The Sacred Triduum: The Mass of Maundy Thursday and the Altar of Repose

Due to the length and complexities of the rituals of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, I will break each day up into two parts. It is particularly interesting to me how the rituals of the two days are so intimately intertwined that the Good Friday liturgies cannot take place without the things that occur on Maundy Thursday. The rituals of the Mass on these two days are also probably the most theologically difficult for us Anglicans, and are the aspects that will cause the most argument among us not just for the Triduum but the theology of the Eucharist as a whole. The way we receive or reject the ancient rituals of the Mass here will define clearly what we actually believe about the Eucharist beyond trite and vague lip service about the “real presence” or “sacramental priesthood”. The real question is whether the Eucharist is a sacrifice, and whether the presbytery is sacerdotal.

For the first part of Maundy Thursday I will examine the main of the Mass and the procession to the Altar of Repose. In the second part I will examine the Vespers and Stripping of the Altar that occurs after the procession, and the ritual of the Washing of the Feet that occurs after the altar stripped of its furnishings.

Maundy Thursday, as Holy Thursday is popularly known in English, derives its name from the first word sung in the ritual of the Washing of the Feet: “Mandatum”. But for all the great importance of the Maundy ritual as an imitation of how Christ washed the Apostles’ feet, it would be a mistake to emphasize the Washing as the heart of Maundy Thursday. Maundy Thursday is chiefly significant for being the day of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, and as such is also the day of the institution of the Christian priesthood. As the rituals of the Mass will show, there are distinctive changes made to the regular order of the Mass which stress the character of the day. Theologically, sacramentally, and eschatologically, Maundy Thursday begins the liturgical “repetition” of the mysterium paschale that is fulfilled on Easter Sunday.

The Mass of The Lord’s Supper

The Mass of the Lord’s Supper is treated as a festal feast of the Lord. Accordingly, the altar furnishings, which were purple at the Tenebrae of Maundy Thursday as it has been through Passiontide, are changed to white. The altar and the sacred ministers will be clothed in the best white vestments, and the altar cross will also be veiled in a white cover. The unbleached candles on the altar will also be replaced with bleached wax. The processional cross, however, is veiled in purple.

The festal hymn, Gloria in excelsis Deo (“Glory be to God on high; And in earth peace…”), which had been omitted through Lent, is sung at the beginning of the Mass. The singing of the hymn is accompanied with the ringing of all the bells of the church. After the Gloria is sung the bells remain silent until the Easter Vigil. The kiss of peace is not given. Dom Gueranger interprets this omission as a symbolic remembrance of Judas’ treacherous kiss on this day. The ritual of the Mass otherwise remains largely identical to an ordinary Mass but for the following distinctions:

For the Mass of the Lord’s Supper two large “priest” Hosts are prepared, and a second chalice is specially prepared with its own paten and pall. A white veil and ribbon are also prepared with this second chalice. Both large Hosts are to be kept together from the offertory, and are consecrated together by the celebrant.  The Canon of the Mass (“The Roman Canon”, often called “The Gregorian Canon” by Anglicans) is adjusted slightly to stress that the Eucharist was instituted on this very day.

Only one of the consecrated Hosts are fractured and used to commune, the other Host being reserved. After the celebrant has made his communion, the deacon brings the second chalice with its accoutrements to the altar and the priest will carefully place the second Host into this chalice. The deacon will then cover the chalice with the pall, and then the pall with the paten upside down. This is all then be covered with the white veil, and fastened with the ribbon around the stem of the chalice. This specially prepared chalice is left on the corporal, where it will remain to the end of Mass. The sacred ministers genuflect, and continue on to commune the rest of the church. The rest of the Mass is celebrated with the principles followed when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed as at Benediction.

The second Host is prepared in the chalice in this special way for use at the Mass of Good Friday the next day, and this ritual is the main reason for why the liturgy of Good Friday cannot be performed properly without the rituals of Maundy Thursday. The link between these two Masses also reflect the intimate relationship between the Lord’s Supper and the Crucifixion (recall how even Cranmer’s Eucharistic prayer in the Prayer Book begins by first referencing Christ’s death on the Cross at some length before ever mentioning Christ’s institution of the Supper). Not only is the same Host used, but also the same chalice, pall, paten, and veil.

When all genuflect at the reading of “And the Word was made flesh” at the Last Gospel, the priest turns towards the Sacrament enclosed in the chalice.

The Procession to the Altar of Repose

With the Mass concluded, the sacred ministers take off their maniples, and the celebrant takes off the chasuble. The priest is then fitted with a white cope. The ministers return to the altar, prostrate, and kneel on the lowest step. The priest then puts incense into two thuribles with no blessings given, and censes the Sacrament as at Benediction. The priest is then fitted with a humeral veil, after which the deacon rises up to the altar to bring the chalice to the priest, who receives it kneeling. He holds the chalice through the humeral veil as the monstrance is at Benediction, though with the right hand laying over top of it.

The whole altar party and attending clergy form a solemn procession to the Altar of Repose, with the laity in front. Both the laity and attending clergy hold candles, and the sacred ministers walk under a canopy held over them. The two thurifers go immediately before the Sacrament, swinging the two thuribles that were imposed with incense earlier. During this procession it become customary for the choir to sing the hymn Pange lingua, the great Medieval hymn composed by St. Thomas Aquinas for the Feast of Corpus Christi. The penultimate verse (“Tantum ergo sacramentum…” [“Therefore the great sacrament…”]) shouldn’t begin until the priest arrives at the Altar of Repose.

The Altar of Repose is a lesser altar of the church that is specially prepared for the day. It is not to be in the sanctuary, and should have some distance from the High Altar if possible. The Altar of Repose is not actually used as an altar, although for practical reasons it will generally be an altar in a side chapel if such a thing exists in the church. In any case, the Altar of Repose does not have to be a consecrated altar, and all that is essential is a special urn in which the chalice with the reserved Host may rest within. It must be able to enclose the chalice within entirely. If a side altar is used, the urn can be replaced with an empty tabernacle. The Altar of Repose is furnished with a white frontal, and a corporal spread before the urn. It is then customarily decorated with candles and flowers. Fortescue notes that the Memoriale rituum formally requests the presence of flowers.

altar of repose

When thought in connection to the Gospel narratives, my guess is that the insistence on the floral decoration of the Altar of Repose is because the place of repose is supposed to serve as a representation of the Garden of Gethsemane, where Christ went immediately after the Last Supper to pray accompanied by the Apostles Peter, John, and James. This connection would also help to also make sense of the consecrated Host reserved in the chalice, as we can interpret it as a symbolic representation of Christ in the agony of the Passion, which Christ himself refers to as a “cup” (“My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass away from me…” and “O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done.”–both from Matthew 26).

When the procession arrives at the Altar of Repose they all kneel, except for the altar party. The priest stands before the Altar of Repose and the deacon, kneeling, receives the chalice and places it in the urn, which is left open. The celebrant and subdeacon kneel, and the hymn Pange lingua is continued from the verse “Tantum ergo sacramentum”. The celebrant imposes incense in the first thurible and censes the chalice again. The deacon then rises up to the altar, genuflects, and closes the urn. All the candles held by the servers, attending clergy, and laity are extinguished. The attending clergy and laity first prostrate, then return to the main church. The sacred ministers also prostrate, then then return to the sacristy with the servers. The priest is there relieved of the humeral veil and cope, and all the sacred ministers remove their Eucharistic vestments and put on purple stoles.

The next entry will continue with the rituals of the Stripping of the Altar and the Washing of the Feet.


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