Holy Thursday: History

Among the Holy Week liturgies, I have a special soft spot for the Holy Thursday evening Mass.  A tender atmosphere of love surrounds the ceremony itself, giving way to a sense of desolation when the altar is stripped at the end.  As it turns out, these two moods, tender love and brooding sorrow, match the two main streams of Holy Thursday’s history.

The first stream gives us a sense of sorrow.  Not surprisingly, it was the astonishing Cyril of Jerusalem in the 4th Century who introduced special customs for the Thursday before Easter:

  • In the morning the Jerusalem church celebrated Mass in the chapel of the Cross, something they never did any other day of the year.  It was customary for all to receive communion.
  • A second Mass was celebrated at about 4:00 in the afternoon to begin an evening of reliving what happened that night in Jerusalem long ago.
  • Afterwards, the whole congregation kept vigil at a church on the Mount of Olives, with readings on the last supper.
  • They visited Gethsemane after midnight for a reading on the agony in the garden.
  • Finally, they returned to the city in the morning for a reading of the gospel of the trial of Jesus.  When this passage was read, the pilgrim Egeria recounts, there was a loud “moaning and groaning with weeping from all the people.”

Many things have changed, but Cyril set the pattern.  To this day we have an evening Mass with a special emphasis on the mystery of the Eucharist; the faithful are not supposed to receive Communion at any other Mass that day, to emphasize their Communion together in the evening.  After the Mass, the host is carried in a special procession to a separate tabernacle, representing Jesus going out into the night with his disciples.  People stay afterwards for a period of adoration, remembering that Jesus asked his disciples to stay and keep watch with him.  The altar is stripped bare, emphasizing the sense that Jesus has left the sanctuary, has gone out into the night to meet his betrayer.

A second stream contributes to the atmosphere of tender love.  Some time after Cyril’s practices had begun to spread throughout the Christian world, the washing of feet became part of the Holy Thursday tradition.  There is no documentary evidence of this until the 7th century, but the texts from that time seem to imply a somewhat earlier origin.  Some surprising facts:

  • Until Pius XII’s reforms in 1955 it was not celebrated as part of the Mass, and in some places it is still separate from the Mass.
  • There was often a separate hall or building where it was done, and the focus of the ceremony was on an act of love, especially for the poor.  In one 11th century monastic version of the ritual, the abbot and his monks genuflected and bowed down to adore Christ in the poor men whose feet they were about to wash.
  • In the Middle Ages in many places it was customary for the king to wash the feet of poor men and then wait on them at table, although if a queen was on the throne then she would wash the feet of poor women.  Modesty forbade men from washing women’s feet, or women men’s.
  • The first word of the first antiphon sung during the foot-washing ritual was mandatum, from which we seem to get our English name for the day, “Maundy Thursday” as well as our name for the foot-washing ceremony itself, the “Mandatum”.

In the current rubrics, the entire rite is optional, celebrated “where a pastoral reason suggests it.”  The tradition that men only wash the feet of men has carried over into the rubrics, which require that the priest wash the feet of viri, of men.  Although it has become customary to wash the feet of twelve men, no particular number is mandated by tradition and the rubrics do not specify a number.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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