Editor’s note: Article originally published on April 1, 2021.
Holy Thursday is a celebration of The Last Supper Jesus had with his Apostles before his death on the Cross. Matthew, Mark, and Luke contain narratives of this event in their Gospels. The Gospel of John gives a different account where Jesus washes the feet of his Apostles. During the Mass on Holy Thursday the priest washes the feet of parishoners as a sign of service.
This liturgical feast is one of my favorite in the entire church calendar. The institution of the Eucharist takes place on Holy Thursday. I also find the washing of feet as a profound gesture of love and service. Finally, the conclusion of the Mass sets up the stage for Good Friday― Jesus’ Death on the Cross.
Source and Summit
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 1324, “The Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life.” Imagine climbing up a mountain and reaching the peak after many days (or weeks). Reaching Holy Thursday is sort of like getting to the top of a spiritual mountain after climbing and learning about the teachings of the Church.
Those in RCIA might find a special appreciation for Holy Thursday as they have been slowly trekking through the teachings of the Church. The peak is the Eucharist― the gift of Jesus’ body, blood, soul, and divinity.
Beginning of the Priesthood
Another important theme in the Holy Thursday Mass is service and the role of the priests. Traditionally, the Church refers to Holy Thursday as Maundy Thursday. This word maundy refers to a foot washing ceremony for the poor. To read the full text click here: The Washing of the Disciples Feet.
Peter refused Jesus’ act of service at first. Jesus told him that unless Peter allowed him to clean his feet he didn’t have a place with him. While it may seem strange to our 21st century mind, washing feet of another in ancient Jewish culture was a symbol of humility and love. Walking was the primary mode of travel and people didn’t have socks or shoes to protect their feet only sandals. Jesus lowered himself as he knelt with a bowl of water to wash his Apostles soles (more importantly this was a sign he intended to cleanse their souls too).
Jesus anointed the Apostles with the sacred office of the sacrament of Holy Orders. Pope Francis reminds us of this truth when he declared in a Holy Thursday homily in 2019, “We [priests] anoint by distributing ourselves, distributing our vocation and our heart. When we anoint other, we ourselves are anointed anew by the faith and affection of our people”.
Eucharist is Food to Sustain Us
Besides modeling servant leadership to his Apostles, Jesus specifically directed the Twelve (or Eleven) to celebrate the breaking of the bread again and again. In Matthew 26:26-29 Jesus says,
26 Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; 28 for this is my blood of thec]”>[c]”>cc]”>] covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
Early Church Tradition interpreted Jesus giving us his literal Body and Blood under the guise of bread and wine. Centuries later Saint Thomas Aquinas clarified the theology with his term transubstantiation. A close reading of John 6 will show Jesus had many opportunities to clarify whether or not he was speaking literally or figuratively. For more information on the Bread of Life Discourse read my article 3 Reasons Why Critically Reading John 6 Will Convert Protestants.
Jesus is the Bread of Life. He gives us strengthen and resolve to fend off the temptations of the Enemy. Saint Maria Faustina wrote, “Jesus, source of my life, sanctify me. O my strength, fortify me. My commander, fight for me.” Her words point the Eucharist sustains us.
Maundy Thursday and Unity in the Body of Christ
Reception of Holy Communion fosters greater unity in the Body of Christ too. Paragraph 1419 of the Catechism states, “Participation in the Holy Sacrifice identifies us with his Heart, sustains our strength along the pilgrimage of this life, makes us long for eternal life, and unites us even now to the Church in heaven, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and all the saints.”
Holy Thursday celebrates the institution of the Eucharist and the Priesthood. The priest or deacon washing the feet of the laity recalls Christ’ act of service to Peter and the other Apostles. On this Maundy Thursday may be ponder the gift of Jesus’ Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. May be in a special way also pray for the Holy Spirit to guide all the clergy to serve with Christ-like love.
How will you serve the Body of Christ this year?
What can you do to show gratitude for Jesus giving us the Eucharist?
How can you support your local priest(s) in their ministry?