The Church begins this evening what we call the ‘Triduum Sacrum’, the ‘sacred three days’ – possibly the strangest marking of this very special time in the history of the Church. In much of the world public worship has been suspended; in Catholic churches the customary acts of worship will be celebrated (but not, as far as I am aware in other churches) but with only clergy present and the buildings locked, although to an unprecedented degree these are being relayed live and through recording to millions of worshippers at home. The acts of worship have been curtailed and adapted – so if you watch this evening the Mass of the Lord’s Supper you won’t see two of its most memorable characteristics: the washing of feet and the procession to the altar of Repose. In Beckenham you can watch this Mass and acts of worship for the next few days online here on our webcam.
In much of the world today is called ‘Holy Thursday’ but in English speaking countries, since the Middle Ages, the name has been ‘Maundy Thursday’. ‘Maundy’ is a medieval English adaptation of the Latin word ‘mandatum’, meaning a ‘command’, because of the Lord’s words at the Last Supper which we mark this evening ‘I give you a new command, love one another as I have loved you’. In the narrative for this evening’s gospel (John 13:1-13) Jesus makes this command real by washing his disciples’ feet and urging his disciples to do the same. This ceremony, sometimes separate from the Mass, has marked today for centuries: after he was elected seven years ago Pope Francis updated the ceremony by going to prisons or refugees and washing the feet of men and women, Christians and non-Christians (shown here). That this moving ceremony is not happening this year leaves a big gap for all of us.
I wrote this morning about the link between our celebration today and Passover, ‘pesach’. The origin of this festival, the greatest of the Jewish calendar, is recounted in our first reading this evening from Exodus (12:1-14). God’s chosen people eat roasted lamb, according to precise instructions, and by putting its blood on their doors avoid the killing of the first born. The meal become a symbol of their liberation from slavery in Egypt – and Christians see Jesus as the fulfilment and culmination of the Passover through his death on the cross; and his path to the cross begins this evening with his arrest following Judas’ betrayal.
Marking the Last Supper also commemorates the institution of the Eucharist and of the ministerial priesthood in the Catholic Church. Normally at the Mass of the Chrism in cathedrals in Holy Week priests renew their commitment to priestly ministry in front of their bishop. So Maundy Thursday is seen as a special day of prayer for priests: please pray for the three of us in this parish, and for priests everywhere, especially those who are isolated, or who may have the Covid-19 (at least two in this deanery, including Fr Gerry Flood who is gravely ill in hospital). Pray that God will forgive our sins and give us strength. At the Mass the institution of the Eucharist as described by St Paul in the earliest account we have (1 Corinthians 11:23-26) is read.
The love symbolised normally in the foot washing is also shown in the ways in which we are called to share Christ’s love. This love, especially for those who are suffering, is being made real in the devoted and risk-taking self-sacrifice of so many health care workers at this time – and in many places in this country, without proper protection. Much of this involves washing or trying to cool bodies by wiping, a physical act not unlike what Jesus does in the gospel this evening. So many of our brothers and sisters are in this sense also re-enacting the foot washing in these days.
Normally at the end of the Mass this evening we all process with the Blessed Sacrament (for Holy Communion tomorrow) to the Altar of Repose; in our parish we have this in our hall over the road in Village Way. Here I have shown a very splendid Polish example. Traditionally we pray with Jesus until midnight, trying like his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane to stay awake with him. We can’t join in this this year and this will be another big gap in the spiritual lives of millions of people over the world. Try to imagine you are with Jesus in the Garden, and ask him to bless his suffering world.
As far as I am aware tomorrow is still a day of fasting and abstinence: that is we should have only one proper meal (technically this is not obligatory for children or those over 60), and we shouldn’t eat meat.
Try and make the most of the Triduum, and take care.