Holy Thursday - The Mass of the Last Supper

Last Supper
Iglesia de Sant Jaume, Alcúdia, Mallorca, Spain. Mike Switzerland/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0  

Holy Thursday is the day on which Jesus Christ celebrated the Last Supper with His disciples, four days after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Only hours after the Last Supper, Judas would betray Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, setting the stage for Christ's Crucifixion on Good Friday.

Quick Facts

  • Date: The Thursday before Easter Sunday
  • Type of Feast: Commemoration
  • Readings: Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14; Psalm 116:12-13, 15-16bc, 17-18; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-15 (full text)
  • Other Names for the Feast: Maundy Thursday

The History of Holy Thursday

Holy Thursday is more than just the lead-in to the events of Good Friday; it is, in fact, the oldest of the celebrations of Holy Week. And with good reason—Holy Thursday is the day on which Catholics commemorate the institution of three pillars of the Catholic Faith: the Sacrament of Holy Communion, the priesthood, and the Mass. During the Last Supper, Christ blessed the bread and wine that He shared with His disciples with the very words that Catholic and Orthodox priests use today to consecrate the Body and Blood of Christ during the Mass and the Divine Liturgy. In telling His disciples to "Do this in remembrance of Me," Jesus instituted the Mass and made them the first priests.

Maundy Thursday: A New Commandment

Near the end of the Last Supper, after Judas had left to arrange for the betrayal of Christ, Jesus said to His disciples, "A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another." The Latin word for "commandment," mandatum, became the source of another name for Holy Thursday: Maundy Thursday.

The Chrism Mass

On Holy Thursday, the priests of each diocese gather with their bishop to consecrate holy oils, which are used throughout the year for the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Orders, and the Anointing of the Sick. This ancient practice, which can be traced back as far as the fifth century, is known as the Chrism Mass. (Chrism is a mixture of oil and balsam used for the holy oils.) The gathering of all the priests in the diocese to celebrate this Mass with their bishop stresses the role of the bishop as a successor to the apostles.

The Mass of the Lord's Supper

Except in very rare circumstances, there is only one Mass other than the Chrism Mass celebrated on Holy Thursday in each church: the Mass of the Lord's Supper, which is celebrated after sundown. It commemorates the institution of the Sacrament of Holy Communion, and it ends with the removal of the Body of Christ from the tabernacle in the main body of the church. The Eucharist is carried in procession to another place where it is kept overnight, to be distributed during the commemoration of the Lord's Passion on Good Friday (when no Mass is held, and therefore no hosts are consecrated). After the procession, the altar is stripped bare, and all bells in the church are silent until the Gloria at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday.