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In the Upper Room: Holy Thursday

We are now in Holy Week, the most important time in The Church’s year, even greater than Christmas because Christ brings to fruition the mission he was born to accomplish.  From Holy Thursday through to Easter Sunday we celebrate the Triduum, the three days we recall the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

I remember as a child being struck each year by the contrast between the intimate companionship of the Last Supper and the terrible events which were to follow on the day after.   I wanted to remain in the safety of the Upper Room where there was food and wine and the illusion that time could standstill. I really hated the cruelty and barbarity of Good Friday; it is only as an adult that you realise, without that fateful day, there would have been no Easter Sunday and no fulfillment of Salvation history.

However, I do still prefer Holy Thursday and think it is somewhat overwhelmed by the two days which follow, and yet for Catholics, it is the most important of days.  It commemorates the institution of the Eucharist; the belief that the consecrated bread and wine that we receive at Mass is indeed the body and blood of Jesus Christ.  Jesus told his Apostles to continue doing ‘in memory of him’ what he did at the Last Supper.

The Passover

As devout Jews, Jesus and his disciples had gathered in the Upper Room for Passover.  This was the Jewish holiday which celebrated the Hebrews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt and the ‘passing over’ of the forces of destruction or the sparing of the firstborn of the Israelites.  It commemorates the fact that God has set the Jews free and has chosen the Jewish nation to be his people.

During the meal, Jesus took the bread and gave thanks and gave it to his disciples and said: “Take this and eat, for this is my body.”  The broken bread was now his body.  Then he took the cup of wine and gave it to his disciples and said: “Take this and drink of it, for this, is the cup of my blood which will be poured out for you for the remission of sins.”

For most Christians, the sacrament of Holy Communion is the most important part of their worship of God.  For many, it is the clearest expression of Christian belief and the life of most Christian communities revolves around this sacrament.  The early Church spoke of Christ as its Passover who had been sacrificed (1 Corinthians 5;7) and related its own fellowship meals to Christ’s sacrificial action (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).

In 2002 when Pope St John Paul introduced the Luminous Mysteries into the cycle of Mysteries of the life of Christ that are to be contemplated when praying the Rosary, the last of the five was the Institution of the Eucharist.

The Washing of the Feet

On that last night, Jesus also washed the feet of his disciples.  It was clearly something that took them by surprise, and as an action, it indicated that he had come “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”   Jesus’ attitude of servitude was in direct contrast to that of the disciples, who had recently been arguing among themselves as to which of them was the greatest (Luke 22:24).

Christianity is based on the idea that God – not just the Creator of all things, but the source of all being – is humble.  We believe that the infinite God decided to become a man, to live as one, and to die not only as a man but in the most ignominious and disreputable way.

Holy Thursday

During the Holy Thursday commemorations, the celebrating priest will in imitation of Jesus wash the feet of twelve people from the assembly.  It is the Gospel of John which describes this very intimate act for his disciples, men who were utterly unworthy of his divine nature, and who would, in a matter of hours, run away and abandon him to his fate.

In 2018 Pope Francis celebrated the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper at the Regina Coeli prison in Rome and washed the feet of a dozen inmates.  Four were Italian; two were from the Philippines; two from Morocco, and one each from Moldova, Colombia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone.  Eight of the twelve were Catholic; two were Muslim; one was Orthodox and one was Buddhist.

In his brief homily before the foot-washing ritual, Pope Francis explained to the prisoners that in Jesus’ day the job of washing feet was the task of a slave.  “There wasn’t asphalt or cobblestones, there was dust and people’s feet got dirty.” So before they went into a house, the slaves would wash the person’s feet.  The Gospel recounts Jesus washing the feet of his own disciples “to give us an example of how we must serve one another”, the pope said.

The humility expressed by his actions with the basin and towel foreshadowed his ultimate act of humility and love in the events of the next day, on the cross of Good Friday.


Written by Marie – Therese Cryan

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