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  • Writer's picturePeter Kennedy

Holy Week: Holy Thursday

In follow-up to my previous post on the Chrism Mass, we now get to follow the newly consecrated oils from the cathedral to the parishes of the arch/diocese.   But first, what of the day itself?


Traditionally the daytime Mass on Holy Thursday is the Chrism Mass, though this Mass can take place at any time during Holy Week.  For Pastoral reasons, the Chrism Mass is often moved to another day during the week because it allows priests from more remote areas to participate. Here in Nebraska, time to get back to one’s parish may sometimes take hours, in states like Texas or Alaska it might take far longer. 


last supper

The Chrism Mass is traditionally followed by a large meal. This is similar to the large Passover meal that Jesus would have been eating before his passion.  It should be noted here that back in the 80’s when I was in grade school, we would often take part in a pseudo-Seder Supper.  Our Jewish brothers and sisters have asked us to cease this practice unless we take part in a supper actually led by a person of Jewish faith, or if we are invited to such a meal by a Jewish family.  After all, we would not want another group providing a simulation of a Catholic Mass without a priest present.  The Seder is a sacred meal that celebrates the core of the Jewish faith and our bishops and even our pope has asked us to respect their wishes in this regard.  We should also be clear that while Jesus celebrated the Passover, he did not do so utilizing the strict traditions of the people of his time.  He altered significant portions of the meal to offer it as the advent of a new covenant while offering deference to the old. For more on that, I would suggest reading any or all of Dr. Brant Pitri’s books titled “The Jewish Roots of…”  particularly the one on the Mass.  That aside, the large meal after the Chrism Mass is also practical, as many Catholics begin a very strict fast after the conclusion of that meal that will last until after the Easter Vigil Mass on Saturday night.  This mirrors that Jesus himself would not eat again until after the resurrection.


After all of this, the oils are taken, presumably by the pastor, back to their own parishes for what is known as The Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper where they will be presented to the parish for eventual use there or taken to hospitals and other places where the parish ministers to people.  They are often presented to the pastor in procession at Mass by catechumens, those suffering from infirmity, etc.  This Mass is the beginning of the Triduum, the “three days” from the Last Supper and Jesus’s arrest to the Resurrection.


According to the Ceremonial of Bishops as posted on the USCCB website, this Mass is very specifically a memorial of the institution of the Eucharist by Jesus as well as a memorial of the institution of the priesthood, which has been handed down from Jesus our High Priest to the apostles.  I am reminded of this by a document which hangs above my head in my office as I write this.  My own lineage as an ordained deacon is predicated on the laying on of hands in Holy Orders given to me by Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha, who received his Orders through a laying on of hands from Archbishop Francis Cardinal George of Chicago, and so on, all the way back to St. Peter of Rome (formerly of Galilee), who received his Orders from Jesus Christ himself.  It is with this in mind, that after the priests have renewed their vows at the Chrism Mass, at our parish, the Deacons renew their vows at the Thursday evening Mass (though this is not done universally).


There are many other unique features of this Mass.  During the Gloria at this Mass, all of the bells in the Church are to be rung and afterward they are to remain silent until the Easter Vigil, while other musical instruments are only to play in a subdued manner.  There is a sense of palpable quiet that comes over the Church.


After the homily, will come the washing of feet.  This comes from the last supper discourse in John’s Gospel (JN 13:2-17) where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples before dinner.  As of late there has been a bit of controversy here, so I will quote directly from a document written by the Congregation for Divine Worship:


pastors may select a small group of the faithful to represent the variety and unity of each part of the people of God. Such small groups can be made up of men and women, and it is appropriate that they consist of people young and old, healthy and sick, clerics, consecrated men and women and laity.”   (Decree issued on January 6, 2016, by Cardinal Robert Sarah, the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments)


washing feet

While this action in the Gospel passage certainly appears to be a form of ordination for the Apostles, the Church on this night points to the further truth that it indicates the love of Christ in offering his life and service for ALL people, and that by doing this it is an example for how all Christians ought to behave.  Some parishes do this in such a way that a dozen people are chosen from the parish.  Others will do this outside of Mass and offer it to anyone who wishes to partake (though this is uncommon in the United States). This can be a unique and humbling experience. If you are asked to participate, please say yes!


At the end of Mass, the Eucharist will not be returned to the Tabernacle in the Church and the sanctuary lamp by the tabernacle will be extinguished as a memorial of Jesus’s captivity and torture over the next several days.  The altar will be stripped of its coverings and adornments, as Jesus will be stripped of his clothes.  The Eucharist will then be taken in procession to an altar of repose in another part of the Church.  This simulates the journey of Jesus and his apostles to the garden at the base of the Mount of Olives.  There we will be invited to “keep watch with Jesus” as he prepares for his suffering and death just as Peter, James, and John were asked to do after the Last Supper.


All of these features of the Mass seek to RE-present the events of that night when Jesus entered into his passion.  They are supposed to serve as an enlightenment of our sacred imaginations.  They invite us not to be just bystanders, but to participate in the events themselves, to experience what it might have been like; to not just profess or read about the events of our faith but to live them out, to experience them.  In this way, we hope to carry them in our hearts, not as strangers who have heard the good news, but as disciples who have walked with Jesus and experienced the Gospel.

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