Holy Thursday Mass is one of my favorite celebrations of the liturgical year. I’m sure I’m not alone in that regard—a lot of people find this first part of the Triduum to be a powerful service for many different reasons. Some people enjoy the symbolic washing of feet, while others simply want to attend in order to celebrate the Eucharist on the night of the Last Supper. For me, though, what makes Holy Thursday special is the procession of the Blessed Sacrament to the altar of repose.
If you’re not familiar with the Holy Thursday service, here’s what I’m talking about. At the end of Mass, the priest takes the leftover consecrated bread and processes to a secondary altar—called the altar of repose—in a more secluded area of the church, such as an adoration chapel. This is where the sacrament will stay through Good Friday.
During the procession, the congregation sings the Pange Lingua, a hymn written specifically for this Mass by Saint Thomas Aquinas. There is no dismissal afterward; instead, congregants simply leave in silence or stay for adoration at the altar of repose until midnight or earlier.
For as long as I can remember, I have been completely mystified by this final part of the Holy Thursday celebration. It serves the practical purpose of reminding the congregation that the Holy Triduum is considered one Mass, beginning with the opening on Holy Thursday, moving to a time for penance and mourning on Good Friday, and culminating in the high point at the Easter Vigil.
But it also does more than that. It provides one of the most profound experiences of devotion mixed with sadness of the liturgical year. The procession is always treated with the utmost reverence, with altar servers bearing incense and candles throughout, but the very idea that this is the only time the Blessed Sacrament leaves the main worship space of a church makes this a cause for sorrow and pain. When we observe the sacrament’s journey, it’s as if we are watching Christ being arrested and taken away to be tried and crucified before our very eyes. As a result, we mourn like the disciples who watched Jesus being led to his death, but we also show devotion because of Jesus’ total commitment to his sacrifice for us.
This procession also shows us the sacredness of the Eucharist in a more powerful way than almost any other celebration, as is fitting for a Mass on the night on which this sacrament was instituted. What really emphasizes the holiness of the Eucharist is the Pange Lingua.
The hymn starts with the line, “Pange lingua gloriosi corporis mysterium,” translated from Latin as, “Proclaim, my tongue, the mystery of the glorious body,” referring of course to the Body of Christ. It continues with more words of praise for God and affirmations of his presence in the Eucharist. There are a few different tunes that can accompany these lyrics, and all the ones I have heard are magnificent.
The original tune written by Aquinas is a Gregorian chant, and as such possesses a hauntingly beautiful sound. Another more modern version simply repeats the line I quoted above over and over to one of the most mournfully captivating tunes I’ve ever heard. In any case, the lyrics of devotion and the wonderful music come together to form a tremendously profound expression of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament.
Ultimately, my reasons for loving the final procession of the Holy Thursday service are indescribable. All I can say for sure is that I’ve had some of my most powerful spiritual experiences during this ritual.
If you’ve never been to Holy Thursday Mass before, by all means give it a shot! Certain parts vary from parish to parish, like the logistics of the washing of the feet and the tune for the Pange Lingua. In some cases, the final hymn isn’t even the Pange Lingua at all, but a different Eucharistic chant. No matter where you go, though, it’ll be sure to turn your heart and mind toward the Lord during this holiest of weeks.