Great and Holy Thursday

Great and Holy Thursday is the fourth day of Great and Holy Week - the final week before the feast of Pascha. During the days of Great and Holy Week, we follow the events in the life of our Savior from his entry into Jerusalem to his glorious resurrection on Easter Sunday.

The Passover of the Lord

The word Pascha is simply a Greek form of the Hebrew word Pesach - Passover. In spite of nine plagues which had fallen upon Egypt, Pharaoh had refused to let the people of Israel go. God ordered Moses to prophesy to Pharaoh that all the firstborn males of Egypt would die, but that the Israelites would be spared. God further ordered Moses that, in each household of the Israelites, an unblemished male lamb should be killed, roasted, and eaten, along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs; and that the blood of the lamb should be used to mark the doors of each home. "You shall eat it hastily; it is a Passover in honor of the Lord."

The word Pesach, translated here as Passover, means to "pass over", as one skips names on a list. That night, an angel of the Lord went through the land of Egypt, striking down the firstborn male of each household, and all the firstborn male beasts; but those homes which were marked with the blood of the lamb were untouched. God further ordered that this meal should be celebrated annually, as a memorial.

When our Lord entered Jerusalem in triumph (see Palm Sunday), it was only a few days before the feast of Passover, which fell that year on a Sabbath (that is, on Saturday). On Friday, at the very hour when the Passover lambs were to be slain, our Lord would die on the Cross. In doing so, he fulfilled his role as the Lamb of God - the unblemished victim whose death would gain forgiveness of sins for the human race.

But before he went to his passion and death, he gathered his disciples for a final meal, the Last or Mystical Supper. At this supper, he would enact symbolically the sacrifice of his own self, concluding in a sacrificial meal which was at once symbolic and real - the Holy Eucharist. It is this meal, and the events associated with it, that we commemorate on Great and Holy Thursday.

In the early Church, this was the day on which penitents - that is, those who because of their sins were undergoing a period of penance - were reconciled with the Church. This is probably why the hymns of the day, especially at the evening service which includes Holy Communion, stress the betrayal of Judas, and the desire we should have to avoid sin before approaching the Table of the Lord. These admonitions to the reconciled penitents apply equally well to us.

At Matins

At Matins, we no longer hear the troparion of the Bridegroom which we heard on the first three days of the week. Instead, after the Allelua which replaces "The Lord is God" on this day, we sing the following troparion:

While the glorious disciples were enlightened at the washing of their feet at the supper,
the unholy Judas was blinded by his love for silver.
He delivered you to unjust judges, O most high Judge.
All you lovers of riches, meditate on this:
Love for money drove a man to take his own life.
We must flee from greedy souls who would so betray the Master.
O Lord, so benevolent to all, glory be to You!

The Gospel reading at Matins (Luke 22:1-39) recounts our Lord's Passover supper with his disciples, the institution of the Holy Eucharist, and the Lord's prediction that Peter would deny Him three times. The reading ends as the Lord and his disciples leave for the Mount of Olives.

On the whole, only a few of the day's hymns dwell on the mystery of the Eucharist. For example, in the canon, we hear:

The Lord, the King of all and our Creator God,
has been clothed in our human nature without undergoing change;
He himself is our Passover
and has offered himself to those whom He wished to save by his death:
Take and eat, this is my Body;
you shall find food for your faith.

O God most good,
You yourself filled the cup of joy which frees the human race;
You offer yourself in sacrifice,
and you make your disciples drink from it, saying:
Take and drink, this is my Blood;
you shall find food for your faith.

But most of the hymns of this day consider our reaction to this mystery, and what it means for us. We hear of Judas' betrayal, with an urgent repeated warning not to be guilty of betrayal ourselves. We will hear how Jesus assumed the role of a servant, washing his disciples' feet before sending them out into the world as his messengers.

Once more, at the end of the canon, we sing a hymn to Christ as bridegroom:

I see your bridal chamber completely engulfed with light, O my Savior,
and I do not have a wedding garment to enter and enjoy your brightness;
fill the garment of my soul with light,
and save me, O Lord, save me.

The stichera of the Praises and the aposticha return to the events of our Lord's passion as they unfold: the envy of the leaders of the Jews, the infidelity of Judas, and our Lord's final reassurances to his disciples.

At the Hours

At the First Hour, we hear the prophecies of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 11:18-23, 12:1-5, 9-11, 14-15), whom the Fathers considered another type of Christ because of the persections he endured. Jeremiah describes the plots of wicked pastors against the people, and predicts a coming punishment and restoration.

Vespers with the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil

The service of Vespers with the Divine Liturgy of our holy father Basil the Great is the principal service of this day; in it, we not only recount the events of the day, but take part in them as well, through the Holy Eucharist.

The stichera which open the service echo those which ended Matins; they consider the plots being made against the life of the Lord. The prokeimenon sung after the stichera and before the readings is a fitting response: "Rescue me, O Lord, from evil men; from the violent keep me safe."

Three Old Testament readings follow:

(There is a certain parallelism between these two readings; both show God coming to his people; their need for repentence and purification, and their resulting ability to see Him. These considerations certainly apply to our approach to the Holy Eucharist!)

The apostolic reading is from Saint Paul's first letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11:23-32), in which he recounts the events of the Mystical Supper, and explains their meaning for us: "Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until He comes!" Saint Paul concludes with words of warning against receiving unworthily, or without recognizing the body of the Lord in the sacred elements. Again, remember that this is the service at which those who had for a period of time been forbidden to approach the table of the Lord in Holy Communion, would do so once again.

The long Gospel reading, made up of sections from the Gospels according to Matthew, Luke and John, tells the story of this part of Great and Holy Week in continuous fashion: the Lord's Passover meal with his disciples, the washing of the disciples' feet, the vigil in the garden of Gethsemani, our Lord's arrest, and his appearance before the high priest, Caiaphas.

At the celebrant's entry into the sanctuary with the gifts to be consecrated into the Body and Blood of Christ, we sing the following Hymn of Great and Holy Thursday in place of the usual Cherubic Hymn:

Accept me today as a partaker of your mystical supper, O Son of God,
for I will not reveal your mystery to your enemies,
nor will I give you a kiss as did Judas;
but like the thief I profess you:
Remember me, O Lord, in your kingdom.

(This hymn also forms part of the Prayer Before Holy Communion said at each Divine Liturgy. In the past, the wording used in that prayer did not match the Holy Thursday hymn from which it came. In the 2007 people's book for the Divine Liturgies, they now use the same text. The hymn, with music, can be found on page 460.)

For the Divine Liturgy, the anaphora (Eucharistic prayer) of Saint Basil the Great is used, as it will be again at the Paschal vigil on Great and Holy Saturday. The Basil anaphora provides a fuller statement of salvation history than does the anaphora of Saint John Chrysostom which is used for Eucharistic celebrations in the Byzantine Rite.

In place of the Hymn to the Theotokos ("It is truly proper"), we sing the irmos of the ninth ode of the canon of the day, from Matins:

Lifting up our minds to the Upper Room, O faithful,
let us enjoy the lordly hospitality and the eternal banquet.
Having learned from the Word about the Word,
we extol him who has ascended.

The hymn sung at the Great Entrance, "Accept me today", is also sung as the Communion Hymn, and in place of the two post-Communion hymns as well.

The dismissal points out the common thread between all the things we have considered today:

May Christ our true God, who, because of his surpassing goodness, showed us the most excellent way of humility when he washed his disciples’ feet, and humbled himself unto the cross and burial, have mercy on us and save us, through the prayers of his most pure Mother; and of our holy father Basil the Great, Archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia; and through the prayers of all the saints; for Christ is good and loves us all.

The cathedral ceremonies

Three ceremonies which emphasize the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist, the oneness of the priesthood, and the office of the bishop as high priest of Christ, are celebrated on Great and Holy Thursday - generally only in the bishop's cathedral.

The Metropolitan Cantor Institute has prepared a service book containing the prayers and hymns that accompany the latter two of these special ceremonies.

Recommended Reading