I’ve often thought you could tell who really participates in a parish by those who go to the Holy Thursday Mass of the Last Supper. Lots of businesses make time for Good Friday observances, and the whole country shuts down for Easter Sunday. Even people who seldom attend mass are likely to show up then, and for Palm Sunday, because there’s something about getting something concrete like a palm to take home. But Holy Thursday kind of gets passed over.
For Holy Thursday, you have to ask permission to leave work early, unless the service has been judiciously scheduled for evening. For older folks that means going out at night, which is not always an easy proposition. For working folk, it then means an event on a work night. None of this is impossible, but it winnows down the attendees to those who really want to be there for this sacred remembrance of Jesus’ last supper and the beginning of his ordeal of arrest, punishment and crucifixion.
Holy Thursday is the opening act of Triduum—the great day of Christ’s victory over sin and death.
So the folks gathered in the church on this coming Thursday, April 6, will be those most in tune with what it means to be a member of the parish.
Maybe this actually fits with the original events.
The three synoptic Gospels are almost identical in their description of preparations for that Passover feast:
Luke 22: 8-12 NIV states:
Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.”
“Where do you want us to prepare for it?” they asked.
He replied, “As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, and say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher ass: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large upper room, al furnished. Make preparations there.”
This description is almost identical to that of Mark.
Matthew and Mark agree on who was at the meal. Matthew 26:20 states: “When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve.” Similarly, Mark (14:17) writes: “When evening came, Jesus arrived with the Twelve.” No ambiguity here, where the exact number is specified. Luke writes slightly more generically, (22:14) “When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at table.” Using the word “apostles” indicates that this is not the looser group of disciples who followed him, but his Twelve named apostles, who would have the responsibility to carry his message to the world.
Only John, beginning in the 13th chapter, is more generic. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love…so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet…”
If you’re watching The Chosen, as I am, you might wonder, What about the two Mary’s, the other women who followed as disciples? My personal thought on this is that they were in the kitchen. The meal was being served, after all, and someone had to be serving it. Having lived in Iran for a year, I was invited to Persian homes for dinner, and most often the women did not sit down to the table with the man and guests, but served from the kitchen. (And there was no table, but a cloth spread on the floor, with people sitting cross-legged around it. Having seen the olive-wood carving of the Last Supper from Bethlehem Handicrafts, I imagine that the original setting was one of apostles truly reclining on the floor, or perhaps at a very low table.) You can imagine the women huddled just outside the kitchen door, listening, watching the Passover ceremony. Maybe they had a small table in the kitchen area where they could have their own Seder Meal prayers. Or maybe they were included during the main ceremonies of Passover, but then retreated to clear table and clean up.
Today we have the option of being there, even though not among the successors of the Twelve Apostles. Unlike those women disciples, even, we can be present, sharing in that Last Supper meal. In some churches, you might even be able to share in the foot-washing rite. You will witness the procession with the sacred oils of Catechumens and the Sick and the Chrism, brought freshly blessed by the Bishop.
We can join the procession at the end of mass with the consecrated Body of Christ to the altar of repose, imagining the walk to Gethsemane with Jesus and the disciples, and watch and wait with him for a while in prayer.
I will be there singing the music of Holy Thursday: Psalm 116, Our blessing cup, the actual words (although his were in Hebrew) Jesus and the apostles sang that night. We will sing the song we’ve sung for so many years: The Lord Jesus, from Weston Priory. It will be the first time we’ve sung the Gloria since the Sunday before Lent began. We will end with the traditional Pange Lingua for the procession to the altar of repose, singing “Tantum ergo” as the celebrants stand before the altar with incense, remembering the terrible agony Our Lord was about to begin.
As those He still loves, I hope you’ll join me in the church this year. You are the church, and you are the ones who need to be there singing:
Stay with me, abide here with me, watch and pray.
Watch and pray.