Photo Source: Broadway Fillmore Alive http://broadwayfillmorealive.org/2.0/
Holy Thursday begins the three holiest days of the Catholic Church. In Polish, Holy Thursday is called Wielki Czwartek, or Great Thursday because it was on this day that during the Last Supper, Jesus Christ celebrated the first mass, and instituted the sacraments of the Holy Eucharist and Holy Orders. It is also on this day that Jesus gave us the mandatum novum, or the "new commandment" asking us to love one another. The start of St. John's gospel verse 13:34 reads: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, as I have loved you." Later that night, while praying in anguish in the Garden of Gethsemene, Jesus is betrayed by Judas and locked up in a jail.
The liturgical service on Holy Thursday is immensely rich, filling the mind, the heart and the senses. Bells are rung for the last time during the Gloria and will not be heard until the Easter Vigil mass on Saturday evening. A wooden clapper called crotalus is used instead. In Polish, they are called kołatki. The organ is silenced and the priest washes of the feet of 12 men chosen to represent the apostles. After the Mass, the priest vests himself in white and carries the sacred hosts to the Altar of Repose, a closed tabernacle at one of the side altars. In Polish this closed tabernacle is called a ciemnica, meaning a dark place, supposedly in memory of Jesus being locked up in jail which in Roman times were usually underground dungeons, without access to light. The altar of repose is also sometimes called the "Holy Sepulchre" referring to the tomb in which the body of Christ was laid after his death on the cross. It is here, at one of the side altars, that the sacred hosts remain "entombed" until the liturgy on Good Friday. The altars are then stripped and left bare. All the crucifixes and statues are covered. All the signs of Christ's presence is temporarily removed. It is in this state of loss and solemnity that the faithful begin one of the most cherished and longstanding traditions of Holy Thursday - that of visiting seven churches on Holy Thursday and praying at the altars of repose.
The tradition of visiting seven churches on Holy Thursday is an ancient pilgrimage practice, believed to have originated in Rome, where early pilgrims visited the seven major basilicas as a form of penance, asking for atonement for their sins. The churches that were particular sites for visits were Saint John Lateran, Saint Peter, Saint Mary Major, Saint Paul-outside-the-Walls, Saint Lawrence-outside-the-Walls, Saint Sebastian-outside-the-Walls, and Holy Cross-in-Jerusalem. But a pilgrimage can also be simply for religious devotion. The entire spirit of the visits to the altars of repose can be an invitation to silent and prolonged adoration of the wondrous sacraments instituted by Jesus on this day. Or, it can be an acceptance of Christ's request when asked his disciples to keep vigil with Him in the Garden of Gethsemane before His arrest. "Then Jesus came with them into a country place which is called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples: Sit you here, till I go yonder and pray." Matthew 26:36 Or, it can be to keep Christ company through prayer and contemplation during the dark hours he spent in jail.
Many people begin their visit to the altar of repose in their own church immediately after attending the Holy Thursday liturgy and then begin their visits to other churches that remain open for visitations. Not all communities have seven churches, so the faithful visit as many churches as they have. In Buffalo, between the districts of the East Side and Kaisertown, there are much more than seven churches and the sight of thousands of people walking singly or in groups to their chosen seven churches inspires and uplifts the heart and soul. There are throngs of men, women, and children, entire generations of family members entering various churches; the infirm are wheeled up ramps; buses are emptying out with people returning to the church where they first took Holy Communion; the parking lots are jammed; the police are directing traffic. It is a sight to behold. Inside, the churches are silent except for the shuffling of feet; some of the churches are in almost complete darkness; the smell of incense fills the air; everyone is flocking towards the altar of repose, kneeling...praying...adoring. All have come to keep Christ company on this special and important evening. In the past, churches stayed open and people came in the middle of the night. Altar boys took first vigils, then members of Holy Name Society would take turns throughout the night to make sure there was always someone keeping Jesus company at the altar of repose.
For us, in today's times, visiting an altar of repose could be, like centuries ago, a pilgrimage. But it need not be to a faraway, distant place. It could be a mini-pilgrimage, the journey as close as any nearby church on Holy Thursday.
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One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.