From the General Decree of 1955 which restored the liturgy of Holy Week (Maxima Redemptionis) in the Roman Catholic Church (emphasis added):
Let the faithful be taught about the love with which Christ our Lord ‘on the day before He suffered’ instituted the sacred and holy Eucharist, Sacrifice and Sacrament, the perpetual memorial of His Passion, to be offered day by day though the ministry of His priests. Let the faithful be invited to render due adoration after the end of the Mass to the most holy Sacrament. Finally, wherever to illustrate the Lord’s commandment of brotherly love the Washing of the Feet is carried out according to the restored rubrics, let the faithful be taught the deep significance of this holy rite, and let them spend this day in works of Christian charity.
The Mass today, which by order of Pope Pius XII should not begin before 5 p.m. or after 8 p.m. local time, is specifically focused on the commemoration of the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper and the Ordination of the Apostles and is therefore a Mass of joy and thanksgiving. It is for this reason that the church sets aside her penitential purple vestments and the priest wears festive white vestments. The Gloria is also sung during Mass which is a piercing difference from the last 40 days which has seen that part of the Mass shelved (often replaced by the Lenten Prose). In churches with bells, it is tradition for the bells to be run through-out the Gloria during this Mass and then they not rung again until Easter Sunday.
The derivation of the word Maundy reminds us of the ceremony of washing of feet, called Mandatum, from the first words of the Antiphon: Mandatum novum do vobis (John 13:34). The Mandatum takes place today because Jesus washed the feet of His Apostles before He instituted the Holy Eucharist. After the Mass, the Blessed Sacrament is processed to the Altar of Repose where it remains until the following day. All of these rites are meant to commemorate the institution of the Holy Eucharist.
Before the liturgy of Holy Week was codified by the Church, this day was the Feast of the Holy Eucharist– and was the only commemoration of its kind. Private Masses are forbidden on this day. In the early Middle Ages there were three separate Masses that were celebrated today. The first was in memory of the Institution of the Holy Eucharist, the second was the Blessing of Holy Oils and the third was for the reconciliation of public penitents. The second Mass was particularly interesting as it took place at the local cathedral by noon on this day and was presided over by the Bishop who was “surrounded by his priests” in like manner to Christ during the Last Supper. All that remains of the public re-welcoming of penitents in the third mass is the Deus a quo in the extraordinary form which is a very ancient piece. The Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday Mass that we celebrate today is what remains of the first celebration from the medieval church.
After the Sacrament is left at the Altar of Repose, all other altars within the church are stripped and washed. This is to provide a clear image of the Eucharist not being offered again until the conclusion of Holy Saturday. As the altars are stripped the priest recites Psalm 21(22):
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.
Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the one Israel praises.
In you our ancestors put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
To you they cried out and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”
Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
From birth I was cast on you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
Roaring lions that tear their prey
open their mouths wide against me.
I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted within me.
My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.
Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce my hands and my feet.
All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.
But you, Lord, do not be far from me.
You are my strength; come quickly to help me.
Deliver me from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.
Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.
I will declare your name to my people;
in the assembly I will praise you.
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.
From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.
The poor will eat and be satisfied;
those who seek the Lord will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him,
for dominion belongs to the Lord
and he rules over the nations.
All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!
Featured image by euroeana.eu on Pinterest.