Thursday, March 28, 2024

The Roman Mass of Holy Thursday

Compared to other ancient liturgies, the Roman Rite is unusual in treating the Mass of Maundy Thursday as a feast of the Lord, vesting the clergy in white, and saying the Gloria in excelsis and the Creed. It is far more unusual in not reading one of the Synoptic accounts of the Lord’s Supper as the Gospel, but rather John 13, 1-15, the washing of the disciples’ feet. In the Ambrosian Rite, for example, the vestments are red for the whole of Holy Week, including both Holy Thursday and Good Friday, a custom which the church of Milan received from antiquity, when red was a color of mourning; the Gloria and Credo are not said. The Gospel is Matthew 26, 17-75, which goes from the preparations which the Lord orders the disciples to make for the Last Supper until the crowing of the rooster after Peter’s betrayal.

The Washing of the Disciples’ Feet, 1308, by Duccio di Buoninsegna (ca. 1255/60 - 1318/19), part of the great altarpiece of the cathedral of Siena known as the Maestà. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
In the Byzantine Rite’s Divine Liturgy of Holy Thursday, the psalms and antiphons with which the Eucharistic rite normally begins are replaced by the first part of Vespers, but the hymns which are sung are of a decidedly non-festal tone, heavily focused on the betrayal of Judas.
“Judas the transgressor, o Lord, who dipped his hand with Thee in the dish at the supper, lawlessly stretched out his hands to take the silver pieces; and he that reckoned up the price of the myrrh, did not shudder to sell Thee, that art beyond price; he who stretched out his feet to be washed, deceitfully kissed the Master to betray him to the lawless; cast from the choir of Apostles, and having cast away the thirty silver pieces, he did not see Thy Resurrection on the third day; through which have mercy on us.”
The Gospel is also from St Matthew, chapter 26, 1 – 27, 2; the washing of the disciples’ feet, John 13, 3-17, is inserted after verse 20, and three verses of St Luke, from his account of the Agony in the Garden (22, 43-45) are inserted after verse 29. The Mozarabic Rite also reads a longer and more complex composite Gospel of the same episodes, while the Armenian liturgy reads the Last Supper twice, as part of longer readings from the first chapter of the Passions of Matthew (26, 17-30) and Mark (14, 1-26), as well as the washing of the feet. The Syro-Malabar tradition is similar to the Ambrosian.
In other words, by far the dominant tradition in Christian liturgy is to emphasize the Institution of the Eucharist as a part of the whole Paschal mystery, by placing it in the context of the Passion narrative. The same narrative then continues on Good Friday, as e.g. in the Ambrosian Rite, which reads most of Matthew 27 at a synaxis of readings done after Terce, the principal commemoration of the Passion on that day.
A photo of the Good Friday post Tertiam in the Ambrosian Rite, from 2017. At Matthew 27, 50 “And Jesus again crying with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost”, all kneel, and two servers (subdeacons in the solemn rite) strip the altar; all the candles and lights are extinguished. A sign is then given with the bells, which are henceforth “bound” until the Easter vigil; the Passion resumes, but the rest of it is said in a lower voice.
However, it would be very superficial to think that by reading only John 13, 1-15, and that in a Mass of a more festal character, the Roman Rite does not do the exact same thing as the others. For after the Gloria in excelsis is sung, the bells are “bound”, as the Italians say, replaced with the dissonant noise of the crepitaculum, and the organ is silenced, signs that the Church’s joy at receiving the gift of the Eucharist is overshadowed by the impending sufferings of Our Lord. The saying of the Creed emphasizes the fact that at the Institution of the Eucharist and priesthood, Christ established the apostolic college that would go forth to preach and teach the Faith to the world, and as time went on, commission others to do likewise. But it is worth remembering that the Creed itself speaks of the Incarnation, death and Resurrection of Christ, i.e., the Paschal mystery, but does not say anything about the Mass or the Eucharist.
This also explains why the chants of the foremass of Holy Thursday, the introit, gradual and offertory, also make no mention of the Eucharist, but all speak of the Passion and Resurrection. “in whom is our salvation… and resurrection… wherefore God also did exalt Him… I shall not die, but live, and tell of the works of the Lord.” The collect refers to the betrayal of Judas and the confession of the good thief, and also speaks of the Passion and the Resurrection, but not of the Eucharist.
Offertorium Déxtera Dómini fecit virtutem, déxtera Dómini exaltávit me: non moriar, sed vivam, et narrábo ópera Dómini.
Offertory Ps. 117 The right hand of the Lord hath wrought might: the right hand of the Lord hath exalted me; I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord.
As I noted earlier this week, the Roman Mass of the Lord’s Supper originally had no foremass, but began with the Secret. By the time this custom was changed, in the later decades of the 8th century, the text of the liturgy was regarded as a closed canon, and thus, all of its elements are taken from elsewhere: the introit from Holy Tuesday, the collect from Good Friday, the epistle and gradual from Tenebrae, the Gospel (reduced to the first 15 verses) also from Holy Tuesday, and the offertory from the Sundays after Epiphany. It is the epistle from St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (11, 20-32) that sets the Institution of the Eucharist in the broader context of the Passion which the chant parts and oration speak of.
“(T)he Lord Jesus, the same night in which he was betrayed, took bread, and giving thanks, broke, and said, ‘Take ye, and eat: this is my body, which shall be delivered for you: this do for the commemoration of me.’ In like manner also the chalice, after he had supped, saying, ‘This chalice is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as often as you shall drink, for the commemoration of me.’ For as often as you shall eat this bread, and drink the chalice, you shall show the death of the Lord, until he come.” (verses 23-26).
The canon of the Mass on Holy Thursday has both a variable Communicantes and Hanc igitur; here again, the Institution of the Eucharist is set in the broader context of the Passion. The former refers to “the most sacred day on which Our Lord Jesus Christ was given over (traditus) for us”, i.e., to His Passion, while the latter refers to it as “the day on which Our Lord handed over (tradidit) to his disciples the mysteries of His Body and Blood to be celebrated.”

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