What You’ll See at the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper

The Holy Thursday Mass both rejoices in the institution of the Holy Eucharist and mourns Jesus’ imminent Passion.

Jacopo Tintoretto (1519-1594), “Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet”
Jacopo Tintoretto (1519-1594), “Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet” (photo: Public Domain)

Holy Thursday strides two liturgical seasons: Lent and the Paschal Triduum. The Paschal Triduum, the “Great Three Days,” begins (and Lent ends) with the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday.

In parishes, that’s the only Mass on Holy Thursday. (There is no “Thursday of Holy Week” Mass in the liturgy books.) The rubrics are insistent: it should be the only Mass that day. Even that Mass should not be celebrated more than once, e.g., for different parish groups. The focus of Holy Thursday is the institution of the Holy Eucharist.

Now, something about the history of Holy Thursday. In the ancient Church, Holy Thursday morning was the time for reconciliation of penitents. In the ancient Church, public sinners (murder, adultery, and apostasy, i.e., denying one’s faith were the “big three”) first performed their penance publicly, then were absolved (in contrast to the practice we know). Those who were enrolled in the order of penitents in the ancient Church were publicly absolved by the bishop on Holy Thursday morning. (How that practice changed is part of the history of the sacrament of Penance, which we’ll not cover here.)

By the seventh century, according to French historian Aimé-George Martimort, papal practice had added another liturgy to the noon-ish hours of Holy Thursday: what would one day be called the “Chrism” Mass. This is the Mass in which a bishop blesses the two oils used respectively for anointing catechumens in Baptism and the sick in the Anointing of the Sick. It is also the Mass in which he “consecrates” (note the difference in the verb) the chrism used in Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders. These oils are then distributed to representatives of every parish in the diocese for use throughout the coming year, as a sign of the unity of the local Church around its bishop. The chrism Mass is ordinarily concelebrated by the bishop with as many priests of the diocesan priesthood as possible, also manifesting the unity of the diocese.

The Chrism Mass was traditionally celebrated on Holy Thursday because that was the day Jesus instituted both the Eucharist and Holy Orders, ordaining his Apostles to “do this (i.e., offer the Eucharistic sacrifice) in memory of me.” In many places, the Chrism Mass has been transferred to another day earlier in Holy Week, given the practical difficulties — especially in large dioceses — of assembling the presbyterate and faithful on a busy Holy Thursday.

But, in the typical parish, this one is Mass of Holy Thursday: the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper.

The Mass both rejoices in the institution of the Eucharist and mourns Jesus’ imminent Passion. Purple vestments are replaced by white. The Gloria is sung for the first time since the Sunday before Ash Wednesday and, to accentuate the joy, bells also ring. They will then fall silent – knockers will accompany the Eucharistic procession after Mass — until they peal at the Easter Vigil. 

The readings of this Mass start with Exodus 12, which set the regulations for the celebration of the Passover, which prefigures Jesus’ Sacrifice on the Cross which is kept as a “perpetual memorial” in the Eucharist. The reading from 1 Corinthians 11 is St. Paul’s account of the institution of the Eucharist. It’s important for two reasons:

  • 1 Corinthians was written about AD 53-54, making it one of the earliest writings in the New Testament, earlier than even the Gospels, and yet we have the Eucharist here;
  • remembering that St. Paul was not at the Last Supper, he makes clear that he “received” and “handed on to you” this Eucharistic teaching, which makes it even clearer that what the text describes is already firmly established in the Church and being reported to us in writing only 20 years after the event itself. The Eucharist, therefore, goes back … to the Last Supper.

Finally, the Gospel of John. John’s Gospel, which treats the Last Supper more extensively than the other Evangelists (five chapters), does not include an account of the institution of the Eucharist, the only Gospel that does not. John’s treatment of the Eucharist is found in Chapter 6, Jesus’ “Bread of Life” discourse, which caused many of his disciples to abandon him. On the other hand, John alone among the Gospel writers includes the account of Jesus’ washing the feet of his Apostles at the Last Supper (we call this the mandatum, since Jesus commands them to “wash each other’s feet” — John 13:14-15). It is today’s Gospel because the priest will carry out that mandatum during Mass.

The structure of the Holy Thursday Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper largely resembles a typical Mass (the one liturgy of the Triduum closest to that pattern) with two exceptions: the mandatum and the way the Mass concludes.

The Mandatum: Jesus washed the feet of his Apostles as a sign of service and charity, a task he mandates them to continue. The Church has long repeated that mandatum at Mass on Holy Thursday night when the priest removes his chasuble (like Jesus his garment, John 13:4) and washes the feet of (ideally) 12 persons. Traditionally, they were 12 men, imitating the Apostles, and the rubric speaks of viri (“men”). Pope Francis, however, has changed the practice to allow men and women, presumably also children, shifting the focus from a strict resemblance of the Apostles to a cross-section of the parish.

The Conclusion of Mass

Following Communion, the priest recites the Postcommunion Prayer (since thanksgiving is always connected with Communion). The usual “Concluding Rite,” however, is omitted because the Blessed Sacrament will be removed from the church. Just as Jesus is “going away” from his Apostles, so the church, too, is emptied of his presence. At today’s Mass, the priest will have consecrated sufficient hosts as will be needed for Communion on Good Friday (the one day the Church does not celebrate Mass) and for any emergency distribution to the dying as Viaticum prior to the Easter Vigil. These hosts, placed in ciboria (chalice-like vessels with tops) will be taken in procession from the church itself to some other place that serves as an “altar of repose.” The celebrant carries these Eucharistic vessels in procession around the church itself and then to the place where the Eucharist is to be reserved, e.g., an adjacent chapel or an adapted place, like the parish school hall. During the procession, Catholics sing verses of Pange lingua gloriosi (“Sing, my tongue, the Savior’s glory”), a 13th-century Eucharistic hymn originally composed by St. Thomas Aquinas for the then-newly instituted Solemnity of Corpus Christi. 

Once the priest arrives at the place of reposition, he places the Eucharist in the tabernacle established there. He and any concelebrants may remain for a time in silent prayer, as should the faithful. The celebrants leave that place in silence. There is no blessing or dismissal because — as liturgical commentator Gabe Huck observes — we have started the one celebration that is the Paschal Triduum, so that what we have begun will continue through Holy Saturday night. The faithful are not dismissed: in fact, they are strongly encouraged to remain in adoration at the altar of reposition throughout the evening, up until midnight. This should also call to mind the Apostles who, accompanying Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane, are invited to “watch with” him as he begins his Passion. 

Meanwhile, in the main church, the altar is stripped, the tabernacle left empty and open, candles extinguished. The Church physically seeks to remind us of what the loss of God would feel and look like.

Church law specifically prescribes Good Friday as a day of fast and abstinence. However, there is a long tradition in the Church — one the Church still encourages — of keeping a fast (i.e., one full meal per day) on the first two days of the Paschal Triduum, which would extend from after the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper until the conclusion of the Easter Vigil. Liturgical commentator Gabe Huck recommends parishes consider something of a simple Lenten supper to precede the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. (The Mass should occur at a time past people’s usual dinner hour) with the possibility of a joyous parish “breakfast” (consider the word — it’s “breaking the fast”) served after the Easter Vigil.

It was once a pious custom associated with Holy Thursday evening after Mass for the faithful to visit the altars of reposition in seven churches. The tradition is said to have been connected to Rome in the 16th century by St. Philip Neri, who used the occasion to visit the seven basilicas of the Eternal City. It is popular among certain ethnic groups, e.g., Italians, Latinos, Filipinos and Poles. In earlier times, when Catholics were more urbanized, the practice might have been easier, but it remains doable in many places in our motorized age. For some suggestions, see here.