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Holy Thursday: The Mass of the Lord’s Supper

April 4th, 2012by

The liturgy of Holy Thursday is called the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, a commemoration of Jesus’ last supper before his arrest and crucifixion. As part of their Jewish heritage, Jesus and his Apostles gathered to celebrate Passover—an annual remembrance of how God saved the Israelites from slavery in Egypt centuries before. Passover, as it was celebrated in Jesus’ time and still is today, occurs around a meal. Food is a predominant feature in this celebration, especially unleavened bread and wine. It was at this Passover meal that Jesus changed the prescribed rite by taking the bread and wine, saying, “This is my body; this is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me,” thus, giving himself to us in the Eucharist. Not just this Mass, but every Mass Catholics celebrate is a living remembrance and embodiment of Jesus’ Real Presence in the bread and wine made holy by the power of the Holy Spirit. This, for Catholics, is the most sacred gift of all—that Jesus is truly present with us in the form of bread and wine. As Catholics, not only do we celebrate this awesome, miraculous gift, but, as we partake of the Bread and Wine, we actually become what we believe: the Body of Christ blessed, broken and shared for the life of the world.

The second theme of Holy Thursday is intimately connected to the Eucharist and the rest of the Triduum liturgy. Being a commemoration of Jesus’ last supper, you’d expect that the gospel would be a retelling of the events at the last supper. That’s not the case. Instead, we hear the story from the Gospel of St. John, of Jesus washing his apostles’ feet. Holy Thursday is about the universal call to service. This is so important for Catholics that foot washing—indeed all acts of selfless giving—is officially called “the Mandatum”—Jesus’ mandate or commandment, “I have given you an example, so that you also should do.” This is often referred to as the institution of the priesthood. All of us are called to live a life of service in imitation of Christ for the life of the world, but our priests especially are called to model Christ’s example of servant-leadership. After the homily, people have the opportunity to share in the ritual action of having their feet washed. Some parishes invite all the parishioners to have their feet washed. Other parishes invite 12 persons who represent the 12 Apostles (and us as well) to have their feet washed by the priest. For both those who participate and those who witness this action, the deep humility and reverence in this simple act of washing and being washed is striking and profound.

Towards the end of the liturgy, the theme bends around again to the Eucharist. A special procession takes place of all the faithful who follow the priest as he carries the consecrated hosts to the Altar of Repose. In some parishes the procession winds up and down all the aisles of the church and even outside into the neighborhood, while songs of praise and worship to God are sung. This reverent procession challenges us to follow Jesus wherever he may lead. When the priest reenters the church, he brings the ciborium—the receptacle that holds the hosts—to the Altar of Repose and places it inside the tabernacle. The faithful are then invited to remain in prayerful adoration in front of our Eucharistic Lord. There is no dismissal (“The mass is ended. Go in peace.”) at the end of this liturgy. As the Paschal Triduum is one great liturgy, there will not be a formal dismissal until the end of Easter Vigil.  We are left to worship Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. We watch and pray with the Lord as we remember what immediately happened after the last supper—going to the garden of Gethsemani with his Apostles to pray; his prayer to his Father in heaven that “Thy will be done;” his betrayal by Judas; and his arrest.

Readings for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper