Great and Holy Thursday
Holy Apostle and Evangelist Mark (1st c.). Ven. Sylvester, Abbot of Obnora (1379).
Great and Holy Thursday
Two events shape the liturgy of Great and Holy Thursday: the Last Supper of Christ with His disciples, and the betrayal of Judas. The meaning of both is in love. The Last Supper is the ultimate revelation of God’s redeeming love for man, of love as the very essence of salvation. And the betrayal of Judas reveals that sin, death and self-destruction are also due to love, but to deviated and distorted love, love directed at that which does not deserve love. Here is the mystery of this unique day, and its liturgy, where light and darkness, joy and sorrow are so strangely mixed, challenges us with the choice on which depends the eternal destiny of each one of us. “Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour was come… having loved His own which were in the world, He loved them unto the end…” (John 13:1). To understand the meaning of the Last Supper we must see it as the very end of the great movement of Divine Love which began with the creation of the world and is now to be consummated in the death and resurrection of Christ.
God is Love (1 John 4:8). And the first gift of Love was life. The meaning, the content of life was communion. To be alive man was to eat and to drink, to partake of the world. The world was thus Divine love made food, made Body of man. And being alive, i.e. partaking of the world, man was to be in communion with God, to have God as the meaning, the content and the end of his life. Communion with the God-given world was indeed communion with God. Man received his food from God and making it his body and his life, he offered the whole world to God, transformed it into life in God and with God. The love of God gave life to man, the love of man for God transformed this life into communion with God. This was paradise. Life in it was, indeed, eucharistic. Through man and his love for God the whole creation was to be sanctified and transformed into one all-embracing sacrament of Divine Presence and man was the priest of this sacrament.
But in sin man lost this eucharistic life. He lost it because he ceased to see the world as a means of Communion with God and his life as eucharist, as adoration and thanksgiving. . . He loves himself and the world for their own sake; he made himself the content and the end of his life. He thought that his hunger and thirst, i.e. his dependence of his life on the world—can be satisfied by the world as such, by food as such. But world and food, once they are deprived of their initial sacramental meaning—as means of communion with God, once they are not received for God’s sake and filled with hunger and thirst for God, once, in other words, God is no longer, their real “content” can give no life, satisfy no hunger, for they have no life in themselves… And thus by putting his love in them, man deviated his love from the only object of all love, of all hunger, of all desires. And he died. For death is the inescapable “decomposition” of life cut from its only source and content. Man thought to find life in the world and in food, but he found death. His life became communion with death, for instead of transforming the world by faith, love, and adoration into communion with God, he submitted himself entirely to the world, he ceased to be its priest and became its slave. And by his sin the whole world was made a cemetery, where people condemned to death partook of death and “sat in the region and shadow of death” (Matt. 4:16).
But if man betrayed, God remained faithful to man. He did not “turn Himself away forever from His creature whom He had made, neither did He forget the works of His hands, but He visited him in diverse manners, through the tender compassion of His mercy” (Liturgy of Saint Basil). A new Divine work began, that of redemption and salvation. And it was fulfilled in Christ, the Son of God Who in order to restore man to his pristine beauty and to restore life as communion with God, became Man, took upon Himself our nature, with its thirst and hunger, with its desire for and love of, life. And in Him life was revealed, given, accepted and fulfilled as total and perfect Eucharist, as total and perfect communion with God. He rejected the basic human temptation: to live “by bread alone,” He revealed that God and His kingdom are the real food, the real life of man. And this perfect eucharistic Life, filled with God, and, therefore Divine and immortal, He gave to all those who would believe in Him, i,e. find in Him the meaning and the content of their lives. Such is the wonderful meaning of the Last Supper. He offered Himself as the true food of man, because the Life revealed in Him is the true Life. And thus the movement of Divine Love which began in paradise with a Divine “take, eat. ..” (for eating is life for man) comes now “unto the end” with the Divine “take, eat, this is My Body…” (for God is life of man). The Last Supper is the restoration of the paradise of bliss, of life as Eucharist and Communion.
But this hour of ultimate love is also that of the ultimate betrayal. Judas leaves the light of the Upper Room and goes into darkness. “And it was night” (John 13:30). Why does he leave? Because he loves, answers the Gospel, and his fateful love is stressed again and again in the hymns of Holy Thursday. It does not matter indeed, that he loves the “silver.” Money stands here for all the deviated and distorted love which leads man into betraying God. It is, indeed, love stolen from God and Judas, therefore, is the Thief. When he does not love God and in God, man still loves and desires, for he was created to love and love is his nature, but it is then a dark and self-destroying passion and death is at its end. And each year, as we immerse ourselves into the unfathomable light and depth of Holy Thursday, the same decisive question is addressed to each one of us: do I respond to Christ’s love and accept it as my life, do I follow Judas into the darkness of his night?
The liturgy of Holy Thursday includes: a) Matins, b) Vespers and, following Vespers, the Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great. In the Cathedral Churches the special service of the Washing of Feet takes place after the Liturgy; while the deacon reads the Gospel, the Bishop washes the feet of twelve priests, reminding us that Christ’s love is the foundation of life in the Church and shapes all relations within it. It is also on Holy Thursday that Holy Chrism is consecrated by the primates of autocephalous Churches, and this also means that the new love of Christ is the gift we receive from the Holy Spirit on the day of our entrance into the Church.
At Matins the Troparion sets the theme of the day: the opposition between the love of Christ and the “insatiable desire” of Judas.
“When the glorious disciples were illumined by washing at the Supper,
Then was the impious Judas darkened with the love of silver
And to the unjust judges does he betray Thee, the just Judge.
Consider, 0 Lover of money, him who hanged himself because of it.
Do not follow the insatiable desire which dared this against the Master,
0 Lord, good to all, glory to Thee.”
After the Gospel reading (Luke 12:1-40) we are given the contemplation, the mystical and eternal meaning of the Last Supper in the beautiful canon of Saint Cosmas. Its last “irmos,” (Ninth Ode) invites us to share in the hospitality of the Lord’s banquet:
“Come, 0 ye faithful
Let us enjoy the hospitality of the Lord and the banquet of immortality
In the upper chamber with minds uplifted….”
At Vespers, the stichira on “Lord, I have cried” stress the spiritual anticlimax of Holy Thursday, the betrayal of Judas:
“Judas the slave and Knave,
The disciple and traitor,
The friend and fiend,
Was proved by his deeds,
For, as he followed the Master,
Within himself he contemplated His betrayal….”
After the Entrance, three lessons from the Old Testament:
1) Exodus 19: 10-19. God’s descent from Mount Sinai to His people as the image of God’s coming in the Eucharist.
2) Job 38:1-23, 42:1-5, God’s conversation with Job and Job’s answer: “who will utter to me what I understand not? Things too great and wonderful for me, which I knew not…”—and these “great and wonderful things” are fulfilled in the gift of Christ’s Body and Blood.
3) Isaiah 50:4-11. The beginning of the prophecies on the suffering servant of God,
The Epistle reading is from I Corinthians 11:23-32: Saint Paul’s account of the Last Supper and the meaning of communion.
The Gospel reading (the longest of the year is taken from all four Gospels and is the full story of the Last Supper, the betrayal of Judas and Christ’s arrest in the garden.
The Cherubic hymn and the hymn of Communion are replaced by the words of the prayer before Communion:
“Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant,
For I will not speak of Thy Mystery to Thine enemies,
Neither like Judas will I give Thee a kiss;
But like the thief will I confess Thee:
Remember me, O Lord, in Thy Kingdom.”
by The Very Rev. Alexander Schmemann, S.T.D.
Professor of Liturgical Theology, Saint Vladimir’s Seminary
Troparion of the day, tone 8
Of Your Mystical Supper, O Son of God, / Accept me today as a communicant. / For I will not speak of Your mysteries to Your enemies, / Neither like Judas will I give You a kiss, / But like the thief will I confess You. / Remember me, O Lord, in Your Kingdom!
Kontakion of the day, tone 8
Come, let us all sing the praises of Him who was crucified for us, / For Mary said when she beheld Him upon the tree: / Though You do endure the cross, You are my Son and my God!
1 Corinthians 11:23-32 (Epistle)
- For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread;
- and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”
- In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”
- For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.
- Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.
- But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup.
- For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.
- For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep.
- For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged.
- But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world.
Matt. 26:2-20; John 13:3-17; Matt. 26:21-39; Luke 22:43-45; Matt. 26:40-27:2 (Gospel, Composite)
- “You know that after two days is the Passover, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.”
- Then the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders of the people assembled at the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas,
- and plotted to take Jesus by trickery and kill Him.
- But they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar among the people.”
- And when Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper,
- a woman came to Him having an alabaster flask of very costly fragrant oil, and she poured it on His head as He sat at the table.
- But when His disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste?
- For this fragrant oil might have been sold for much and given to the poor.”
- But when Jesus was aware of it, He said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a good work for Me.
- For you have the poor with you always, but Me you do not have always.
- For in pouring this fragrant oil on My body, she did it for My burial.
- Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.”
- Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests
- and said, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver Him to you?” And they counted out to him thirty pieces of silver.
- So from that time he sought opportunity to betray Him.
- Now on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying to Him, “Where do You want us to prepare for You to eat the Passover?”
- And He said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, “My time is at hand; I will keep the Passover at your house with My disciples.”’”
- So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them; and they prepared the Passover.
- When evening had come, He sat down with the twelve.
- Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God,
- rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself.
- After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.
- Then He came to Simon Peter. And Peter said to Him, “Lord, are You washing my feet?”
- Jesus answered and said to him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this.”
- Peter said to Him, “You shall never wash my feet!” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.”
- Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!”
- Jesus said to him, “He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.”
- For He knew who would betray Him; therefore He said, “You are not all clean.”
- So when He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?
- You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am.
- If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.
- For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.
- Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him.
- If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
- Now as they were eating, He said, “Assuredly, I say to you, one of you will betray Me.”
- And they were exceedingly sorrowful, and each of them began to say to Him, “Lord, is it I?”
- He answered and said, “He who dipped his hand with Me in the dish will betray Me.
- The Son of Man indeed goes just as it is written of Him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had not been born.”
- Then Judas, who was betraying Him, answered and said, “Rabbi, is it I?” He said to him, “You have said it.”
- And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.”
- Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you.
- For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.
- But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.”
- And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
- Then Jesus said to them, “All of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night, for it is written: ‘I will strike the Shepherd, And the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’
- But after I have been raised, I will go before you to Galilee.”
- Peter answered and said to Him, “Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble.”
- Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you that this night, before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.”
- Peter said to Him, “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You!” And so said all the disciples.
- Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to the disciples, “Sit here while I go and pray over there.”
- And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and He began to be sorrowful and deeply distressed.
- Then He said to them, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch with Me.”
- He went a little farther and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.”
- Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him.
- And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.
- When He rose up from prayer, and had come to His disciples, He found them sleeping from sorrow.
- Then He came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, “What! Could you not watch with Me one hour?
- Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
- Again, a second time, He went away and prayed, saying, “O My Father, if this cup cannot pass away from Me unless I drink it, Your will be done.”
- And He came and found them asleep again, for their eyes were heavy.
- So He left them, went away again, and prayed the third time, saying the same words.
- Then He came to His disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners.
- Rise, let us be going. See, My betrayer is at hand.”
- And while He was still speaking, behold, Judas, one of the twelve, with a great multitude with swords and clubs, came from the chief priests and elders of the people.
- Now His betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “Whomever I kiss, He is the One; seize Him.”
- Immediately he went up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed Him.
- But Jesus said to him, “Friend, why have you come?” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and took Him.
- And suddenly, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword, struck the servant of the high priest, and cut off his ear.
- But Jesus said to him, “Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.
- Or do you think that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels?
- How then could the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must happen thus?”
- In that hour Jesus said to the multitudes, “Have you come out, as against a robber, with swords and clubs to take Me? I sat daily with you, teaching in the temple, and you did not seize Me.”
- But all this was done that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled. Then all the disciples forsook Him and fled.
- And those who had laid hold of Jesus led Him away to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were assembled.
- But Peter followed Him at a distance to the high priest’s courtyard. And he went in and sat with the servants to see the end.
- Now the chief priests, the elders, and all the council sought false testimony against Jesus to put Him to death,
- but found none. Even though many false witnesses came forward, they found none. But at last two false witnesses came forward
- and said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.’”
- And the high priest arose and said to Him, “Do You answer nothing? What is it these men testify against You?”
- But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest answered and said to Him, “I put You under oath by the living God: Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God!”
- Jesus said to him, “It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
- Then the high priest tore his clothes, saying, “He has spoken blasphemy! What further need do we have of witnesses? Look, now you have heard His blasphemy!
- What do you think?” They answered and said, “He is deserving of death.”
- Then they spat in His face and beat Him; and others struck Him with the palms of their hands,
- saying, “Prophesy to us, Christ! Who is the one who struck You?”
- Now Peter sat outside in the courtyard. And a servant girl came to him, saying, “You also were with Jesus of Galilee.”
- But he denied it before them all, saying, “I do not know what you are saying.”
- And when he had gone out to the gateway, another girl saw him and said to those who were there, “This fellow also was with Jesus of Nazareth.”
- But again he denied with an oath, “I do not know the Man!”
- And a little later those who stood by came up and said to Peter, “Surely you also are one of them, for your speech betrays you.”
- Then he began to curse and swear, saying, “I do not know the Man!” Immediately a rooster crowed.
- And Peter remembered the word of Jesus who had said to him, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.” So he went out and wept bitterly.
- When morning came, all the chief priests and elders of the people plotted against Jesus to put Him to death.
- And when they had bound Him, they led Him away and delivered Him to Pontius Pilate the governor.