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Holy Thursday ~ Fr. Frank Weiser

Beautiful Traditions for a very holy day….

Article by Francis Weiser, The Easter Book

NAMES  

Holy Thursday bears the liturgical name “Thursday of the Lord’s Supper” (Feria Quinta in Coena Domini). Of its many popular names the more generally known are:

Maundy Thursday (le mand; Thursday of the Mandatum) ~

The word mandatum means “commandment.” This name is taken from the first words sung at the ceremony of the washing of the feet, “A new commandment I give you” (John 13, 34); also from the commandment of Christ that we should imitate His loving humility in the washing of the feet (John 13, 14-17). Thus the term mandatum (maundy) was applied to the rite of the feet-washing on this day.

Green Thursday ~

In all German-speaking countries people call Maundy Thursday by this name (Grundonnerstag). From Germany the term was adopted by the Slavic nations (zeleny ctvrtek) and in Hungary (zold csiitortiik).

Scholars explain its origin from the old German word grunen or greinen (to mourn), which was later corrupted into griin (green). Another explanation derives it from carena (quaclragena), meaning the last day of the forty days’ public penance.

 Pure or Clean Thursday ~

This name emphasizes the ancient tradition that on Holy Thursday not only the souls were cleansed through the absolution of public sinners, but the faithful in all countries also made it a great cleansing day of the body (washing, bathing, shaving) in preparation for Easter.

Saint Augustine (430) mentioned this custom. The Old English name was “Shere Thursday” (meaning sheer, clean), and the Scandinavian, Skaer Torsdag.

Because of the exertions and thoroughness of this cleansing in an age when bathing was not an everyday affair, the faithful were exempted from fasting on Maundy Thursday.

Holy or Great Thursday ~

The meaning of this title is obvious since it is the one Thursday of the year on which the sacred events of Christ’s Passion are celebrated.

The English-speaking nations and the people of the Latin countries use the term “Holy,” while the Slavic populations generally apply the title “Great.”

The Ukrainians call it also the “Thursday of the Passion.” In the Greek Church it is called the “Holy and Great Thursday of the Mystic Supper.”

MASSES

In the early Christian centuries the bishop celebrated three Masses on Maundy Thursday. The first (Mass of Remission) for the reconciliation of public sinners; the second (Mass of the Chrism) for the blessing of holy oils; the third (Mass of the Lord’s Supper) in commemoration of the Last Supper of Christ and the institution of the Eucharist.

This third Mass was celebrated in the evening, and in it the priests and people received Holy Communion. It is interesting to note that in ancient times Holy Thursday was the only day of the year when the faithful could receive the Blessed Sacrament at night after having taken their customary meals during the day ( since it was not a fast day).

Today the Mass of the Chrism is still solemnly celebrated in every cathedral. During this Mass the bishop blesses the holy oils (oils of the sick, holy chrism, and oil of the catechumens ).

In the evening the Mass of the Lord’s Supper is celebrated in all churches. It is one of the most solemn and impressive Masses of the year, since the very “birthday” of the Holy Sacrifice is com-memorated in it.

The altar is decorated, crucifix and tabernacle are veiled in white, and the priests wear rich vestments of white, the liturgical color of joy.

At the beginning of the Mass the organ accompanies the choir, and through the Gloria a jubilant ringing of bells proclaims the festive memory of the institution of the Blessed Sacrament.

After the Gloria the bells fall silent and are replaced by a wooden clapper and not heard again till the Gloria of the Easter Vigil is intoned on Holy Saturday.

Only one priest celebrates Mass in each church on Holy Thursday; the other priests and the lay people receive Communion from his hand, thus representing more vividly the scene of our Lord’s Last Supper.

The faithful are expected and invited (but not strictly obliged) to attend this Mass and receive Holy Communion.

REPOSITORY  

After the Mass, the Blessed Sacrament is carried in solemn procession to a side altar, richly decorated with candles and flowers, where it is kept in the tabernacle until the Good Friday service.

This “repository” altar is a highly venerated shrine in every church, visited by thousands of people. A popular custom in cities is to visit seven such shrines. Throughout the night, in many countries, groups of the clergy and laymen keep prayerful watch in honor of the agony of Christ.

In the Latin countries of Europe and South America the Maundy Thursday shrine is called monumento. It is much more elaborate than the shrines of other nations.

Usually a special scaffolding with many steps, representing a sacred hill, is erected, so high that it almost reaches to the ceiling. On the top of this the Sacrament is elevated, raised above a glorious forest of candles, palms, orchids, lilies, and other decorations.

Dressed in black, the city people visit at least seven such monumentos, which, in many places, are open through the night. On their way from church to church they say the rosary.

DENUDING OF ALTARS

 After the Mass and procession on Holy Thursday, the altars are “denuded” in a ceremony of deep significance. Priests robed in purple vestments remove the altar linen, decorations, candles, and veils from every altar and tabernacle except the repository shrine.

Robbed of their vesture, the bare altars now represent the body of Christ, Who was stripped of His garments.

In medieval times the altars used to be washed with blessed water and wine, the priests using bundles of birch twigs or palms to cleanse and dry them.

In the Vatican this ceremony is still performed by the canons of St. Peter’s on Holy Thursday.

MANDATUM

 Finally, there is the ancient rite of the Mandatum, the washing of the feet. It is prescribed by the rules of the Roman Missal as follows:

After the altars are denuded, the clergy shall meet at a convenient hour for the Mandatum. The Gospel Ante diem festum (John 13, 1-17) is sung by the Deacon.

After the Gospel the prelate puts off his cope and, fastening a towel around him, he kneels before each one of those who are chosen for the ceremony, washes, wipes and kisses the right foot.

From ancient times, all religious superiors, bishops, abbots, and prelates, performed the Maundy; so did the popes at all times. As early as 694 the Synod of Toledo prescribed the rite.

Religious superiors of monasteries washed the feet of those subject to them, while the popes and bishops performed the ceremony on a number of clergy or laymen (usually twelve).

In medieval times, and in some countries up to the present century, Christian emperors, kings, and lords washed the feet of old and poor men whom they afterward served at a meal and provided with appropriate alms.

In England, the kings used to wash the feet of as many men as they themselves were years old. After the Reformation, Queen Elizabeth I still adhered to the pious tradition; she is reported to have used a silver bowl of water scented with perfume when she washed the feet of poor women on Maundy Thursday.

Today, all that is left of this custom in England is a distribution of silver coins by royal officials to as many poor persons as the monarch is years old.

The washing of feet is still kept in many churches.

In Mexico and other sections of South America the Last Supper is often re-enacted in church, with the priest presiding and twelve men or boys, dressed as Apostles, speaking the dialogue as recorded in the Gospels.

In Malta, a “Last Supper Table” is richly laden by the faithful with food that is later distributed to the poor.

RECONCILIATION OF PENITENTS

An ancient rite of Maundy Thursday now totally extinct was the solemn reconciliation of public penitents. As on Ash Wednesday, they again approached the church dressed in sackcloth, barefoot, unshaven, weak, and feeble from their forty days’ fast and penance.

The bishop led them into the house of God, where he absolved them from their sins and crimes after the Gospel of the Mass of Reconciliation.

With his blessing they joyfully hurried home after the Mass to bathe, shave, and cut their hair in preparation for Easter, and to resume their normal dress and routine of daily life, which had been so harshly interrupted during the time of their public penance.

ROYAL HOURS  

The Greek Church celebrates a night vigil from Holy Thursday to Good Friday, in which the texts of the Passion, collected from the Bible and arranged in twelve chapters (called the “Twelve Gospels”) are sung or read, with prayers, prostrations, and hymns after every chapter.

In the cathedral of Constantinople, the East Roman emperors used to attend this service; hence it was called the “Royal Hours.” Its original name is Pannuchida (All-Night Service).

In Russia people would carry home the candles that they had used in this vigil, and with them they would light the lamps that burned day and night before the family ikons (holy pictures).

The Ukrainians celebrate the “Royal Hours” on Good Friday morning.

FOLKLORE

Many popular customs and traditions are connected with Maundy Thursday. There is, above all, the universal children’s legend that the bells “fly to Rome” after the Gloria of the Mass.

In Germany and central Europe the little ones are told that the church bells make a pilgrimage to the tomb of the Apostles, or that they visit the pope, to be blessed by him, then sleep on the roof of St. Peter’s until the Easter Vigil.

In France the story is that the bells fly to Rome to fetch the Easter eggs that they will drop on their return into every house where the children are good and well behaved.

In some Latin countries sugared almonds are eaten by everybody on Maundy Thursday. From this custom it bears the name “Almond Day” in the Azores.

In central Europe the name “Green Thursday” inspired a tradition of eating green things. The main meal starts with a soup of green herbs, followed by a bowl of spinach with boiled or fried eggs, and meat with dishes of various green salads.

Following the ecclesiastical custom, the bells on farm buildings are silent in Germany and Austria, and dinner calls are made with wooden clappers.

In rural sections of Austria boys with clappers go through the villages and towns, announcing the hours, because the church clock is stopped. These youngsters (Ratschen-buben) sing a different stanza each hour, in which they commemorate the events of Christ’s Passion.

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