. John, are a proof of this. Jesus washes the feet of all His disciples; and our Lord’s answer to St. Peter shows that this act is emblematic of the removal of every defect and imperfection from the soul. Therefore, did St. Peter exclaim: “Lord, not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.” But even yet this is not the perfect preparation for Holy Communion. St. John was next to Jesus. This illustrates the ardor and fidelity with which he followed the Lord from the very moment he was called by Him. He was one of those three highly-favored Apostles who were permitted to be in the closest proximity to Jesus, and who enjoyed the privilege of beholding Jesus in His transfiguration on Mt. Tabor; and, even among those three, he was the only one who followed Him to Calvary, and beheld Him on the cross.
This feature in the life of St. John–“the disciple whom Jesus loved”–should awaken in us the desire and resolution to make the most earnest efforts to please God, and so become more and more like that Divine Model, and, like St. John, to be faithful unto death.
But the generality of Christians care not to follow the admonition of Christ: “Be ye perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect;” and here we can find the cause of so many tepid and fruitless communions. Should any one ask why we feel so little fear of venial sins and trifling imperfections, I would say: As the fervent love of St. John is wanting, so also are the hunger and thirst of his heart after sanctity, lacking in the hearts of many who go forward to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Whosoever loveth truly, my dear brethren, avoids everything, great or little, that might grieve or offend the beloved object; and the more ardent the love, the more earnest the effort to please. St. Paul tells us, in the most explicit manner, that there is no communication between light and darkness, between Christ and Satan, between heaven and hell.
The very ceremonies made use of in the administration of Holy Communion show how essential to its worthy reception is a repentant heart; for the Church has prescribed that the “Confiteor” be recited aloud, so that every communicant may make another act of sorrow for the most venial imperfection which rests upon his soul before he opens his lips to welcome the Lord of heaven and earth into his heart. But what urges us on and strengthens us to emulate the saints in their zealous imitation of Jesus is love. “The love, of Christ urges us,” cries out the Apostle.
But many Christians are wanting in this divine virtue; and thus it became necessary to proclaim that precept, the very existence of which should be considered a reproach by the lukewarm children of the Church: “Thou shalt receive the Blessed Eucharist at least once a year.” O dearest Christians! the soul of a St. John, burning with ardent love for God, required no such command. He hungered and thirsted after that divine food as the heart panteth after the fountains of water. St. Catherine of Sienna, frequently said to her confessor: “Father, I am hungry.”
When this love consumes our hearts, the second condition necessary to receive all those graces and blessings, conferred by a worthy reception of Holy Communion, will not be wanting–thanksgiving. But if it be a sad truth that many approach the Table of the Lord without due preparation, it is equally to be lamented that a still greater number receive the Body of Christ and turn away without a word.
This was not the case with St. John. Judas received Holy Communion, and his soul was instantly enshrouded in the deepest gloom of a night wherein there glimmered not the faintest ray of hope; and, after having received it from the hands of the Lord Himself, he arose, and rested not until the purchase-money, for which he had betrayed the loving Redeemer, was clutched fast in his avaricious hand! What a contrast! St. John, absorbed in love and joy, can find no words to express his gratitude.
Yes, Judas is also a type of those who receive Holy Communion without a sigh of thanksgiving. With the cold hand of despair clutching his treacherous heart, he leaves the abode of love and peace, and rushes away to satisfy his greed for gold! Behold these models of a worthy and an unworthy communion, and consider well which one shall be your choice!
Yet Judas is not to serve merely as a warning to the unworthy communicant; but also to those who, after receiving, plunge directly into the stir of worldly affairs and schemes to increase their wealth. Alas, that temporal interests should so soon draw them away from Jesus! We may well be astonished, and exclaim, with St. John Chrysostom: “How can it be possible that Christ becomes so soon indifferent to you, that you can devote but a few brief moments to render to Him acts of adoration, praise, and thanksgiving for a grace so infinitely great, for a happiness so exquisite as to render man an object of envy even to the angels, and for which a lifetime of thanksgiving would not be sufficient!”
And if, my brethren, you again ask whence arises this neglect, I would again reply: From a want of that love which burned in the heart of St. John. Those who love, long to be with the object of their love. When blessed Armella, whose dearest joy it was to spend hours and hours before the Blessed Sacrament, even when she had not the happiness of receiving Holy Communion, was asked why she did so, replied: “Because I love.” And, beloved in Christ Jesus, by frequently visiting Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament we will grow ever in the love and knowledge of Him.
St. John knew and loved Him in a greater degree than the other Apostles, because he was always nearest Him; and, at the Last Supper, his resting-place was the Sacred Heart.
Obtain for us, therefore, we beseech thee, St. John, some faint reflection of the ardent fire of thy love, that we may, by lives modeled upon thy own, show our gratitude and love to God; and, when we approach the Table of the Lord, may we taste the happiness which filled thy heart when thou didst receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Then will we, while still on earth, already taste the bliss of heaven, to which celestial joy the Church refers when she prays: “Lord, grant that we may forever rejoice in the delight of Thy Divine Majesty, which a worthy reception of Thy Body and Blood will afford us even here below.”–Amen! (4)
(by Fr. Prosper Gueranger 1870)
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.
The 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.
But 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. (5)
As to customs, many families have a practice of visiting the tabernacles of three or seven nearby churches after the Mass on this day as a sort of “mini-pilgrimage” (any nearby Catholic churches will do). Some families visit the churches directly after the evening Mass; others go home and wake up in the middle of the night to make the visits (though since churches are rarely open all night these days, this would be hard to do). The spirit of the visits to the churches is keeping vigil in the Garden of Gethsemani while Jesus prayed before His arrest. Matthew 26:36 “Then Jesus came with them into a country place which is called Gethsemani; and he said to his disciples: Sit you here, till I go yonder and pray.”
In Germany, Maundy Thursday is known as “Green Thursday” (Grundonnerstag), and the traditional foods are green vegetables and green salad, especially a spinach salad. In Latin countries, Jordan almonds (“confetti”) are eaten today and also throughout Eastertide.
Back when Kings and Queens of England were Catholic, they, too, would wash the feet of 12 subjects, seeing the footwashing rite also as an example of service and humility. They would also give money to the poor on this day, a practice is said to have begun with St. Augustine of Canterbury in A.D. 597, and performed by Kings since Edward II. Now the footwashing isn’t done (it was given up in the 18th c.), but a special coin called “Maundy Money” is minted and given to the selected elderly of a representative town.
On this day, one may gain a plenary indulgence, under the usual conditions, by reciting the Tantum Ergo (Down in Adoration Falling). (1)