As we begin the Triduum, the propers for Holy Thursday (known traditionally as Maundy Thursday) might seem a lot like Good Friday. While we typically associate this Mass with the Institution of the Eucharist, both the Introit and the Collect begin with an emphasis on the death of Christ. While midway through the Mass indeed does turn to the Eucharist, it ends in the haunting specter of the ministers stripping the Church while the cantor sings the Psalm Christ himself prayed on the cross: my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Far from a Psalm of joy over the Eucharist, it is a Psalm of a man near death who has lost everything but his hope in God.
Far from downplaying the Eucharist, this places the Blessed Sacrament within its proper context. Above all else, the Eucharist is the sacrifice of Calvary made present to us here on earth. The Sacrifice of Calvary was not a moment of joy, but a moment of anguish and death. When we receive the Eucharist, we are receiving the flesh of not only one who died, but one who we killed. Faced with that reality, we can give two responses, and the liturgy covers them both. The collect makes reference to the punishment of Judas and the reward of the thief.
When we examine both actions, we find that they came at the end of their life, after recognition of committing an unspeakable crime. Their reactions are completely different. When Judas realizes he betrayed Christ, he becomes overcome with anguish and hangs himself. The thief realizes he has been justly accused and convicted of his crime, recognizes Christ’s innocence, and asks for forgiveness. There is finality to each decision. When Judas commits suicide, his fate is sealed, just as when the man asks for forgiveness, his fate is also sealed.
As we begin the Triduum, Mother Church wants us to realize that path is still open for us. Even if we have strayed far away from her, even if we are seconds away from death, there is still the option to choose Christ. For those of us likely to live a long life, the choice is still there to follow Christ, and we must make that choice every day of our lives. For us, Holy Thursday is a chance to renew our profession of faith. We should end that night the way the Mass ends, stripped of everything, and placing our trust in the Father just as Christ did.
Once we make that choice, how can we keep it? The readings can be of some benefit in helping us along that path. The Epistle talks about the importance of examining your conscience. While this is done within the context of the Eucharist (to be sure that there is no stain of mortal sin within us before receiving the Eucharist), this really should apply towards everything we do. At least once a day we should spend a few minutes examining our conscience. In order to do that, we need to realize we examination our consciences for more than just to see what sins we commit. In addition to those sins, we examine where we are weak, where we are strong, where we are doing good, where improvement is needed, how to improve, etc. The devil seldom if ever corrupts anyone who is fully aware of who and what he is. The devil instead sways those who have a false sense of themselves. Want to be able to choose Christ? First realize how dependent you are on His grace for everything through a daily examination of conscience.
Once we have examined our conscience, we should then take the approach Christ does in the Gospels, and which the priest repeats after the Gospel: that of service to others. While I have gone to great lengths to never suggest the superiority of the traditional liturgy in relation to what other ceremonies Catholics worship with, here I will state the traditional practice is superior. When you ask most Catholics about the point of the foot washing ceremony, the point becomes instantly obscured by the endless debate over whether or not women should have their foot washed side by side with men. The point of service is lost in pushing whether or not we support being inclusive. For us, only the feet of men are washed, but you will not find a woman in our pews who finds the practice sexist. (When you consider the fact that most traditionalist parishes get by day to day because of this or that woman, the objection is even weaker.) Instead, everyone sees the rite for what it is: that of service.
If you want to grow in holiness, service is the only way. When we are put at the service of others, we deny that usual instinct towards egotism. We willingly sacrifice our comfort for the betterment of others. Every act of service is a small cross which points towards the larger one. Through every act of service, one chooses Christ.
While that part of the ceremony is understood by all, there are two other aspects that are discussed less. The first is that Christ was washing their feet as a way of preparing them to go out into the world. He wanted them to be spotless before they began their journey of bringing His message to the world. He cleaned their feet so they could be made dirty in His service. Serving Christ isn’t a pretty job. Many of those who had their feet washed would later have those same feet bathed in their own blood due to martyrdom. Those clean feet died on strange soil away from their homeland as they preached the Gospel to the ends of the earth. The priest is not washing feet out of some empty symbolism. He is telling us that as he washes our feet, he expects us to go get them dirty again, except this time for God’s sake.
A final aspect worth considering is the washing of the feet in terms of vocations. Holy Thursday celebrates the Eucharistic sacrifice, and that sacrifice is only possible because there are priests there to celebrate it. When Christ washed their feet, He was establishing a certain familiarity and closeness with those he would soon ordain as priests at the Last Supper. The priest repeats this call during the ceremony. He asks all of the congregation (symbolized through the men having their feet washed) for vocations to the priesthood, so that Christ’s work may be perpetuated until His return. Like everything else in today’s liturgy, it is a call for action, and that action can and will change everything in your life. As we enter into the Sacred Triduum, let us welcome whatever change Christ gives us.