And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.
On the day of the feast of unleavened bread, when according to the Law of the Old Testament a lamb was to be slaughtered and eaten, the hour was come that the Savior should depart out of this world unto the Father (cf. Jn. 13:1). Having come to fulfill the law, Jesus Christ sent His disciples, Peter and John, to Jerusalem to prepare the Passover, which, as the shadow of the law, He wanted to exchange it with the New Pascha—His own Body and Blood. When evening had come, the Lord came with His twelve disciples to a large, prepared upper room of a man who lived in Jerusalem (cf. Mk. 14:12–17) and reclined there. Telling them that the Kingdom of God, which is not of this world, and not earthly greatness and glory, but love, humility, and purity of spirit is what distinguishes its members, the Lord rose from the table and washed the feet of His disciples. Having washed the feet and again reclined, the Lord said to His disciples: Do you know what I have done for you? You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say correctly, for I am exactly that. Thus, if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, then you should wash each others’ feet. For I have given you an example, so that you would do the same thing I have done for you.
After the washing of the feet, Jesus Christ celebrated the Passover according to the Law of Moses, and then instituted a new Pascha—the great mystery of the most holy Eucharist. The institution of the sacrament of Holy Communion is the second event that the Orthodox Church remembers on Holy Thursday.
The sacrament of Holy Communion, instituted by the Lord before His sufferings and death, according to His commandment, “this do in remembrance of Me,” from the very earliest times up to the present has been celebrated without interruption on myriad holy altar tables of the Universal Church.
At the supper the Lord definitively foretold to His disciples that one of them would betray Him, and he would be the very one to whom He would give a piece of bread after He had dipped it; having dipped it, He gave it to Judas Iscariot. When Judas took the bread the devil entered him. At that moment the betrayer departed from Christ and His Church. It was already night (cf. Jn. 13:1–30). After stopping the Apostles’ argument over who would be first among them, which should not have been a question of lordship and possession, but of the greater being as the lesser, and the chief being as the servant; and after foretelling the Apostles’ general temptation, and Peter’s thrice denial of Him, and His appearance to them in Galilee after the resurrection, the Lord went with them to the garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives (cf. Lk. 22:24-28; Mt. 26:30:35). Here His sufferings began: first in soul and then in body. Beginning His sufferings, the Lord said to His disciples, “Sit here while I go and pray yonder.” Then taking with Him Peter, James and John, who had also witnessed the glory of His transfiguration, He began to sorrow and languish. My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me (Mt. 26:38), said the God-Man to His disciples. Going a little farther to a rock, He bowed His head and knees and prayed until He sweat blood, as a man who feels the cup of suffering but gives himself over completely to the Father’s will. An angel appeared from heaven to Jesus Christ and strengthened Him. During His prayer, the Lord came thrice to His disciples and said, Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. But the disciples were not able to keep vigil in prayer with the Lord, for their eyes were heavy.
Jesus Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane teaches us that amidst temptation and sorrows, prayer gives us great and holy comfort and fortifies our readiness to meet and endure sufferings and death. The Lord also showed by His own example before His sufferings and death the might of prayer that comforts and strengthens. At the same time, He suggests it to the sorrowing Apostles: Watch and pray, so that you will not fall into temptation, for the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
At around midnight the betrayer comes to the garden along with a multitude of armed men sent by the high priests and elders. The Lord Himself goes to them and greets them with the words: “It is I”. Thus did He let them know who He is, and they are knocked to the ground by it. Then He humbly allows the betrayer to kiss Him, and the soldiers to take Him to suffering and death (cf. Mt. 26:36–56; Mk. 14:32–46; Lk. 12:38–53). Thus, He shows through His earthly life the continuation of His divine omnipotence and authority over the laws of nature with a word: “It is I who have thrown the betrayer and the people to the ground, having legions of angels in my power, but having come to give Myself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. I voluntarily and humbly give Myself into the hands of sinners!”
According to tradition, all the faithful receive Holy Communion on this day.
Archpriest G. C. Debolsky,
Days of Services in the Orthodox Church, vol. 2
Hymns from the service of Holy Thursday
At Thy mystical Supper, Son of God, today receive me as a communicant: for I will not speak of the Mystery to Thine enemies; I will not give Thee a kiss like Judas; but as the thief I confess Thee: Remember me Lord, when Thou comest in Thy Kingdom.
Sung instead of the Cherubic Hymn during the Liturgy
The Glorious disciples were illumined at the Supper during the washing of the feet, but ungodly Judas was darkened by the disease of avarice, and he delivered Thee, the righteous Judge, to lawless judges. See, O lover of money, how for money’s sake he hanged himself. Flee from the greed which made him dare to do such things against his Master. O Lord, who art good towards all men, glory to Thee.
Homily on the Gospel of Matthew
How many now say, I would wish to see His form, the mark, His clothes, His shoes. Lo! thou seest Him, Thou touchest Him, thou eatest Him. And thou indeed desirest to see His clothes, but He giveth Himself to thee not to see only, but also to touch and eat and receive within thee.
Let then no one approach it with indifference, no one faint-hearted, but all with burning hearts, all fervent, all inspired. For if Jews standing, and having on their shoes and their staves in their hands, ate with haste, much more oughtest thou to be watchful. For they indeed were to go forth to Palestine, wherefore also they had the garb of pilgrims, but thou art about to remove unto Heaven.
Wherefore it is needful in all respects to be vigilant, for indeed no small punishment is appointed to them that partake unworthily.
Consider how indignant thou art against the traitor, against them that crucified Him. Look therefore, lest thou also thyself become guilty of the body and blood of Christ. They slaughtered the all-holy body, but thou receivest it in a filthy soul after such great benefits. For neither was it enough for Him to be made man, to be smitten and slaughtered, but He also commingleth Himself with us, and not by faith only, but also in very deed maketh us His body. What then ought not he to exceed in purity that hath the benefit of this sacrifice, than what sunbeam should not that hand be more pure which is to sever this flesh, the mouth that is filled with spiritual fire, the tongue that is reddened by that most awful blood? Consider with what sort of honor thou wast honored, of what sort of table thou art partaking. That which when angels behold, they tremble, and dare not so much as look up at it without awe on account of the brightness that cometh thence, with this we are fed, with this we are commingled, and we are made one body and one flesh with Christ. “Who shall declare the mighty works of the Lord, and cause all His praises to be heard?” (Ps. 106:2). What shepherd feeds his sheep with his own limbs? And why do I say, shepherd? There are often mothers that after the travail of birth send out their children to other women as nurses; but He endureth not to do this, but Himself feeds us with His own blood, and by all means entwines us with Himself.
Mark it, He was born of our substance. But, you say, this is nothing to all men; though it does concern all. For if He came unto our nature, it is quite plain that it was to all; but if to all, then to each one. And how was it, you say, that all did not reap the profit therefrom. This was not of His doing, whose choice it was to do this in behalf of all, but the fault of them that were not willing. With each one of the faithful doth He mingle Himself in the mysteries, and whom He begat, He nourishes by Himself, and putteth not out to another; by this also persuading thee again, that He had taken thy flesh. Let us not then be remiss, having been counted worthy of so much both of love and honor. See ye not the infants with how much eagerness they lay hold of the breast? with what earnest desire they fix their lips upon the nipple? With the like let us also approach this table, and the nipple of the spiritual cup. Or rather, with much more eagerness let us, as infants at the breast, draw out the grace of the spirit, let it be our one sorrow, not to partake of this food. The works set before us are not of man’s power. He that then did these things at that supper, this same now also works them. We occupy the place of servants. He who sanctifieth and changeth them is the same. Let then no Judas be present, no covetous man. If any one be not a disciple, let him withdraw, the table receives not such. For “I keep the passover,” He saith, “with my disciples” (Mt. 26:18).
This table is the same as that, and hath nothing less. For it is not so that Christ wrought that, and man this, but He doth this too. This is that upper chamber, where they were then; and hence they went forth unto the mount of Olives.
Let us also go out unto the hands of the poor, for this spot is the mount of Olives. For the multitude of the poor are olive-trees planted in the house of God, dropping the oil, which is profitable for us there, which the five virgins had, and the others that had not received perished thereby. Having received this, let us enter in that with bright lamps we may meet the bridegroom; having received this, let us go forth hence.
Let no inhuman person be present, no one that is cruel and merciless, no one at all that is unclean.
St. John Chrysostom