Holy Thursday Meal

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Apr 13, 2017

It always seems the end of Lent and Holy Week God sends extra opportunities for penance. This year was no different. My cousin died last week. This week our elementary atrium (ages 6-12) had a three-day retreat in preparation for Easter, which was wonderfully rich, but very time-consuming. Now it is Holy Thursday and I don’t feel prepared to begin celebration of the Triduum.

Perhaps I will pare down our home celebration, but we will continue with our usual family traditions and participate in the Liturgy of the Triduum.

The last two weeks I have been thinking in particular about the Last Supper and the Passover meal and our Paschal Feast. This retreat’s theme was the Last Supper. We opened with a meditation examining the ritual of the Jewish Passover, walking through an abbreviated form of the Haggadah. We focused on the Last Supper and the institution of the Mass. We examined art renditions of the Last Supper, read the Passion out loud, discussed the liturgy of the Triduum, and also had a Last Supper Reenactment, including a foot washing.

Passover Meal

Since I was a young girl my family has gathered to celebrate a Holy Thursday meal. The purpose was to remember Jesus’ Last Supper, and to prepare the family for their participation at the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. Understanding the significance and history of the Jewish Passover enhanced our family celebration, but our focus is more on how through Jesus this is all fulfilled.

We never celebrated an actual Seder meal, nor Christianized it. We try to respect the Jewish religious ritual of a Seder meal. It is part of their religion, and we keep it separate from our home celebration. For Catholics our Passover Feast or Paschal Feast is the Mass, and the Easter Vigil par excellence. Francis Fernandez (In Conversation With God, Volume 2) mentions that the Last Supper is “to be the last Jewish Passover and the first Passover in which her Son is both Priest and Victim” (p. 252). (See also The Hunt for the Fourth Cup by Dr. Scott Hahn.)

Mrs. Gill came to a similar conclusion:

The “Christian Seder” or Passover meal on Holy Thursday has become popular in some circles in the past few decades. I have attended such dinners and have even tried to put one on myself. I enjoyed learning more about the Jewish Passover traditions as Our Lord observed them — the symbolic foods, the toasts, the questions and the beautiful Jewish blessing prayers.

Yet my own sense is that too closely to imitate a Jewish Passover rings falsely at my table. Our Holy Thursday menu does include some symbolic foods from the Passover meal. We read about both the Exodus of Jews and the story of the Last Supper, but we do not imitate the narrative and blessings from the Jewish observance.

Instead, we try to concentrate on the fulfillment of the Passover in Jesus. Through His blood, He has saved us from death. And in the Holy Eucharist, He feeds us with His own flesh and blood. The high point of our Holy Thursday observance is our participation in the true carrying on of that last Passover meal. No re-enactment around our table, no matter how authentic, can compare with the Truth that we encounter in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (Celebrating the Faith in the Home: Lent and Easter in the Christian Kitchen by Laurie Navar Gill and Teresa Zepeda).

Our main guide is the liturgy of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper for Holy Thursday night. I have also gleaned inspiration from other sources. While reading Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede, I was struck by the description of Holy Week in the Benedictine Monastery. While this is a fictitious work, the author based the writings on actual convent life. I have the whole quote here but I loved this description of the table for Holy Thursday dinner, and have used it as some hints for setting for my own Holy Thursday table:

On that same day, the Abbess, following her Master’s example, became the servant of the whole community, serving them at midday dinner. The sight of the refectory was inviting: each place was laid with a snow-white napkin, a glass of wine, a bunch of grapes, a small wheaten loaf, and a brown earthenware bowl of vegetable soup. Apricot puffs and cheese were laid along the side tables. When the nuns were seated, the Abbess came in, wearing a white apron and white sleeves, and with her came the kitchener, Sister Priscilla, bearing a great silver salver of fish. The Abbess went to every nun, serving her and laying beside her plate a nose-gay of small flowers: violets, wood anemones, primulas, grape hyacinths, tiny ferns, pink heaths.

Father Francis Weiser from his Religious Customs in the Family gives some wise instructions on a family celebrating a Passover-type meal on Holy Thursday:

In many homes the memory of the Last Supper is brought out by the arrangement of the main meal in the evening. Of late the custom has been suggested in various books and pamphlets, of imitating the ancient Passover meal even in its details. A yearling lamb is to be roasted and served with bitter herbs and a brown sauce. Jewish matzos, together with wine, are to be distributed by the father in silence to all members of the family, thus commemorating the institution of the Blessed Sacrament. The use of some pious “ritual” at the supper on Holy Thursday is surely to be recommended. However, an imitation of the Last Supper of our Lord in its details does not seem to be advisable. Children, with their gift of keen and faithful observation, might easily conceive the ritual at the family table as a “photographic” reproduction of the Last Supper and thus acquire inaccurate and unhistorical notions about it. To mention only one example, are we sure that Christ used massah (unleavened bread) of the shape and size of modern Jewish “matzos”?

Our Holy Thursday Meal

This is how we celebrate our Holy Thursday meal. We usually do this between 4-5 pm, before we go to the evening Mass. Other years we have celebrated it Wednesday so we would not feel rushed.

Florence Berger in Cooking for Christ sets the theme for the evening, answering Peter and John’s question:

Whenever I hear Peter and John asking the Lord, “Where wilt Thou that we prepare the Pasch?” I want to interrupt and say, “Come to our house, please do.” But even today we, as Catholics, can bring Christ and His friends home with us. When we receive the Holy Eucharist on Maundy Thursday, He lives within us. When we gather guests at our tables to re-enact the last supper, Christ is in our midst. For, as the antiphon of Holy Thursday sings, “where charity and love are, there is God.” There is a divine bond between our altar and our home.

Holy Thursday celebrates the institution of the Sacrament of the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The Eucharist was established within the Passover meal by Jesus with His Apostles. A wonderful way to bring home the richness of this feast is to imitate the Last Supper by recalling some aspects of the Passover meal, and a foot washing ceremony with the family in imitation of Jesus.

The idea is serving foods reminiscent of the Passover meal as the Jews did in Egypt and Christ did in imitation of the Exodus, not in imitation of Judaic religion. Elements of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper are included to prepare us for participation at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Incorporating the various senses in this meal really helps active participation, particularly for children.

Holy Thursday is one of the biggest feasts in the Church year, since it commemorates the institution of Holy Orders and of the Holy Eucharist. The table is beautifully decorated, with a white tablecloth (in imitation of the white vestments used at Mass) and the good china and silver. We usually serve dessert (since this is a special feast day, no Lenten abstaining here). Before or during the dinner, Exodus 12:1-20 is read —- the story of the first Passover. Then the New Testament reading about the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist is read from either Matt 26:17:30; Mark 14:12-26 or Luke 22:7-20.

Simple Menu Suggestions: These ideas are loosely following the instructions in Exodus, “A lamb…a year-old male lamb without blemish…That same night they shall eat its roasted flesh with unleavened bread and bitter herbs….”

  • Bitter Herbs: Cooked spinach and raw celery sticks dipped in salt water, mixed green salad (the greens also incorporate the “Green Thursday” tradition)
  • Unleavened bread: Crackers or store-bought matzohs, pita bread or homemade unleavened bread
  • Wine: red wine and/or grape juice
  • Lamb: Leg of lamb, or roast lamb, lamb chops, or meatloaf baked in shape of lamb (use a lamb cake mold)
  • Haroset: Applesauce (with raisins), reminding of the bricks and mortar the Jews laid in Egypt. (This is an additional element we have added, mainly because we love applesauce.)

Our Holy Thursday Dinner Menu:

  • Roast Beef or Lamb (Reminder of the Passover Lamb, and Christ the Paschal Lamb)
  • Mashed or Roasted Potatoes (allergy free)
  • Spinach (reminder of the bitter herbs)
  • Carrots and Celery sticks (in salt water)
  • Applesauce (reminder of the Charoses, the bricks and mortar in Egypt)
  • Bread and/or Matzos (reminder of the Unleavened Bread and the Eucharist)
  • Grapes (reminder of the wine of the Last Supper which becomes the Blood of Christ)
  • Wine and/or Grape Juice
  • Dessert (Because it’s a festive day in the eyes of the Church)

Our family doesn’t usually like the taste of lamb, so most of the time I serve roast beef or flank steak. It looks similar to lamb. This year I’m trying to serve roast lamb. I also take into consideration that Holy Week has extra constraints, so while I want to make a festive meal, sometimes time, energy, (and nowadays) and budget is lacking. One year my mother actually made a meatloaf in the lamb cake mold pan. Definitely memorable.

We’re saving the lamb cake for Easter, and I will choose a dessert that won’t have leftovers to taunt us during Good Friday. Depending on my time, I might make unleavened bread, following Maria von Trapp’s recipe. If I use regular bread it will be small individual loaves at each place setting. For my son with food allergies, I will serve gluten free bread sticks or matzos. Another alternative is serving Hot Cross Buns.

Before eating, the family gathers for the “Washing of the Feet”, which I’ve described here in a previous post.

We remind our children that this meal is different than what the Jews celebrate because Christ already died and saved us, so we are not still awaiting a Messiah. We are not obliged to follow the directives for the Passover meal, we are merely doing it in imitation of Christ, so we can use all of our senses to know, love and serve Christ. While eating, the reading from Exodus 12: 1-20, the story of the First Passover, is read out loud. This is the same first reading at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.

The meal is simple, joyful, and family-friendly, and wonderful preparation to enter more deeply into the liturgy of the Sacred Triduum. We look forward celebrating the second Passover, the Mass. “Christ our Paschal Lamb has been sacrificed (1 Cor 5:7).

My previous articles on Holy Thursday and Holy Week:

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.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 1 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Apr. 15, 2017 5:47 AM ET USA

    It is important that we maintain a clear distinction between Catholicism and other religions. "We never celebrated an actual Seder meal, nor Christianized it. We try to respect the Jewish religious ritual of a Seder meal. It is part of their religion....'[W]e do not imitate the narrative and blessings from the Jewish observance.'...We remind our children that this meal is different than what the Jews celebrate because Christ already died and saved us, so we are not still awaiting a Messiah."