Q: Archbishop J, Why is there a special altar on Holy Thursday?
The Triduum is the celebration of all celebrations in the Catholic calendar. As the name suggests, it is a period of three days—Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. These three days are really one liturgical celebration and Catholics should attend all if at all possible.
Each of these days is a very rich moment in the life of our salvation. On the Thursday, the day Jews celebrate the Passover, we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist and institution of the sacrament of priesthood. Vital to this day is the Washing of Feet.
On Good Friday, we commemorate the crucifixion and death of Jesus and on Holy Saturday night we celebrate the Vigil of the Resurrection. Each of these three is a mystery in its own right.
So significant is Thursday of Holy Week that what it commemorates is split into three independent celebrations: the Chrism Mass where the oil of the sick and oil of catechumens are blessed and Chrism consecrated, and when we celebrate the institution of the priesthood and priests renew their Priestly Promises; the Evening Mass where we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist and commemorate the Washing of Feet; Corpus Christi when we celebrate the Eucharist as gift of gifts for the Church, food for the journey.
Empty Tabernacle: We will focus only on the Evening Mass where we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist. This Mass, because it commemorates the first, is filled with rich symbolism and deep meaning, e.g., the tabernacle is emptied before this celebration.
We need to remember there was a time when there was no Eucharist; when, notably, this Sacrament of Communion and participation in the divine was not available to people.
To really understand what God has done for us in Christ Jesus we need to experience this absence, so we experience the presence even more keenly.
To heighten this expectation, we sing the Gloria and ring the bells in great jubilation and celebration.
The bells and the Gloria are not heard again until Holy Saturday night. The Church has not heard the Gloria since the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. So the fasting from this jubilation and its presence in the Mass invites the congregation to great joy. This Mass is celebrated with great solemnity for what we commemorate is the Last Supper of the Lord.
Washing the Feet: The feet washing is a very moving part of the celebration. St John does not have a text on the institution of the Eucharist. He has the discourse on the Bread of Life (Jn 6) and the feet washing at the Last Supper (Jn 13).
To bring Eucharist and feet washing together is quite amazing. It is a constant reminder that the most holy mysteries of the Church are there for the service of all people.
Jesus does the work of a servant and in doing so reminds us that humility and service are the way of the disciple. To get down and wash feet is to be very intimate. To kiss the feet is to recognise that this person too is a temple of God’s Holy Spirit.
This connection with service is also highlighted by the collection of gifts for the poor in the Offertory procession. The intention here is that a fruit of our Lenten fast and self-denial should be brought to the church to become part of this procession.
A different Tabernacle: The Congregation for Divine Worship in Paschales Solemnitatis the Preparation and Celebration of Easter Feasts (1988) gives all the rules for the Triduum.
It says: “After the post-Communion prayer, the procession forms, with the cross bearer at its head. The Blessed Sacrament, accompanied by lighted candles and incense, is carried through the church to the place of reservation, to the singing of some Eucharistic song” (54).
This is a solemn procession to the Altar of Repose, meant to convey the dignity of the sacrament and the solemnity of the occasion: “The place where the tabernacle or pyx is situated must not be made to resemble a tomb, and the expression ‘tomb’ is to be avoided. The chapel of repose is not prepared so as to represent the ‘Lord’s burial’ but for the custody of the Eucharistic bread that will be distributed in Communion on Good Friday” (55).
While studying in London, I first encountered the tradition of very special decoration of the Altar of Repose. In Our Lady of Victories Church, in Kensington, they used the Lady Chapel and it was decorated with white flowers and linen and candles and angels. It was moving as it conveyed the glory of the one present—Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.
The altar is intended to encourage the congregation to spend some time in prayer and adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. Just as the three disciples were invited to watch and pray for an hour, so too Jesus invites all His disciples to watch and pray (Mt 26:36–45).
This vigil commemorates that night when the disciples were unable to heed His request. Will we watch and pray not to be put to the test? This is a most holy and solemn night and it needs to be treated with all the dignity that we can muster.
At midnight, the Altar of Repose is closed off. The text continues: “From midnight onwards, however, the adoration should be made without external solemnity, because the day of the Lord’s passion has begun” (56).
The Ending: “After Mass the [main] altar should be stripped. It is fitting that any crosses in the church be covered with a red or purple veil, unless they have already been veiled on the Saturday before the fifth Sunday of Lent. Lamps should not be lit before the images of saints” (57).
This too can be a very dramatic and solemn gesture. The stripping of the altar should be done in silence and with great reverence, the priest and altar servers working together in harmony with no chatter and distraction.
The horror of an empty sanctuary! The stark reality of the statues, ornaments and icons covered over underscores this night of nights when Christ our Saviour was in agony and gave Himself up for our sakes.
Key Message: Holy Thursday is a solemn and holy night when mystery is celebrated and we are invited to accompany Christ as He makes His journey.
Action Step: Churches should have an Altar of Repose away from the main altar. It should be suitably decorated to convey the dignity of the sacrament. The faithful should be encouraged to stay and wait in prayer and adoration after Mass.
Scripture Reading: Mt 26:36–45.