Thursday, March 24, 2016

Entering the Triduum

Obviously I don’t believe that having been born on a Holy Thursday in any real way predestined me to be a priest, but it may perhaps have further increased my affection for this day, which has always been one of my favorites of the Church’s year.

I have the barest, most fleeting memory of Holy Thursday, as it was celebrated before Maxima Redemptionis Nostrae (Pope Pius XII's reform of the rites of Holy Week). I was merely seven years old when the reform was promulgated on November 19, 1955, and it took effect the following Palm Sunday (which happened that year to be my 8th birthday).  Even so, I do  remember the excitement the changes produced. (Of course, that was before change had become routine and so had ceased to impress.)

Before Pius XII's changes, the Holy Thursday Mass was, of course, still in the morning. I attended it at least once and can remember the church being very crowded (as churches were in those days). The only other thing that I remember was the schoolgirls in their white communion dresses solemnly walking past in the procession at the end of Mass.

After the reform, which moved the Missa in Coena Domini to the evening, I was required to attend Holy Thursday Mass with the school in the morning.  (New York had an indult to have a "Children's Mass" in the morning.) Once I was old enough to walk to church on my own at night, however, I became very fond of the Holy Thursday evening Mass. Undoubtedly that was part of my more-than-average liking for liturgical ceremonies and especially the more solemn ceremonies and a more-than-typical interest in the liturgical year. It was also the case that I really liked the very different way the church looked and felt at night.  

Of course, the Mass itself was very grand.  The celebrant, deacon, and subdeacon all wore the finest gold vestments. The organ played and the Sanctus-Bell rang for the Gloria, then fell silent - replaced until Easter by a weird wooden clapper. Finally, came the part everyone was waiting for - the procession, still with lots of school-girls in their 1st-communion dresses, strewing flowers on the floor before the Blessed Sacrament. 

One of the 1955 reform's innovations was inserting the footwashing into the Mass, whereas previously it had been done afterwards - in those rare places where it was still done at all. (It survived, I believe, in the Spanish Royal Court where the King washed the feet of 12 men and the Queen the feet of 12 women right up until the 1931 revolution.) Since it was both a novelty and something so unlike any other liturgical ritual, the footwashing got a lot of attention. That would only increase with the subsequent changes. In due time, I would find myself celebrating Holy Thursday in churches where everyone's feet got washed, people pairing off to wash each other's feet in a seemingly endless ritual that overwhelmed the rest of the liturgy! Thankfully, such abuses are rarer now, but I have to acknowledge that in the 1980s and 1990s I too was swept up in the fashionable enthusiasm for the footwashing. So I can certainly understand and appreciate its appeal. Nowadays, however, I tend to favor a more low-key approach to it, which somewhat reduces its length and its tendency to distract from the principal focus of the celebration. 

As a priest, I love reciting the special Holy Thursday inserts in the Roman Canon. And I love carrying the Blessed Sacrament in the procession. To me, the procession remains the distinctive Holy Thursday thing, the element in the rite I most look forward to, even if the flower petals - and in many cases even torch-bearers - are now mainly memories from the past. 

Apart from the main Mass on Easter Sunday, Holy Thursday's Mass of the Lord's Supper is still my favorite of the four principal triduum liturgies. Holy Thursday appeals especially to priests, of course. Most people, I suppose, will always be content to confine their Triduum attendance to Easter Sunday morning. And that's fine. Like the disciples in the Easter Sunday Gospel, some of us rush eagerly and some of us don't. The important thing is that we all get where we need to be.

While much has changed since I first experienced Holy Thursday in the 1950s, it is safe to say that a time-traveler would still be able to recognize the occasion and enter into the spirit of its celebration. And, for me, that spirit still seems to be just the right way to enter into the annual awesomeness of the Easter Triduum.

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