Maundy Thursday - It's Washing Day!



Christ Washing St. Peter's Feet by Ford Madox 


Holy Thursday, Maundy Thursday, Azymes. The day that Christ told two of his disciples to go to Jerusalem and find a place to celebrate the Passover. Azymes is the feast of the unleavened bread and it begins on this night.

Traditionally three solemn Masses were celebrated on this day. Each had a unique purpose and each was preparation for Easter.

The Mass of the Penitents

The first Mass was the Mass for the reconciliation of penitents. These were the people who had been given a penance and banned from the church on Ash Wednesday. During Lent they had not cut their hair and presented themselves prostrate outside the church barefoot and wearing penitential garb.


The bishop would chant the seven penitential psalms and a litany of saints during which some members of the clergy would three times go out to the penitents and say the following:

On the first time “As I live, saith the Lord, I will not the death of a sinner, but rather that he be converted and live”.

On the second “Thus saith the Lord: Do penance; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”.

Lastly “Lift up your heads: lo! Your redemption is nigh”.

At this point the bishop would process halfway down the length of the church to a seat in the center of the nave facing the doors of the church. The deacon would then plead the cause of the penitents and the bishop would go out to the penitents and preach on God's mercy and exhort them to live a holy life.


Then all would prostrate themselves and say three penitential psalms. Rising up, the bishop would absolve the penitents and bless them with holy water and incense. The penitents would then go change out of their penitential clothes and join the rest of the congregation for Mass.

The Origin of the Papal Benediction

While the Mass of the penitents is gone, the blessing of the penitents evolved into a special Papal Benediction. Originally just on Holy Thursday but later extended to Easter Sunday, the Ascension and the Assumption following Mass, one of the bishops with the pope would recite a confiteor in the name of everyone present and then the pope would stand and offer a blessing to everyone. A plenary indulgence was granted to all who had fulfilled the indulgence obligations.

The Chrism Mass

The Chrism Mass traditionally is celebrated on Holy Thursday but in some places is celebrated on another day during Holy Week. There is only one Chrism Mass celebrated in each diocese and it is celebrated by the bishop at the cathedral church.

Maundy Thursday was chosen as the traditional date for the Chrism Mass because the blessed oils were needed for the baptisms of the neophytes at the Easter Vigil.

Three different oils are blessed at the Chrism Mass:

  • Oil of the Sick is used for, of course, the anointing of the sick

  • Chrism Oil is the oil used for anointing at confirmation

  • Oil of Catechumens is used for anointing at baptisms, anointing a priest's hands at ordinations and, much more rarely, for coronations of kings and queens

Holy Thursday Mass

It was the Thursday before the Sabbath and the beginning of Passover that Jesus chose for the first Mass. The foreshadowing of the paschal sacrifice to his own death as the sacrificial lamb for our sins couldn't be more clear.

The Mass is full of references to the events of the Triduum:

  • The Introit uses the words of St. Paul to praise the salvation from the Cross

  • The Collect contrasts the repentance of the good thief with the despair of Judas

  • The epistle in the Extraordinary Form is a rebuke of those who receive the Eucharist unworthily

  • The first reading in the Ordinary Form is the story of the first Passover followed by St. Paul's description of the Last Supper

  • The Gospel is the description of the Last Supper from the Gospel of John

The washing of the feet follows the homily in remembrance of Christ's actions at the Last Supper.

A note about WHO may be chosen for the foot washing.

According to all liturgical norms, 12 men (it says this in both the Latin and English) are to be chosen – not women, not little kids, not everyone washing each others feet, as meaningful as this may be.

About twenty years ago the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy issued a statement saying basically, that the liturgical norms for the foot washing could be superseded because they said so. This decision wasn't approved by the US bishops and was never approved by Rome so it holds no legal weight.

At the end of Mass the priest leads a procession from the altar to a separate chapel carrying the consecrated hosts that will be used for the Good Friday liturgy. Traditionally, the hymn Pange Lingua was chanted during the procession.

After praying in the chapel for a time the priest and servers go back into the church and strip all cloths and adornments off the altar. While the altar is stripped, Psalm 21 which foretells the dividing of Christ's garments by the soldiers, is chanted.

Origin of the name Maundy Thursday

If you have read our articles about Passion Sunday, or know about Laetare and Gaudete Sundays, you might guess that the word “Maundy” has something to do with one of the Latin parts of the Holy Thursday Mass. You would be right. The antiphon chanted while the priest washes feet starts “Mandatum novum do vobis: ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos, dicit Dominus.” - “I give you a new commandment: that ye love one another, as I have loved you, says the Lord”.


The Liturgical Year, Dom Prosper Gueranger, O.S.B.,

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