This year, Christians will observe Holy Thursday on March 24. It is part of Holy Week, which began on Palm Sunday, includes Good Friday, and ends on Holy Saturday. This is a sacred week when the faithful await the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday.
Holy Thursday has special significance in the church, which dates back to when Jesus first commemorated it. It is recorded in the Bible and still celebrated to this day.
Learn more about the meaning of this holiday and its traditions below.
1. It Reenacts the Last Supper
The Last Supper is the final meal Jesus had with his 12 apostles. Since they were of the Jewish faith, it was actually a Passover celebration at that time. The four Synoptic Gospels — Matthew, Mark Luke and John — speak of this event.
It was at this dinner that Jesus revealed to his disciples that one of them would eventually betray him.
In Matthew 26:17-30 it states:
And while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me. They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, “Surely you don’t mean me, Lord?” Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.”
The man Jesus was referring to was Judas Iscariot, who notoriously turned Jesus in for 30 pieces of silver, leading to his arrest and Crucifixion.
The Holy Thursday scene shown above was depicted in the 2014 film Son of God.
2. Mass Is Celebrated With the Washing of Feet
At mass on Holy Thursday, the priest who is presiding washes the feet of 12 parishioners to symbolize the number of Jesus’ apostles. The ceremony is usually held at night, after sundown.
John is the sole Gospel scribe who includes this act in his writing. His Gospel states that Jesus said, “If I then, your Master and Rabbi, have washed your feet, it is also your duty to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example in order that you may do what I have done to you.”
According to ABC, this year, Pope Francis will wash the feet of young refugees at an asylum north of Rome. Last year, he washed the feet of inmates at a prison in Rome. In 2014, he performed the symbolic washing for the elderly and disabled at a center in Rome. On his first Holy Thursday as Pope, he went to a prison where he washed the feet of inmates in a juvenile detention center.
3. It Began the Celebration of the Eucharist
During The Last Supper, Jesus began the tradition that is still carried out today, the celebration of the Holy Eucharist at each Mass.
In Luke’s Gospel it says:
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
Priests recite a version of this as they celebrate the sacrament of the Eucharist. Parishioners eat blessed bread and wine to symbolize Christ’s Body and Blood. Catholics believe in Transubstantiation, which means that during the consecration at the Holy Eucharist, the bread and wine are transformed into the actual body and blood of Jesus.
4. It Instituted the Priesthood
Since Jesus gave instructions to his apostles on what to do after He left them, the Last Supper is considered the institution of the sacrament of priesthood, or the sacrament of Holy Orders.
In 2004, in his Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday, Pope John Paul II wrote about the connection between the sacrament of the Eucharist and the priesthood, stating, “At the Last Supper we were born as priests…We were born from the Eucharist. If we can truly say that the whole Church lives from the Eucharis…we can say the same thing about the ministerial priesthood: it is born, lives, works and bears fruit ‘de Eucharistia.’ There can be no Eucharist without the priesthood, just as there can be no priesthood without the Eucharist.”
In the clip above, we hear Timothy Cardinal Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, giving the message, “Tonight, Holy Thursday, the ritual says, all depart in silence as we spend quiet time before His real presence at the altar.”
5. It Marks the Start of The Easter Triduum
The Easter Triduum, or Triduum, is the name Christians give to the liturgical season that ends the Lenten season.
It begins with Holy Thursday, continues with Good Friday and Holy Saturday, and ends on Easter Sunday. The Vatican reported that the Pope said that “The Easter Triduum is the apex of our liturgical year and it is also the apex of our lives as Christians.”
Holy Thursday’s service is the last mass celebrated in the church before Easter Sunday. No mass is held on Good Friday. The Body of Christ is removed from the tabernacle of the church and taken somewhere else overnight. The Eucharist is not present in church for Good Friday, and returns on Easter Sunday, when Jesus is resurrected.