The New Pascha: Holy Thursday and the Mystical Supper

Double Supper: it has the Law's Pascha,
The new Pascha also, the Lord's Blood and Body.

-Synaxarion for Holy Thursday
Mystical Supper Icon
Holy Thursday is crucial to understanding the narrative of Holy Week. Holy Thursday tells us the story of the events that directly preceded the Passion. But it is not simply a prologue to Holy Friday; the events of Holy Thursday are of such great spiritual significance that the whole sacramental practice of the Church cannot be understood without understanding Holy Thursday.
The Synaxarion that is read at the Orthros service on the evening of Holy Wednesday tells us that Holy Thursday is dedicated primarily to four events:
  1. Jesus washing the disciples' feet before the Mystical Supper
  2. The Mystical Supper itself
  3. Jesus' prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane
  4. The betrayal of Jesus by Judas
The Gospel reading that is read at the Vesperal Presanctified Liturgy on Holy Thursday morning shows us all four of these events, but also includes a retelling of the events of Holy Wednesday, Jesus' judgment by the council of high priests, and Peter's denial of Christ. This reading, then, prepares us for the events of Holy Friday by leading us directly to the beginning of Christ's suffering.

The washing of the feet and the Mystical Supper both take place in an 'upper room' at the house of an unknown man to whom Jesus directs the disciples. This is the same 'upper room' in which many of Jesus' appearances to the disciples after his Resurrection took place, as well as the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples at Pentecost.

Today, the site of the Upper Room is part of a complex of rooms including also the tomb of King David. The room itself has been built over through the centuries; the earliest remaining architecture dates to the 12th-century. It is referred to today by the Latin word for a dining-room, "Cenacle."

The 'Cenacle,' site of the Upper Room

The first event that occurs in this Upper Room is Jesus' washing of the disciples' feet. The Gospel reading records the event and the conversation that Jesus shares with Peter as follows:

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded.

He came to Simon Peter; and Peter said to him, "Lord, do you wash my feet?" Jesus answered him, "What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand." Peter said to him, "You shall never wash my feet." Jesus answered him, "If I do not wash you, you have no part in me." Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!"

Peter initially refuses to allow Jesus to wash his feet. He will not accept this profound act of self-emptying, this show of humility from the creator of all things. Jesus informs Peter that what is happening to him is not simply humility, but is a cosmically profound event that Peter must accept in order to be united with Jesus. Then Peter is not only willing, but eager for Jesus to make him clean.

The first kathisma hymn from the Orthros service for Holy Thursday shares Peter's shock at this event, transforming it into awe at Jesus' self-emptying:

The Lord, who made the lakes, and the springs and the oceans,
instructing us in finest humility, girded
himself with a towel and then He washed the Disciples' feet.
He was humble thus, in His surpassing compassion,
and He lifted us up from the pit of perdition,
for He alone loves mankind.

The example that Jesus gives us in the washing of the disciples' feet is one of service on behalf of the other. Jesus shows us what a Christian understanding of authority means. For Christians, authority is realized not through wielding power in a tyrannical sense, but through service on behalf of all mankind. Christian authority is always self-emptying, kenotic; it is always seeking the good of the other, not the good of the self. Christian authority is always responding to Jesus' instructions, "whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many," (Matthew 20:27-28). Any authority that is not engaging in this sort of humility is something other than Christian authority.

In many Orthodox Churches around the world, and especially at many of the ancient Patriarchates, the washing of the feet is commemorated liturgically by the bishops washing the feet of their congregation, or by the abbots of monasteries washing the feet of their brotherhood. This service, called the Νipteros, has been practiced since ancient times, but has only been revived recently into contemporary use.

Patriarch Theophilos of Jerusalem at the service of the Nipteros

Next begins the event that is perhaps the main focus of Holy Thursday: the Mystical Supper and the institution of the Eucharist. There is disagreement among the four Gospels regarding whether the meal shared by Jesus and the disciples in the Upper Room was a passover meal. The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) present this meal as being a Passover meal, while the Gospel of John has the Passover occurring concurrently with the Crucifixion on Holy Friday. This is perhaps the basis for the differing liturgical practices of the Orthodox Church and Catholics, with the Orthodox using leavened bread for the Eucharist (following John's narrative), and the Catholics using unleavened bread (following the narrative of the synoptic Gospels).

Whether this meal was a Passover meal or not is not critically important in and of itself. The Mystery of the Eucharist has its basis not in this meal, but in the offering of Christ's own self on the Cross. The meal shared in the Upper Room is the first instance of the Eucharist, and as such it also has its basis in Christ's Crucifixion. Jesus' words to his disciples at this meal are to be taken literally, and identify the meal that they are sharing with the offering of his own body and blood on the Cross:

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, "Take, eat; this is my body." And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, "Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom."

This commemoration of the Mystical Supper makes the Vesperal Divine Liturgy celebrated in the morning of Holy Thursday especially significant. Despite occurring in the middle of Holy Week, this Liturgy is celebrated without the usual dark vestments of this period. The use of St. Basil's anaphora prayers at this Liturgy shows the importance of this service, since St. Basil's prayers are always reserved for especially important days.

At this Liturgy, the priest will consecrate two lambs. One will be consumed at the Liturgy as usual, while the other will be put into the artophorion (tabernacle) and used as reserve Communion for those who are sick throughout the year. In some places it is customary for the faithful only to receive Communion on Holy Thursday, and the Church will be left open throughout the day for the faithful to come and receive. However, this practice is not correct, since the more authentic tradition is for the faithful to receive Communion frequently (at every Liturgy).

Although opinions about the nature and meaning of Communion vary among different Christian groups, the Orthodox Church has always maintained the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We have always understood the Mystical Supper in not merely symbolic terms (although symbolism remains an important aspect of the Sacrament). Fr. Alkiviadis Calivas writes:

"In the Eucharist the distinctively unique human food-- bread and wine-- becomes our gift of life. Consecrated and sanctified, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. This change is not physical but mystical and sacramental. While the qualities of the bread and wine remain, we partake of the true Body and Blood of Christ. In the eucharistic meal God enters into such a communion of life that He feeds humanity with His own being, while remaining distinct," (Great Week and Pascha in the Greek Orthodox Church, p. 51).

The Holy Gifts having been prepared for Divine Liturgy

Following this meal in the Upper Room, Jesus makes his way to the Garden of Gethsemane, bringing with him Peter, James and John the sons of Zebedee. The Garden of Gethsemane, situated on the west side of the Mount of Olives, is the site of Jesus' high priestly prayer. This prayer shows Jesus struggling as a man to accept the suffering that he knows he is about to endure, but ultimately accepting the plan that God the Father has set out for him: "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will."

While Jesus suffers in prayer, the disciples he has brought with him have fallen asleep nearby. Returning to them three times, Jesus chastises them for their inability to keep vigil with him: "Could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." 

The site of Jesus' high priestly prayer is marked today by the Catholic 'Church of All Nations,' with the site where the disciples slept just to the north.

Site of Jesus' prayer at the Garden of Gethsemane

Garden of Gethsemane, Jerusalem

What happens next in the narrative given by today's Gospel reading is perhaps the most tragic thing that a human being has ever done. Judas betrays Jesus into the hands of a mob, who bring him to the high priests for judgment.

Judas is in many ways the most tragic character of the New Testament. Having been one of the Apostles, he had sat at Jesus' feet listening to his teaching. He was not unaware of who Jesus was. He knew just as well as the rest of the Apostles that Jesus Christ was the son of God. Yet he still chose to betray him. The occurrence of this betrayal directly after the Mystical Supper, in which Judas was a participant, is of especial importance. One of the hymns from the Orthros Canon for Holy Thursday makes this clear:

"He took in his right hand the holy Body, the remedy for sin, and the divine Blood that was being poured out for the world, he who was devoid of conscience. And he was not ashamed to drink what he had sold for a price."

Even as he partook of the body and blood of the Lord, he was making his plans to betray that same body and blood into the hands of the lawless judges.

Judas abandons his place among the Apostles

Judas was not the only disciple who betrayed Jesus. Peter also betrays him through his three-fold denial of Christ. After Jesus' arrest, Peter follows him to the courtyard of the high priest. There, the following scene takes place:

Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. And a maid came up to him, and said, "You also were with Jesus the Galilean." But he denied it before them all, saying, "I do not know what you mean."

And when he went out to the porch, another maid saw him, and she said to the bystanders, "This man was with Jesus of Nazareth." And again he denied it with an oath, "I do not know the man." After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, "Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you."

Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, "I do not know the man."

The difference between Peter and Judas is in their reaction to their sin. Having denied Christ three times, after the resurrection Peter is given three chances to affirm again his love for Christ (John 21:15-17). Peter does not allow the shame of his sin to keep him from approaching the risen Lord, but instead his love for Christ overpowers the shame of his sin. Judas, on the other hand, is so weighed down by the shame of his sin that "he went and hanged himself," (Matthew 27:5).

If Judas had repented from his sin, if he had returned to Christ seeking his forgiveness for his betrayal, can there be any doubt that the Lord who "desires not the death of a sinner, but that he should turn from his wickedness and live," (Cf. Ezekiel 18:23) would have forgiven him and restored him to his Apostleship? And yet Judas did not seek that forgiveness, but being convinced that he was unforgivable, he abandoned his life.

Repentance and despair are incompatible with one another. Both begin with a sense of shame for our sins. Repentance uses that sense of shame to move forward, to strive every do to do better than we did the day before. Repentance is based on a firm conviction that our Lord does forgive our sins, and that with his help we can overcome whatever we struggle against. Despair, on the other hand, convinces us that there is no point in trying to do better. Despair says that we can never be good, that we can never overcome the sins that we struggle with. It is based on a lack of faith in God's forgiveness, and so can never co-exist with repentance.

Let us follow the example of Peter's repentance rather than Judas' despair. Let us continue to follow Jesus as he approaches his suffering. Let us confess to our Lord and our God, "O longsuffering Lord, great is Your mercy. Glory to You!"