On Holy Thursday, the Catholic Church celebrates a special Mass of the Lord’s Supper – that commemorates the institution of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper. On the night before Jesus Christ was crucified, he changed bread and wine into his own Body and Blood, and he commanded the Apostles – and their successors through the centuries – to act in his stead and re-present this sacrifice. At every Mass, by way of transubstantiation, the bread and wine offered by the priest becomes Christ’s Body and Blood again.


Just as Christ did for his 12 Apostles at the Last Supper and as he commanded them to do likewise, during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the priest – who represents Christ – ceremoniously washes the feet of 12 people in the congregation. So at the Holy Thursday liturgy in the Vatican, even the pope performs the foot washing. In fact, across the centuries, it has been practiced for the pope to wash the feet of 12 priests after Mass and of 13 poor men after his dinner.


After the Last Supper and before he was arrested and condemned to death, Jesus went to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane, accompanied by two of the disciples. So after the Holy Thursday Mass, the remaining sacred hosts are carried out of the sanctuary to an “altar of repose,” and the people go with the Eucharistic Christ in a procession. The transported is sometimes surrounded by decorations of greenery and flowers to suggest a garden. People stay for a time, adoring the wondrous sacrament that Jesus instituted that day 2,000 years ago. Some make an adoration visit at their own parish and then visit others into the night.


The Mass of the Lord’s Supper finished, the church – now without the Eucharist – is truly empty. So the tabernacle light – which is always lit and signifying Christ’s presence – is extinguished, and the tabernacle door is left open, exposing the vacant space inside. The altar is stripped bare of its linens and candles, holy water is removed from the church’s fonts and the sacraments are not celebrated until the Easter vigil. Like the first Christians bereft of Jesus and mourning the two days after the crucifixion, the church stands unadorned until the Easter vigil Mass on Saturday night. With the resurrection of Jesus, the church’s joy is restored.

Excerpts from “Holy Week rekindles ancient church traditions” By Patricia Coll Freeman, CatholicAnchor.org


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