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The Eucharistic Watch Of Holy Thursday Night

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By JAMES MONTI

The interval from eventide on Holy Thursday to the afternoon of Holy Saturday is like no other in the liturgical year — a time without the celebration of Mass. It is different for a reason. For these are the hours of the Sacred Passion, death, and burial of our God and Redeemer.
As the Augustinian liturgist Fr. Giovanni Michele Cavalieri (+1757) observed, “…the Church herself is totally occupied in mysterious actions, which are related to the Passion, death, and burial of Christ” (Opera omnia liturgica, 1758, vol. 4, p. 166).
And it all begins with a solemn procession — the transfer of the Blessed Sacrament at the conclusion of Holy Thursday Mass from the high altar to the altar of reposition, a place shimmering with an effulgence of candlelight and suffused with the mingled fragrances of spring blossoms, beeswax, and incense. It is a place that commands silence and awe.
In a 1995 homily Pope St. John Paul II explained how the eucharistic procession of Holy Thursday differs significantly from the festive procession marking the Solemnity of Corpus Christi:
“This Eucharistic procession has a characteristic note: we pause beside Christ as the events of his Passion begin . . . on Holy Thursday we accompany Jesus on the way that leads him to the terrible hours of the Passion. . . . In the Polish tradition the place of reposition for the Eucharist after the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper is called ‘the dark chapel,’ because popular piety links it to the memory of the prison where our Lord Jesus spent the night between Thursday and Friday, a night certainly not of repose, but rather a further stage of physical and spiritual suffering” (homily, June 15, 1995, L’Osserva-
tore Romano, June 21, 1995, pp. 1-2).
Even before succeeding Pope John Paul in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI years earlier as a cardinal had spoken of the Holy Thursday procession to the Repository as an imitation of Christ’s journey from the Last Supper to Gethsemane, “into the night of the Cross, the night of the Tomb” (Journey Towards Easter, Crossroad, 1987, p. 96).
At a general audience during Holy Week of 2011 (April 20), Pope Benedict noted that the eucharistic vigil on this night is “in memory of the Lord’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane,” when He experienced “immense anguish at the closeness of death.”
Citing Christ’s admonition to His apostles in Gethsemane, “. . . remain here, and watch with me” (Matt. 26:38), the Pontiff reflected upon how this vigil summons us to overcome our indifference to God and to the battle between good and evil:
“Nocturnal adoration of Holy Thursday, watching with the Lord, must be the very moment to make us reflect on the somnolence of the disciples, of the defenders of Jesus, of the Apostles, of us who do not see, who do not wish to see the whole force of evil nor do we wish to enter his passion for goodness, for the presence of God in the world, for the love of our neighbor and of God” (L’Osservatore Romano, April 27, 2011, p. 14).
The practice of praying in the Holy Thursday Repository is at least nine centuries old, first mentioned in a missal of Rieux, France (c. 1100). The idea of keeping a watch in the Repository seems to have arisen very soon afterward, with a 12th-century liturgical book of Milan, Italy, stating that on Holy Thursday the archbishop would instruct the subdeacons to guard with vigilance the reserved sacrament (Ordo of Beroldus).
By the 15th century, the practice of a continual eucharistic watch from Holy Thursday to the morning of Good Friday had become an established custom in Spain, with priests (Vich, 1463) or monks (Benedictines of Valladolid) as the watchers. In the early 1520s the papal master of ceremonies Paride de Grassis (+1528) enjoined this observance.
In the constitutions that the Spanish archbishop St. Juan de Ribera (+1611) a year before his death composed for the chapel of Valencia’s Royal College and Seminary of Corpus Christi, a school founded by him, he directed that at least six clerics were to be present throughout the eucharistic vigil, which he divided into five watches (from the end of Mass to 6:00 p.m., 6:00 to 10:00 p.m., 10:00 to 2:00 a.m., 2:00 to 6:00 a.m., and 6:00 a.m. to the Holy Communion rite of Good Friday), with a change of watchers every four hours.
The more difficult late night watches were assigned to “the young and the strong,” with the “aged and the weak” given the less challenging daytime watches (Constitutions, chapter 34).
At Corpus Christi College the watchers recited continually the Psalms, a custom also observed at the Spanish cathedrals of Toledo (1530) and Palencia (1567). A 1794 ceremonial compiled for the Congregation of St. Jerome (the Hieronymites) in Portugal directs the monks keeping watch to meditate upon “the mysteries of the Sacred Passion of Christ” and “the institution of the Most Holy Sacrament” (Fr. Manoel da Graca, Ceremonial e ordinario monastico, Coimbra, Portugal, vol. 2, 1794, p. 62).
The custom of visiting the Repositories of several different churches on Holy Thursday was already in evidence in Spain by the mid-15th century. A chaplain of King Alonso V recorded in his diary that on this night in 1459 King Alonso himself and his queen Dona Juana managed to visit every church in the city of Valencia.
Although the chaplain does not state the specific reason for these visits, a subsequent entry in his diary for 1469, recording that Pope Paul II had granted for the cathedral of Valencia an indulgence to whoever visited the church during the interval from when the Blessed Sacrament was placed in the “moniment” (a Catalan word meaning “sepulcher,” i.e., the Repository) on Holy Thursday until Easter Sunday, leaves little doubt that the royal visits on Holy Thursday a decade earlier concerned the solemn reservation of the Eucharist in the city’s churches (Fr. Jaime Villanueva, Viage literario a las Iglesias de Espana, vol. 1, Madrid, 1803, p. 149).
Similarly, a chronicle concerning the Spanish lord Miguel Lucas de Iranzo, the Count of Castile, records that on Holy Thursday of 1464, “…after they [the clergy] enclosed the Body of our Lord God” in the Repository at the cathedral of Jaen, this nobleman “came to the monumento (Repository) and saw how it [the Eucharist] was enclosed”; then, after dinner, he and his retinue visited all the churches and monasteries of Jaen (Relacion de los Hechos, in Memorial historico Espanol, vol. 8, Madrid, 1855, pp. 170-171).
The chronicle of Miguel Lucas also mentions that the count arranged for six torches to be kept burning continually on wooden candle-stands before the monumento. The custom of adorning the Repository with a multitude of candles had arisen by the 12th century, when it is mentioned in a will of Ager, Spain (a provision of four torches). The 1567 missal of Palencia speaks of “very many candles” for the monumento. St. Juan de Ribera directed that every candle-stand which Corpus Christi College possessed was to be employed for the adornment of the college’s Repository.

Utmost Grandeur

Archival documents and liturgical books from Spain, Portugal and Italy dating from the late 15th to the 19th centuries contain many amazing descriptions of how the Holy Thursday repositories would be adorned. The following rubrics regarding the Repository are from the afore-cited 1794 ceremonial of the Hieronymites in Portugal:
“The said chapel shall be prepared with the utmost cleanliness and grandeur which shall be possible. Within, it shall have for the top of the altar a throne gilt or covered with white silk, over which shall be placed a canopy with a support also of white silk, the most precious that there can be, adorned with valances, fringes, and galloons of gold. Below the canopy, and atop the throne, shall be placed an urn or coffer locked with a key, and fabricated with total perfection, gold or silver on the outside and lined on the inside with golden white silk, and garnished with galloons of gold, and over the floor of it shall be placed a corporal.
“The throne shall have lights of white wax, as many as there can be, and there shall never be less than thirty, and it shall be adorned with flowers, natural and artificial. The altar shall have a white frontal, the most precious that shall be possible, and on the gradine shall be placed six candlesticks. . . . The floor shall be covered with carpets, or green cloths, and on it shall be placed some large candle-stands with candles of white wax, which shall burn throughout the time of the exposition” (Da Graca, Ceremonial, vol. 2, pp. 49-50).
The eucharistic vigil of Holy Thursday, when fittingly observed and properly understood, serves as an ideal preparation for the immense mysteries of Good Friday. Rather than closing the Repository at 11:00 p.m. as is often done, pastors really should consider keeping their churches open at least until midnight.
In fact, the current rubrics do allow eucharistic adoration to continue into Good Friday (provided that after midnight this is done “without external solemnity” — Circular Letter Concerning the Preparation and Celebration of the Easter Feasts, 1988, n. 56).
While writing this essay I learned that a parish in Norwalk, Conn., St. Mary’s Church, will be extending the eucharistic watch to 8:00 a.m. on Good Friday morning. Let us hope that many other parishes will do the same.

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