The Sacred Triduum: The Stripping of the Altar and the Washing of the Feet

Continuing from the previous entry, concluding the rites of Maundy Thursday.



The Stripping of the Altar

After taking off their Eucharistic vestments and wearing violet stoles, the sacred ministers and the acolytes return to the main altar of the church. Vespers can be recited by the choir in monotone while the altar party is changing in the sacristy. Vespers, as with all the other Hours during the Triduum except Tenebrae, is done without ceremonies except that they stand during the Magnificat. As at Tenebrae, Vespers ends with everyone kneeling for the antiphon Christus factus est (“Christ for our sake…”).

With Vespers concluded, the priest intones beginning of the antiphon for Psalm 21 (22), Diviserunt sibi (“They parted my garments…”) which is continued by the choir along with the Psalm. While the Psalm is being recited by the choir the priest takes the reserved Sacrament from the Tabernacle and takes it to where it will be kept, and the Tabernacle is laid open. The sacred ministers and the acolytes then strip the altar of all its furnishings except for the altar cross, which is now veiled in purple, not white as during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, and the six candles. The altar candles and sanctuary lamp are extinguished. If the church has other altars, they are all to be similarly stripped of their adornments except if the altar is being used as the Altar of Repose. It was apparently an old English custom to wash the altar with water and wine after it was stripped. When the stripping of the altars is concluded and the ministers and acolytes have returned to the High Altar, the choir repeats the antiphon. The altar party returns to the sacristy.

From here on candles will always be burning at the Altar of Repose until the chalice is retrieved for the Mass the next day on Good Friday. The remaining holy oil from the previous year should be burned today, with the new oil consecrated by the bishop received as soon as possible and used for the following year. The stoups are to be cleared of holy water, with only a small amount being reserved for use on Holy Saturday.


The Washing of the Feet, known also as the Maundy

In the old ritual, the Washing of the Feet was a separate service from the Mass. It could be performed immediately after the Stripping of the Altar, but it was also done at a convenient time afterwards.

The rite of the Washing began by a procession made to the place prepared for the Washing. The celebrant is vested in a purple stole and cope, and the deacon and subdeacon are in white vestments. The sacred ministers go to the altar and make the usual reverences, and the same Gospel lesson that was read at the Mass earlier will be read again, with the same ceremonies as at the Mass. After the Gospel reading the ministers all take off their maniples, and the celebrant removes the cope and dons a white apron in imitation of what Christ himself wore at the Last Supper. While the ministers are preparing thus the twelve men who will be washed take their seats and remove their shoes and socks. As much as possible, the feet of the poor should be washed.

When approaching each person, the priest genuflects before him. The subdeacon holds the foot while the priest washes it, and the deacon hands a towel to the priest who dries it. The priest kisses the foot after washing it, and this is all repeated for each person.

While the sacred ministers are washing the feet the choir sing a series of nine antiphons. The first six take their text from John 13, referencing the dialogue between Christ and St. Peter where St. Peter first balked at the idea of the Lord washing his feet. The seventh antiphon contains a line from 1 Corinthians 13: “Let these three abide in you, faith, hope, and charity: but the greatest of these is charity”). The eighth antiphon is identical in text to the Introit of the feast of the Holy Trinity: “Blessed be the holy Trinity and undivided Unity: we will confess him, because he hath shewed his mercy upon us.” The final antiphon of the Washing is that most beautiful hymn, Ubi caritas.

Where charity and love are, there God is.
The love of Christ has gathered us into one.
Let us exult, and in Him be joyful.
Let us fear and let us love the living God.
And from a sincere heart let us love each other (and Him).
Where charity and love are, there God is.
Therefore, whensoever we are gathered as one:
Lest we in mind be divided, let us beware.
Let cease malicious quarrels, let strife give way.
And in the midst of us be Christ our God.
Where charity and love are, there God is.
Together also with the blessed may we see,
Gloriously, Thy countenance, O Christ our God:
A joy which is immense, and also approved:
Through infinite ages of ages. Amen.

After the feet of the last person is washed, the sacred ministers head to the credence table and washes his hand. He then takes off the apron and is fitted with the cope again, and they all go to the altar. He then begins the Lord’s Prayer, which is then followed by the following versicles:

℣. Thou hast charged, O Lord.
℟. That we should diligently keep thy commandments.
℣. Thou didst wash the feet of thy disciples.
℟. Despise not thou the works of thine own hands.

The Washing is then concluded with the priest praying the collect:

We beseech thee, O Lord, mercifully to assist this our bounden duty and service: Forasmuch as thou didst vouchsafe to wash the feet of thy disciples, despise not thou the works of thine own hands, which thou hast bidden us to follow: Mercifully grant that as we have this day washed away our outward defilements, so by thee we may inwardly be cleansed from all our offences. Who livest and reignest God, world without end. Amen. 

After this collect the altar party return to the sacristy, and the others retire.


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