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Traditions of Holy Thursday

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Mar 23, 2016

Wednesday of Holy Week is pivotal because it marks the end of Lent. Holy Thursday begins the sacred Triduum -- the holiest days of the Church year. The liturgy reflects the beauty of the Paschal mystery and the Passover Feast of Christ. But how is this day spent in popular piety? What do Catholics do in private devotion for Holy Thursday? All over the world this day is marked with many different forms of Catholic cultural traditions. There are too many to include in one post, but these are some of the principal traditions.

Holy Thursday: Names in Popular Tradition

The simple and general title for Thursday of the Triduum is "Holy Thursday" but there are many common names of Holy Thursday around the world. 

Father Francis X. Weiser, S.J., The Easter Book (1954) describes the most popular names:

The second day of the celebration of Tenebrae bears the liturgical name “Thursday of the Lord’s Supper” (Feria Quinta in Coena Domini). Of its many popular names the more generally known are:
  • Maundy Thursday (le mande; Thursday of the Mandatum) — The word Mandatum means “commandment.” This name is taken from the first words sung at the ceremony of the washing of the feet, “A new commandment I give you” (John 13, 34); also from the commandment of Christ that we should imitate His loving humility in the washing of the feet (John 13, 14-17). Thus the term Mandatum (maundy) was applied to the rite of the feet-washing on this day.
  • Green Thursday — In all German-speaking countries people call Maundy Thursday by this name (Gründonnerstag). From Germany the term was adopted by the Slavic nations (zeleny ctvrtek) and in Hungary (zold csutortok). Scholars explain its origin from the old German word grunen (to mourn) which was later corrupted into grün (green). Another explanation is that in many places, before the thirteenth century, green vestments were used for the Mass that day.
  • Pure or Clean Thursday — This name emphasizes the ancient tradition that on Holy Thursday not only the souls were cleansed through the absolution of public sinners but the faithful in all countries also made it a great cleansing day of the body (washing, bathing, shaving, etc.) in preparation for Easter. Saint Augustine (430) mentioned this custom. The Old English name was “Shere Thursday” (meaning sheer, clean), and the Scandinavian, Skaer torsdag. (Because of the exertions and thoroughness of this cleansing in an age when bathing was not an everyday affair, the faithful were exempted from fasting on Maundy Thursday.)
  • Holy or Great Thursday — The meaning of this title is obvious since it is the one Thursday of the year on which the sacred events of Christ’s Passion are celebrated. The English-speaking nations and the people of the Latin countries use the term “Holy,” while the Slavic populations generally apply the title “Great.” The Ukrainians call it also the “Thursday of the Passion.” In the Greek Church it is called “The Holy and Great Thursday of the Mystic Supper.”

In some Latin countries sugared almonds are eaten by everybody on Maundy Thursday. From this custom it bears the name “Almond Day” in the Azores.

"Green" Thursday

In many German-speaking or central European countries Holy Thursday is referred to as "Green Thursday," which inspired the tradition of eating green foods on this day. Perhaps this stemmed from the green liturgical vestments worn this day in medieval times. The name also could come from the corruption of the German word grunen (to mourn) to the German word for green (grün). The actual use of the green herbs is probably derived from from the Jewish Passover/Seder meal that includes bitter and green herbs. There is also the connection of Lent and Easter falling during early spring, bringing in new life and early growth. After enduring a long winter, fresh greens would be a welcome and refreshing green tonic.

The main meal would be all about the color green. It would often start with a soup of green herbs, followed by a bowl of spinach with boiled eggs (colored green) or fried eggs. The meat dish was often lamb, because Christ ate the paschal lamb at the Last Supper, accompanied by dishes of various green salads. The desserts, whether pastry or cakes, would be covered with green sugar icing. 

Evelyn Vitz in her cookbook A Continual Feast suggests a Seven-Herb Vichyssoise, and fish with a green herb butter, spinach, a mixed green salad, and green desserts such as Mint or Pistachio Ice Cream or Lime Sherbet. Grasshopper or key lime pie are other possible desserts. 

The Church just celebrated St. Patrick's feast last Thursday. All those ideas for green foods to honor the Irish saint can be used for this day, too!

And Holy Thursday traditionally is NOT a fast day. The priests wear white and this is one of the more solemn feasts of the Liturgical Year. So yes, desserts might be in order!

Green and Judases

Easter the World Over by Priscilla Sawyer Lord and Daniel J. Foley (1971) mentions the Czechoslovakian traditions for Holy Thursday. I’m not sure if this is a Czech or a Slovak tradition, as the book was written before the restoration of both countries:

On Green Thursday (Holy Thursday) the Czechoslovakians eat “Judases” and greens–a soup of green herbs followed by a green salad. Housewives busy themselves with the preparation of the Easter foods that will be consumed on the holy weekend. They say:
Soon will come Green Thursday
When we shall bake the Lamb;
We shall eat Judases farina
And three spoonfuls of honey.

Judases or Jidáše are a sweet breakfast roll shaped in twists to look like the rope that Judas used to hang himself. The honey on top of the buns was considered to prevent disaster. 

Passover Meals

An annual Holy Week controversy is whether or not Catholics should attend Jewish Seder meals, or host Christian interpretations, or any kind of recreation of a Passover meal. Our Passover Feast is the Mass, in particular the whole Triduum liturgy represents the Passover celebration of Jesus. I cannot treat this issue in detail here, but I will just touch that the US Bishops have discouraged Catholics to "baptizing" a Jewish Seder meal:

Q. What does the Church say about Christians celebrating a Jewish Seder?

A. Many Christians are given the opportunity to participate in a Passover Seder during Holy Week."This practice can have educational and spiritual value. It is wrong, however, to "baptize" the Seder by ending it with New Testament readings about the Last Supper or, worse, turn it into a prologue to the Eucharist. Such mergings distort both traditions." Ideally, then, Christians who wish to attend a Passover Seder should do so at the invitation of Jewish friends, families or synagogues that often welcome guests to this important meal. This allows Christians to experience the Seder as a Jewish family liturgy, still deeply meaningful to Jews everywhere. However, in the event that Christians celebrate the Seder alone, the following advice should prove useful:

"When Christians celebrate this sacred feast among themselves, the rites of the haggadah for the Seder should be respected in all their integrity. The Seder . . . should be celebrated in a dignified manner and with sensitivity to those to whom the Seder truly belongs. The primary reason why Christians may celebrate the festival of Passover should be to acknowledge common roots in the history of salvation. Any sense of "restaging" the Last Supper of the Lord Jesus should be avoided.... The rites of the Triduum are the [Church's] annual memorial of the events of Jesus' dying and rising." (God's Mercy Endures Forever: Guidelines on the Presentation of Jews and Judaism in Catholic Preaching, no. 28)

The Vatican has also issued recent documents on Catholic relations with Jews.

My family does celebrate a meal that has foods which remind us of the Last Supper and we read aloud the Mass readings (Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14; John 13:1-15). We are very careful to not include any Jewish ritual or create a new ritual. The purpose is recalling the Last Supper and preparing ourselves for the Holy Thursday Mass. I don't think that it infringes on the Bishops' guidelines, but I am open for guidance.

Maundy Thursday

At the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday, the Gospel is John 13:1-15, Christ washing the feet of the Apostles. The word maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum (commandment) which is the first word of the Gospel acclamation: Mandátum novum do vobis dicit Dóminus, ut diligátis ínvicem, sicut diléxi vos. "I give you a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you." (John 13:34). At the Mass the priest washes feet of several people in imitation of Christ. I shared a few years ago our family's tradition of washing feet in Mandatum: Love One Another. Jesus didn't expect us to only wash feet as a sign of loving one another, but it is a small tangible way that we begin in showing our love for one another in serving each other.

Seven Churches

In metropolitan areas where there are more Catholic churches, there is the popular tradition of visiting the altar of repose in seven local churches. This custom began in Rome with visiting the seven major basilicas of the city on Holy Thursday: St. Peter's in the Vatican, St. Paul's outside the Walls, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, St. Sebastian's, St. Lawrence Outside the Walls, and Holy Cross in Jerusalem. 

This Holy Thursday pilgrimage reflects the seven stops or "stations" during the night of Jesus' arrest:

  1. Jesus in the Garden in Gethsemane where He was arrested (Luke 22:39-46)
  2. Jesus taken before Annas (John 18:19-22)
  3. Jesus bound and taken before Caiaphas, the High Priest (Matthew 26:63-65)
  4. Jesus taken before Pilate, the Roman governor (John 18:35-37)
  5. Jesus goes before Herod (Luke 23:8-9, 11)
  6. Jesus returns to Pilate (Matthew 27:22-26)
  7. Jesus is scourged, crowned with thorns and led to His crucifixion (John 19:1-16)

The previous book of indulgences, the Raccolta, included this practice. The suggested prayers were an Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory be, five times before the altar of the Blessed Sacrament and then some private adoration and personal prayer (reflection on the scripture passages related to the "station") before moving on to the next church. The final church stop can also include prayers for the Holy Father's intentions and a longer time of adoration with Jesus in the altar of repose. In some regions the number of churches expanded to 9 or 14. 

Many years ago I did the Seven Churches in Pittsburgh, and the Franciscan Monastery published suggestions for the Washington, DC area. Where I live now, the distance between churches is longer, so I stay in one place for a visit. It is a beautiful practice, and it is very inspiring to see the different altars of repose and the personal devotion of the various parishes or religious communities.

The Triduum is a time that we walk in Jesus' footsteps for His final hours on earth. Personal devotions always spring up to unite the faithful's domestic church with the liturgy of the Church, but even more so during the holiest week of the year. Bathing, eating almonds or green food, foot washing or church visiting might be a part of personal devotion, but may any and all of it bring us closer to Christ as we begin this Sacred Triduum.

Jennifer Gregory Miller is an experienced homemaker, home schooler, and authority on living the liturgical year. She is the primary developer of CatholicCulture.org's liturgical year section. See full bio.

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