We have spent the past 40 days of Lent renewing and reinvigorating our faith in preparation for Easter. The sacrifices and penances we have made have softened our hearts to be ready to enter the Easter Triduum — Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil — in which we commemorate the passion, crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Easter Triduum allows us to walk in Jesus’s footsteps during His final hours on earth.
Holy Thursday is an important and profound day of celebration in the Church. This day marks the end of Lent and beginning of the Easter Triduum, the three holiest days in the Catholic Church. This day is a pivotal day in the life of Jesus as it marks the institution of the Holy Eucharist and the institution of the priesthood, and also the new commandment that Jesus gave us to “love one another.”
For many years, I was part of the RCIA team in my parish, eventually serving in the role as coordinator for the various rites that catechumens and candidates celebrate on their journey to entering the Catholic Church. The catechumens and candidates that are to enter the Catholic Church by the reception of the sacraments at the Easter Vigil Mass have prepared during a one-to-two-year period, and spend Lent in deep prayer and reflection regarding the sacraments they are soon to receive. The Easter Triduum marks an even more intense time for their reception of the sacraments. It was a deeply moving and humbling experience to walk with them on their faith journeys and to see their joy and expectation as we entered the Easter Triduum at Holy Thursday Mass, moving them ever closer to their entry into the Catholic Church family.
The institution of the priesthood is celebrated during the Chrism Mass, often on the morning of Holy Thursday (but may be celebrated earlier in Holy Week). This Mass, celebrated in the diocesan cathedral by the bishop with many priests from each parish in the diocese, marks the institution of the priesthood with Jesus’s words at the Last Supper, “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19). Priests attending this Mass are asked to reaffirm their vows by renewing the promises made during their ordinations. In addition, the Chrism Mass includes the blessing and consecration of the holy oils that will be used in the sacraments during the Easter Vigil Mass, and throughout the year. These oils include the Sacred Chrism, which is used for the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders (and from which the Mass takes its name), the Oil of Catechumens, which is also used during the Sacrament of Baptism, and the Oil of the Sick, which is used during the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.
At my parish, a catechumen or candidate would be selected to attend the Chrism Mass to receive the three oils on behalf of the parish. One year, the catechumen that I sponsored was selected for this honor. It was a moving experience for us both to attend the Mass and see hundreds of priests stand and renew their ordination vows. Even more moving was seeing the joy and wonder on my catechumen’s face when she was handed the three bottles containing the holy oils for the parish after the Chrism Mass. I reminded her that she would be blessed by two of these oils during her baptism and confirmation. I will always remember her smile!
The Mass of Holy Thursday, or the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, typically begins at sundown. This Mass is the central observance of Holy Thursday and provides a ritual reenactment of the Last Supper. Christ instituted the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist during the Last Supper as His true body and true blood. Christ offers himself during the Holy Thursday Mass (and during every Mass) as the Paschal sacrifice; the sacrificial lamb offered for us all.
Catechumens and candidates at my parish typically attended Holy Thursday Mass as a group. So many of them yearned to receive the Holy Eucharist, and this Mass would be the last Mass that they would attend before they were baptized and received into the church. The commemoration of the institution of the Holy Eucharist during the Holy Thursday Mass was an important reminder to the catechumens and candidates about the sacrament that they were soon be able to partake in, and I recall a few tears in their eyes as they longed to fully enter into the church and receive Christ’s body and blood for the first time.
The gospel reading for the Holy Mass, taken from the Gospel of John, depicts Christ washing the feet of the Apostles (John 13: 1-15). In washing the feet of the Apostles, Christ provided the example that we are all to follow in serving one another. This is the new commandment, or mandatum, that Christ gave us:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love another.Focus on His truth, John 13:34
During the Holy Thursday Mass, the priest imitates Christ’s humility by washing the feet of 12 people from the parish community. This part of the Mass is so moving, as the priest imitates Christ in providing humble service and gives us a tangible reminder of how to show our love for one another by serving one another.
Among the people selected to have their feet washed, my parish would include several catechumens and candidates. Many were nervous or felt uncomfortable about the priest washing their feet. We would remind them that the priest was imitating Christ in washing their feet, and that the apostles had the same feelings as they were experiencing. Many of us would cry during the feet washing ritual, a profound example of love and service.
Of all the parts of the Holy Thursday Mass, the one that I find most meaningful is the procession of the Holy Eucharist to the altar of repose. This Mass does not have a concluding rite because it, the Passion of Lord on Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil Mass on Holy Saturday constitute one service. After the communion rite, the Holy Eucharist is moved in a procession to an prepared altar of repose. Attendees are invited to remain in silence and private prayer before the Holy Eucharist throughout the night, just as Christ asked the apostles to stay with Him in the Garden of Gethsemane. As I kneel in prayer, I remember the sacrifice that Christ will make for us all on Good Friday. The church will become more and more quiet as the night continues and the lights dim, and I stay as long as I can before the Lord. The altar is stripped bare during, the tabernacle is empty, and the reality of what will occur on Good Friday becomes more present.
May this Holy Thursday be a blessed day for you and may you continue to be Smitten with Goodness throughout the Easter Triduum,