Holy Week: Holy Thursday, Its History, Meaning, and Traditions
Holy Thursday is the commemoration of the Last Supper that Jesus celebrated with the Disciples. Jesus came to Jerusalem with the Disciples to celebrate the Passover Feast. Holy Thursday, itself, cannot be understood without a bit of history related to Passover, and without an understanding of how communion has been seen over the years.
Passover was a feast established by God in Exodus 12-14. We are told in these chapters that God had sent Moses to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, but he refused to do so. God sent ten plagues on the Egyptians for their failure to release the Israelite people, with the last being the curse of the first born. During the night, the Lord took the first born male child of every household. The only way that a home could be saved would be if they had the blood of a lamb on their doorframe and doorpost. The Israelites immediately slaughtered a lamb for each household, put the blood on the doorframe and doorpost, and remained inside, eating the cooked lamb, as commanded by God.
In the morning, the first born son of all of Egypt was dead, including the son of Pharaoh. However, none of the Israelites were taken during the night. Pharaoh agreed to let the Israelites go.
For generations this was celebrated as a yearly feast. Not only was a family required to slaughter a lamb to eat amongst themselves, as part of Passover, they were required to bring the lamb to the temple to be slaughtered by the High Priest. This will be covered more in tomorrow’s article on Good Friday.
In addition to the lamb, the group, whether family or close friends, was required to eat unleavened bread. Unleavened bread is bread made without yeast. The reason this was chosen was to recognize that the Israelites had to leave Egypt so abruptly that they did not have time to make bread with yeast in it. There are symbolic reasons for this as well, but those are more issues of theology, and therefore are not germane to this article.
The Last Supper
After Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, He told the Disciples to gather in the upper room of a building to celebrate Passover with Him. We are not told that they ate lamb as part of the meal, which may relate to the events of the next day, but we are told that they had dinner. It can be assumed that lamb was probably part of that meal.
After the dinner was over, the Gospels tell us that Jesus broke bread and gave it to the Disciples, and told them to eat it in memory of Him. He also told them that as often as they did it, they should remember Him.
After this, we are told that He gave them a cup of wine, and told them to drink of it. That this cup was to represent a new covenant, one that would last throughout eternity.
The idea of “eating His body” has been an idea that has caused great controversy amongst theologians for nearly 2000 years. A great deal of theology has been established based upon the words of Jesus.
In Catholicism, and some other Christian faiths, they believe in the idea of transubstantiation, which is the belief that when a person eats the bread at communion, that the bread is actually turned into the real body of Jesus. This has been a belief for only about a thousand years. The first recorded use of this practice is in writings related to Archbishop Heildebert de Lavardin, the Archbishop of Tours.
His writings spread throughout Europe, and soon it became a fairly common practice for priests to correlate the communion offering with the actual body of Christ. The belief became so common that the Pope included it in the Fourth Council of the Lateran, which was held in 1215. It was concluded at that point that the bread and wine would be considered the real body and blood of Christ, once they were blessed by the priest.
During the Protestant Reformation, this was an idea that was attacked early on by Protestants as “pseudophilosophy.” Protestants pushed the “memorial” part of the Eucharist, wanting believers to focus more on the “do this in memory of me” part, as opposed to the focus on “this is my body, which is given for you.”
The historic Council of Trent, in 1551, established permanently the belief in the Catholic faith in Transubstantiation. The Catholic Church formally established the conversion of the bread to the body of Christ, and the wine to His blood.
The Communion Meal
For those who do not subscribe to the Transubstantiation idea, the Last Supper is commemorated in a much different way. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he speaks of the communion gathering as more of a time when believers would gather together to share a meal together. The communion gathering was more about sharing a time of fellowship, remembering Jesus through shared friendship, rather than a focus on “eating His body.”
The Friendship Offering
Leviticus 24 speaks about an offering of bread that the Israelites were to bring to the temple to share with God. While many offerings were brought as a form of penance or reconciliation, this offering was specifically brought as a sign of friendship with God. What has been missed by many in the discussion related to communion, is the idea of friendship. Jesus focus was on the “gathering,” where people came together to join in the communion experience of breaking bread, and remembering His sacrifice. This was the primary focus of His wanting to be remembered through the eating of the bread; that believers would have fellowship with God, and more importantly, friendship with each other.
Holy Thursday History
Holy Thursday, which is also called Maudy Thursday, is one of the oldest celebrations related to Holy Week. Because the day has three primary commemorations, communion, the consecration of the priesthood, and mass, it has long been established as a sacred day within all denominations of the Christian faith. While not all denominations consecrate the priesthood or clergy on this day, all do recognize the communion portion of the day, and do hold some kind of service or mass.
Over the many centuries, Holy Thursday has dramatically changed, and new rituals have been added. The earliest accounts of the day date back to the first century, when the Church declared that the day before Good Friday would be a “significant day.” It was called Dias Mandatum, which means “the day of the new commandment.”
Saint Ignatius of Antioch was one of the first to speak of the practice of remembering the words of Jesus before His death. Ignatius speaks of taking the Eucharist to remember that Christ died for the sins of mankind, and that He was “raised up again.” In about 150 AD, Justin Martyr spoke of celebrating the words of Jesus upon His death, and that the food as “blessed by the prayer of His word.”
The tradition of taking communion on Holy Thursday was established very early on as a practice. Because of the words that Jesus directly used, it was only natural that the sharing of bread and wine would be part of the celebration that would occur on this day. However, much more history, meaning, and tradition has been added to the Holy Week celebration of Holy Thursday.
In the early part of the second century, many churches began the practice of having a mass or service on Holy Thursday. This began in the eastern region of the church, particularly in the Palestine, Alexandrian, and Jerusalem church areas, and spread rapidly throughout much of the Roman Empire. By the end of the second century, a vast majority of churches followed this practice.
When Constantine became emperor of the Roman Empire, he wanted a clergy that was ceremonial placed into the position they held. To accommodate his wishes, the church began the practice of anointing priests and other clergy members on Holy Thursday, in a practice that became known as “The Consecration of Holy Oils.” This eventually spread to the practice of anointing the sick with oil as well.
In the fifth century, Olei exorcizati confection, or the anointing of the newly baptized was established. This practice prescribed that newly baptized persons would also be anointed with oil, before the congregation, on Holy Thursday. This was a prelude to them joining in communion, and was the basis for the creation of the Catholic Church sacrament of Holy Communion.
Holy Thursday Practices Around the World
In the 12th century, the Church of England began the practice of distributing money to the poor and those who could not afford to live. This became known as Maundy Money, and continued as a practice until the 17th century.
In Germany, a practice developed called “mourning Thursday” or “green Thursday.” This was seen as a form of repentance. Green is a symbolic color for weeping and grief. As part of the ritual, followers were to eat green vegetables, particularly spinach, for the entire day, as a means of humbling themselves before God.
In some countries, they celebrate the Seven Churches Visitations. This practice is mostly followed in Southeast Asia. In the tradition, followers visit seven different churches within their area, where they pray at each church. This is a practice to remember the seven churches that John writes about in the Book of Revelation.
Now that Holy Week is under way, it makes sense to understand the history, meaning, and tradition of Holy Thursday.
The Servant – Washing of the Feet
At the Last Supper we are told in John 13 that Jesus washed the feet of the Disciples. His purpose for this was to demonstrate that He came to serve others, and He wanted His Disciples to follow in His footsteps. He wanted them to get the idea that they, too, needed to serve others, and to not think of themselves as above anyone.
This idea has become one of the primary traditions of Catholic clergymen, in particular the Pope himself. In most Catholic churches, lay ministers will select members of the congregation whose feet the priest will wash. The one requisite of the ritual is that only men can be chosen. This is by papal decree.
Popes have followed this ritual for over 1000 years, as a sign of humility. Early on, popes washed the feet of citizens around Rome on Holy Thursday, but after a few hundred years, the tradition slowly changed to washing the feet of priests. The idea was that the Pope should serve those that normally served him. The current Pope, Francis, has broken with tradition, and last year washed the feet of prisoners in a jail in Rome. This included washing the feet of two women inmates. This was a surprising break from tradition, which may be opening the door to a change in policy as to whose feet can be washed.
Previous Holy Week Articles:
Holy Week- Palm Sunday