Several unique services mark the Orthodox celebration of Holy Thursday. The main service of the day is the Vesperal Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil that is conducted on Holy Thursday morning. This Liturgy commemorates the institution of the Holy Eucharist.
The Scripture Readings for the Liturgy are: Exodus 19:10-18; Job 38:1-21, 42:1-5; Isaiah 50:4-11; I Corinthians 11:23-32; and Matthew 26:2-20; John 13:3-17;
26:21-39; Luke 22:43-45; Matthew 26:40-27:2.
Thursday evening actually begins the services of Great and Holy Friday. The service of the Twelve Passion Gospels commemorates the solemn time of our Lord’s Crucifixion. After the reading of the fifth Gospel, the holy cross is carried around the church in procession, and Christ’s body is nailed to the cross in the center of the church.
In Christian antiquity it was customary to baptize the catechumens on the feast of Pascha. The oils of Chrism, used for the anointing of the neophytes or newly-baptized persons, were consecrated in advance, on Great Thursday. This practice continued through the late middle ages. The service of consecration was conducted annually. In time, however, it began to be celebrated occasionally, as the need to replace the Chrism arose.
Holy Chrism is also called Holy Myron (Sveto Miro). It is a mixture of olive oil, balsam, wine and some forty aromatic substances symbolizing the fullness of sacramental grace, the sweetness of the Christian life, and the manifold and diverse gifts of the Holy Spirit. At the Serbian Patriarchate in Belgrade, and at the centers of other Patriarchates and Autocephalous Churches, the Holy Chrism is blessed during the Liturgy on this day. The rite does not take place every year.
The Reserved Sacrament
By custom two Lambs are consecrated at the Divine Liturgy on Great Thursday. The second Lamb is used as the Reserved Sacrament. The Reserved Sacrament is used especially to give communion to the sick.
The Reserved Sacrament from the previous year is consumed by the priest after the Liturgy on either Great Thursday or Great Saturday in the usual manner.
In the event the Reserved Sacrament has been exhausted, or for any reason altered, lost or destroyed, or does not exist, as in the case of the founding of a new church, the priest may consecrate a second Lamb at any Divine Liturgy, and prepare it in the manner described above, and place it in the Artophorion.
The Service of the Washing of the Feet
It appears that the Church had a ceremony of the Washing of the Feet annually on Great Thursday in imitation of the event at the Last Supper. For the most part, it was limited to Cathedral Churches and certain monasteries. In time, the service fell into disuse except in certain areas. It is now being recovered by many dioceses throughout the Orthodox world. The service is elaborate, dramatic and moving. It is conducted with special solemnity at the Patriarchate of Jerusalem and at the Monastery of St. John the Theologian on the island of Patmos. The service is contained in a separate liturgical book.
Judas betrayed Christ with a kiss, the sign of friendship and love. The betrayal and crucifixion of Christ carried the
ancestral sin to its extreme limits. In these two acts the rebellion against God reached its maximum capacity. The seduction of man in paradise culminated in the death of God in the flesh. To be victorious evil must quench the light and discredit the good. In the end, however, it shows itself to be a lie, an absurdity and sheer madness. The death and resurrection of Christ rendered evil powerless.
On Great Thursday light and darkness, joy and sorrow are so strangely mixed. At the Upper Room and in Gethsemane the light of the kingdom and the darkness of hell come through simultaneously. The way of life and the way of death converge. We meet them both in our journey through life.
In the midst of the snares and temptations that abound in the world around and in us we must be eager to live in communion with everything that is good, noble, natural, and sinless, forming ourselves by God’s grace in the likeness of Christ.
Hymns of Holy Thursday
Troparion (Plagal Fourth Tone)
When the glorious disciples were enlightened at the washing of their feet before the supper, the impious Judas was darkened by the disease of avarice, and to the lawless judges he betrayed You, the Righteous Judge. Behold, this man because of avarice hanged himself. Flee from the insatiable desire which dared such things against the Master! O Lord Who deals righteously with all, glory to You!
Ninth Ode of the Matins (Plagal Second Tone)
Come, O faithful! Let us enjoy the Master’s hospitality: the Banquet of Immortality! In the upper chamber with uplifted minds, let us receive the exalted words of the Word, Whom we magnify!