Holy Thursday and Good Friday


On Thursday and Friday in the week following Palm/Passion Sunday, churches around the world will be filled with Christians celebrating the liturgies of Holy Thursday and Good Friday.
Originally the passion, death and resurrection of Christ were celebrated on one day. The annual Pascha consisted of a joyful Eucharist on Easter Sunday morning followed by a day of feasting.
Later, the celebration of the Pascha was divided up and historicised. Christians began to commemorate the Last Supper on the Thursday before Pascha and what became known as Good Friday focussed on the passion, crucifixion and death of Jesus.
Like other feasts and seasons of the liturgical year, the liturgies of Holy Thursday and Good Friday are not re-enactments of historical events. Jesus does not institute the Lord’s Supper again on Holy Thursday or die again on Good Friday and rise again on Easter Sunday morning. Rather, the paschal mystery is being celebrated in our very midst by the crucified and risen Christ, present in the church today through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Celebrations of these two special days centre on the key elements of the rites as given, not on “added extras”. For example, at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper the focus is on the reading of the story of the washing of the feet from John’s gospel, on a ritual foot-washing, on celebrating the Eucharist using all the best eucharistic practices, and on the solemn transfer of the Holy Eucharist. The addition of rituals such as receiving the blessed oils from the cathedral or commissioning special ministers of communion will distract from this central focus.
Parishes are sometimes tempted to use rituals such mutual hand washing as an alternative to the washing of feet so that everyone can take part. But foot washing speaks powerfully of humility and self-sacrifice; hand washing was Pontius Pilate’s gesture.
The central elements for Good Friday are the proclamation of the passion from John, the general intercessions, veneration of the cross and holy communion. The celebration finishes with the prayer over the people who then depart in silence.
Processions are a key part of the liturgy on both days. On Holy Thursday night the Blessed Sacrament is solemnly carried through the church to a special place of reservation. On Good Friday many parishioners will participate in a procession by following the path that Jesus trod en route to his crucifixion as they join in the traditional parish celebration of the Stations of the Cross.
There is an important difference between the celebrations on Holy Thursday and Good Friday and other Masses during the year.
The Mass on Holy Thursday evening begins in the usual way but there is no blessing or dismissal at the end. Instead there is a procession of the Blessed Sacrament to the place of reservation. People depart in silence. The Good Friday liturgy begins with a silent procession, a period of silent prayer, and the opening prayer. It finishes with the prayer over the people. Again there is no final blessing or dismissal and people depart in silence.
The liturgies of Holy Thursday and Good Friday give the sense of being unfinished, incomplete. We are left up in the air waiting for something more. And there is more – the culmination – the Easter Vigil!


Elizabeth Harrington