Thursday, 1 April 2010

Thursday in Holy Week, Maundy Thursday

The Last Supper ... an image from Bridgeman’s workshop in Quonian’s Lane, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

This week, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Day, is the last week of Lent. This week is known in the Western Church as Holy Week, and in the Orthodox Church as Great and Holy Week.

The dates of Lent, Holy Week and Easter fall on the same days this year for the Western Church and the Orthodox Church. In the Western Church, this week lasts from Palm Sunday until but not including Easter Day. In the Orthodox Church, Great Week lasts from Lazarus until but not including Easter Day.

On this week, we recall the last week of Christ’s earthly life culminating in his crucifixion on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Day. Among Anglicans, Maundy Thursday is the normal name for this day, and is used in the Book of Common Prayer. Among Roman Catholics, the day is normally known as Holy Thursday; in the Orthodox Church, the name for this day is usually Great and Holy Thursday.

In all traditions, this day is associated with the Last Supper. This is the day before the Crucifixion, and on this day Christ had his last meal with his disciples. As the Gospel according to Saint Matthew tells us:

“While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins ...” (Matthew 26: 26-29).

An icon of the Mystical Supper by the Orthodox priest and icon writer, Father Luke (Rolland) Dingman, of Brookdale, California

This morning in the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, we are reading a dramatised version of the Passion Narrative in the Gospel According to Saint John. At 5 p.m. this evening, the celebration of the Maundy Eucharist includes the Washing of Feet. The Maundy Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, at 6 p.m. includes the Stripping of the Altars. The setting is Plainsong Mass XI, with the Gloria from the Missa Brevis by Zoltán Kodály and Ubi Caritas by Maurice Duruflé. Then the Liturgy of the Watch follows at 9 p.m.

The name Maundy for this day is said to be derived through Middle English and the Old French mandé, from the Latin mandatum, the first word of the phrase Jesus uses to explain to his disciples why he is washing their feet: “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos” (“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13: 34).

Until the reign of James II, the monarch washed the feet of poor people on Maundy Thursday. These days, the Maundy Thursday celebrations in the United Kingdom involve the monarch giving alms in the form of “Maundy Money” in red and white purses to selected senior citizens – one man and one woman for each year of the sovereign’s age.

The Pedilavium in Lichfield Cathedral ... thought to have been designed for foot-washing on Maundy Thursday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

In the Roman Catholic tradition, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper commemorates Christ’s Last Supper with the Twelve, along with the institution of the Eucharist, the institution of the priesthood, and the commandment of brotherly love that Christ gave after washing the feet of his disciples.

This is the only Mass on this day, and inaugurates the period of the three days known as the Easter Triduum, including Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Day. Any private celebration of Mass is forbidden on this day. Although the Chrism Mass is celebrated in some dioceses this morning, with the bishop as celebrant, it is an increasing practice that the Chrism Mass is celebrated on another day earlier this week.

All the bells of the church, including the altar bells, may be rung during the Gloria at the Mass, but the bells and the organ then fall silent until the Gloria at the Easter Vigil. The Roman Missal recommends that immediately after the homily the priest should celebrate the rite of washing the feet, usually of twelve people.

At this Mass, additional hosts are also consecrated for use tomorrow at the Good Friday service. Then, at the end of the Mass, the Blessed Sacrament may be carried in procession to a place away from the main part of the church, often called an “altar of repose.” Later, the main altar is stripped bare and crosses are removed from the church or are veiled.

Great and Holy Thursday in the Orthodox Church

An icon of the Mystical Supper

In the Orthodox Church today, the Lenten character of the services is for the most part set aside, and they follow a format closer to normal. The liturgical colours are changed from the sombre Lenten hues to more festive colours, such as red.

The Liturgy of Holy Thursday includes Matins, Vespers, and, following Vespers, the Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great, beginning with Matins which was served last night [Wednesday] in parish churches.

Matins (ὄρθρος, Orthros) for Great and Holy Thursday does not follow the format of Great Lent, with the singular exception of chanting “Alleluia” rather than “God is the Lord.” Instead, it is served as it is outside Lent, with a complete canon. Also, at the beginning at this service there is no further reading of the Psalter for the rest of Holy Week, with the exception of kathisma XVII at the Orthros of Great and Holy Saturday.

At Matins, the Troparion sets the theme of the day: the opposition between the love of Christ and the “insatiable desire” of Judas.

“The glorious disciples were enlightened
when you washed their feet at the Supper.
Then was the impious Judas,
overshadowed by greed of silver,
and to the unjust judges
he betrays you, the just judge.
Consider, you who love money,
he who hanged himself because of it.
Do not follow the insatiable desire
that dared him to betray his Master.
O Lord, good to all,
glory be to you.”

After the Gospel reading (Luke 12: 1-40), we are invited to contemplate the mystical and eternal meaning of the Last Supper in the beautiful canon of Saint Cosmas. Its last irmos (Ninth Ode) invites us to share in the hospitality of the Lord’s banquet:

“Come, O you faithful
Let us enjoy the hospitality of the Lord
and the banquet of immortality
in the upper chamber with minds uplifted ...”

The primary Orthodox service today is Vespers, combined with the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great in the morning.

At Vespers, the stichira on “Lord, I have cried” stress the spiritual anticlimax of Holy Thursday, the betrayal of Judas:

“Judas the slave and Knave,
the disciple and traitor,
the friend and fiend,
was proved by his deeds,
for, as he followed the Master,
within himself he contemplated his betrayal …”

After the Entrance, there are three readings from the Old Testament:

● Exodus 19: 10-19. God’s descent from Mount Sinai to his people as the image of God’s coming in the Eucharist.

● Job 38: 1-23, 42: 1-5. God’s conversation with Job and Job’s answer: “Who I this that hides counsel without knowledge? Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand not, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” These great and wonderful things are fulfilled in the gift of Christ’s Body and Blood.

● Isaiah 50: 4-11. The beginning of the prophecies on the suffering servant of God,

The Epistle reading (I Corinthians 11: 23-32) is the Apostle Paul’s account of the Last Supper and the meaning of communion.

The Gospel reading – the longest of the year – is from all four Gospels and is the full story of the Last Supper, the betrayal of Judas and Christ’s arrest in the garden.

At the Divine Liturgy of the Last Supper, there is a custom in some Orthodox churches of placing a simple white linen cloth over the altar for this Liturgy, recalling the Last Supper.

The Gospel reading at this liturgy, the Passion Gospel (John 13: 31 to 18: 1), is known as the “Gospel of the Testament.”

The Cherubic hymn and the hymn of Communion are replaced by this troparion:

“At your Mystical Supper, O Son of God,
accept me today as a communicant;
for I will not speak of the Mystery
to your enemies,
nor like Judas will I give you a kiss;
but like the thief I will confess you:
Remember me, O Lord,
when you come into your Kingdom.”

This troparion is sung at three places in the Liturgy:

● At the Great Entrance

● As the Communion Chant

● As the Post-Communion hymn.

The ceremony of the Washing of Feet is performed in some monasteries and cathedrals, but is not part of normal worship today in Orthodox parish churches as it has become in many Western churches. In those cathedrals and monasteries where there is Washing of Feet, it takes place after the Liturgy, and then it is carried out by the bishop or the abbot (hegumen). While the deacon reads the Gospel, the bishop or abbot washes the feet of twelve priests, reminding us that Christ’s love is the foundation of life in the Church and that this love shapes all relations within the Church.

On Great Thursday, the Reserved Sacrament is customarily renewed, a new host being consecrated for the coming liturgical year, and the remainder from the previous year is consumed. It is also customary on Holy Thursday to consecrate the Holy Chrism, for we receive the new love of Christ as the gift from the Holy Spirit on the day of our entrance into the Church.

After the Liturgy, all of the hangings and vestments are changed to black or another Lenten colour, to signify the beginning of the Passion.

Great and Holy Thursday is the only day during Holy Week when people who have been observing the strict Orthodox tradition of fasting eat a cooked meal, although they wait to do this until after the dismissal of the Liturgy. Wine and oil are allowed at this meal, but the people still abstain from meat and dairy products.

The Collect of the Day:

God our Father,
you have invited us to share in the supper
which your Son gave to his Church
to proclaim his death until he comes:
May he nourish us by his presence,
and unite us in his love;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Almighty God,
at the Last Supper your Son Jesus Christ
washed the disciples’ feet
and commanded them to love one another.
Give us humility and obedience to be servants of others
as he was the servant of all;
who gave up his life and died for us,
yet is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
in this wonderful sacrament
you have given us a memorial of your passion.
Grant us so to reverence the sacred mysteries
of your body and blood
that we may know within ourselves
the fruits of your redemption,
for you are alive and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.


O God,
your Son Jesus Christ has left us this meal of bread and wine
in which we share his body and his blood.
May we who celebrate this sign of his great love
show in our lives the fruits of his redemption;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

Last updated: 31 July 2012 (Photograph from Lichfield Cathedral)