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.

Share Button

The Key to Passiontide and Holy Week

When my family walked into Church today, the crucifix and the statues were covered with purple cloths.  Fr. Dave told us that we had entered a time of looking forward to Holy Week, and he called up the candidates for baptism for a brief exorcism and a series of prayers.  Where does this special season come from?  What does it mean?

DixI am not a historian, but recently I have been reading about the history of the liturgical year.  Dom Gregory Dix has an amazing chapter on this history in his book The Shape of the Liturgy, and Dom Gueranger’s The Liturgical Year has an interesting historical introduction to the season.  It turns out that the key to understanding Passiontide and Holy Week is baptism.  But to see that, we have to look at where the season first came from.

In the very earliest Church, when the apostles or their immediate disciples shepherded Christ’s flock, there was no “liturgical year” as such.  The seasons we know took final shape much later in the fourth century.  In the apostolic age, there were only two elements in the Christian year:

  • Sundays.  Christians gathered once every week, on the Lord’s Day, to listen to Scripture and celebrate the Eucharist.  This was not yet understood as a Christian day of rest, as per the fourth commandment, but simply as a day to worship and celebrate new life in Christ.  After Mass, Christians went to work.
  • Easter and Pentecost.  Christians celebrated a feast of the Lord’s resurrection on a Sunday near the time of the Passover, and they celebrated a feast of Pentecost forty days later, around the time of the Jewish feast of the same name.

Easter in the apostolic age was subtly different from the way we think about Easter now.  Liturgies in the Church, including every sacrament, have always had three meanings:

  1. A look backwards in time to what Christ did for us.  For example, the Eucharist recalls the Last Supper celebrated years ago in the upper room.
  2. A highlighting of the grace received in the present moment.  For example, the Eucharist signifies (and causes!) our present union with Christ and with each other.
  3. A look forward in time to when Christ will come again.  For example, the Eucharist gives us a glimpse of the “wedding supper of the Lamb” described in the book of Revelation (Rev 19:7).

Our Easter celebration today emphasizes all three, very strongly.  But in the earliest days, the emphasis fell on numbers 2 and 3; number 1, the past historical fact of Jesus’ death and resurrection, did not receive the same attention as a past historical fact.  For example, there was no Good Friday celebration in which the death of Christ is commemorated apart from his resurrection.  Instead, recognizing that our salvation comes from what Christ did, the emphasis fell on how Christians in the present moment were transformed by grace and on how they would enter into God’s kingdom in the future.

Fitting right into this emphasis, Easter was the day when people were baptized.  The vigil the night before was a time of waiting for the baptismal grace with prayers and readings, and at dawn on Easter Sunday the bishop would baptize the candidates and give them an exhortation, and then the newly baptized would celebrate their first Eucharist with the entire congregation.  Scholars often refer to The Apostolic Tradition by Hippolytus for a description of what happened.

To get into the spirit of the thing, try this experiment.  Imagine you are a gentile convert to Christianity in the waning days of the first century.  After a long period of waiting and scrutiny, you have stayed up all night listening to Scripture and praying for transformation in Christ.  At dawn you were baptized by the bishop, and now he is giving you an exhortation.  OK, now read the First Letter of Peter and imagine that as the bishop’s voice speaking to you.  Some people have supposed that 1Peter is a post-baptismal exhortation, but at any rate the themes in that letter are reflected in a lot of post-baptismal Easter homilies from the earliest centuries of the Church.

So what about Passiontide?  Well, that was a period of preparation for baptism.  Catechumens went through two or three years of waiting and scrutiny, during which they were taught little or nothing about the doctrines of the faith or the liturgies of the Church.  In the weeks leading up to Easter, the time for their baptism, they finally received doctrinal instruction.  In the last two weeks or so before Easter, they fasted and received more frequent instruction along with daily exorcisms, and in the final week leading up to Easter they would at last be given the Apostles’ Creed.  They fasted for the two days leading up to Easter, and capped off their preparation with the all-night vigil the night before.

That period of more intense preparation for baptism was the seed of our Passiontide, and in fact the seed of the entire season of Lent.  Eventually the entire congregation not only celebrated their baptismal transformation on Easter with the newly baptized but also prepared for that day along with the candidates for baptism.  The fast was extended back, and everyone was invited to attend the catecheses.

Now that the liturgical year has more historical emphasis, we have readings that look to what happened, historically, in the final weeks before Christ died.  But the key to understanding much about the season remains that it originated as a season of preparation for baptism–for re-birth in Christ.

What connections have you seen between Holy Week and baptism?  Let me know in the comments!

Share Button

The Amazing Cyril of Jerusalem

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Cyril of Jerusalem. I have been familiar with Cyril for many years through his Catecheses, written about 347 or 348 AD, just a couple of years before he became the bishop of Jerusalem. But only recently have I learned about the pilgrimage of Etheria st-cyrilto Jerusalem in about the year 385 AD: she wrote an account of her journey, including detailed descriptions of the liturgies in Jerusalem. When we look at Cyril’s writings from just before his episcopal ministry and Etheria’s account from several decades later, we can see what Cyril accomplished during his years as bishop.

His list of achievements is phenomenal. But to understand Cyril’s importance, you have to know a bit about Jerusalem’s place in the Church at the time. When Constantine legalized Christianity in 312, the Church began transforming herself from a private and secretive group into a public institution. The Church is public by her very nature, but the circumstances of Roman persecution had kept her, so to speak, crammed into a little box; the lid removed, she began to unfold her true dimensions. In this time of rapid change her liturgies, which had been secret and held in private homes and exclusive, became large, public, and impressive. At this crucial moment for the development of the liturgy, attention turned to Jerusalem.

The importance of Jerusalem for the new Christian world can be seen in the fact that Constantine’s own mother went on pilgrimage to the sacred sites in 325 AD. Under constant persecutions, Christians had focused on how the liturgy connected them with what is beyond this world, with heaven; the persecutions safely in the past, Christians could begin to think about how the liturgy also connected them with the world around them. And nothing in this world seemed so closely connected to the liturgical mysteries than the sacred sites of Jerusalem. Etheria’s pilgrimage was part of a wave of visitors to Jerusalem who came to worship at the sacred places and went home to report how worship was conducted in Jerusalem—Jerusalem, the original location where Christ offered his sacrifice!

Enter St. Cyril. He became bishop of Jerusalem toward the beginning of this flood of pilgrimages, and he shaped Jerusalem’s liturgies in response to the new need over the course of many decades. When pilgrims returned home to shape their local liturgies on what they had seen in Jerusalem, it was Cyril’s liturgies they brought home. Consequently, we can trace back to this one man’s influence:

  • The adoption of the divine office as a public function of the Church rather than a private devotion of monks.
  • Special readings at Mass and in the office for saints’ feasts and for different liturgical seasons (the proper of saints and the proper of seasons).
  • The liturgical veneration of saints from across the whole church instead of the veneration of local martyrs only.
  • The use of liturgical vestments, incense at the gospel, and other familiar elements in the Mass.
  • The liturgies of Passion Sunday, Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, and Good Friday, as well as the practice of not having Mass on Holy Saturday.
  • The series of readings we all know at the Easter Vigil.

So if you read the breviary today, thank Cyril. If you are looking forward to the beautiful Holy Week liturgies, thank Cyril. If you celebrate Cyril’s feast today, thank Cyril—he put us on track toward celebrating more than just local martyrs. And if you are awed by how much this one good pastor of the fourth century did for the Church, thank God!

Share Button