Holy Thursday: Christ’s Giving Himself to Others Appeals Especially to Francis and Clare

Holy Thursday: Christ’s Giving Himself to Others Appeals Especially to Francis and Clare

Holy Thursday begins the Paschal Triduum, also known as the Easter Triduum. During these special days we recall Christ’s suffering, dying, and rising—the events that reveal the full depths of God’s love for our broken humanity.

Holy Thursday is central thrust of the Good News

This is the central thrust of the Good News that Saint Francis above all wanted to share with others. As he wrote in the Letter to the Faithful:

As His Passion was near, Jesus celebrated the Passover with His disciples and, taking bread, gave thanks, blessed and broke it, saying: Take and eat: This is My Body. And taking the cup He said: This is My Blood of the New Covenant which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Then He prayed to His Father, saying: Father, if it can be done, let this cup pass from me. And His sweat became as drops of blood falling on the ground. Nevertheless, He placed His will in the will of His Father, saying: Father, let Your will be done; not as I will, but as You will. His Father’s will was such that His blessed and glorious Son, Whom He gave to us and Who was born for us, should offer Himself through His own blood as a sacrifice and oblation on the altar of the cross: not for Himself through Whom all things were made, but for our sins, leaving us an example that we might follow His footprints.

Last Supper is earthy, truly human event

In the magnificent fresco in the Lower Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi (c. 1319), part of the same series as the Entry into Jerusalem we posted for Palm Sunday, the artist Pietro Lorenzetti has placed mundane details into the scene to emphasize that this “last supper” was not a sacred ritual event with the disciples grouped passively around the table; instead, the disciples are chatting with one another in a number of conversations, with kitchen workers off to the side and animals eating the scraps—all accentuating that this supper was a very earthy, truly human event taking place in the midst of life.

Institution of the Eucharist animates, nourishes self-giving 

Two facets of Christ’s giving himself to others that we celebrate today were especially compelling to Francis and Clare. The first was the institution of the Eucharist that continues to animate and nourish that self-giving among us now. Francis says in Admonitions 1:16-19:

Behold, each day He humbles Himself as when He came from the royal throne into the Virgin’s womb; each day He Himself comes to us, appearing humbly; each day He comes down from the bosom of the Father upon the altar in the hands of a priest. As He revealed Himself to the holy apostles in true flesh, so He reveals Himself to us now in sacred bread.

Each day Christ feeds us so that we can become his Body in the world.

Washing of the feet expresses life of humble service

The second fresco depicts the washing of the feet which expressed the life of humble service to which Francis and Clare committed themselves. And so, Lorenzetti painted a companion fresco to the meal depicting this event. Jesus had said to the disciples after he washed their feet: “Do you realize what I have done for you?. . . I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (John 13:12,15).

Holy Thursday fresco washing of the feet Pietro Lorenzetti 900pxlsFresco of the Washing of the Feet by Pietro Lorenzetti, c. 1320, in the Lower Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi

Foot-washing becomes central metaphor for Franciscans

For Clare and Francis, then, foot-washing became a central metaphor for the daily lives of Poor Sisters and Lesser Brothers. Francis urged his brothers: “Let no one be called ‘prior,’ but let everyone in general be called a lesser brother. Let one wash the feet of the other” (Earlier Rule, 6.3). And Clare as abbess of the community of San Damiano wanted to be seen above all as one who humbly served her sisters:

Rarely would she give an order, instead she would do things spontaneously, preferring rather to do things herself than to order her sisters. She herself washed the commodes of the sick; . . . She frequently and reverently washed the feet of the serving [sisters] who returned from outside and, after washing them, kissed them (The Legend of Saint Clare 12:7-9).

Bonaventure explains intimate relationship between Eucharist and service

As Saint Bonaventure explained, there is theologically an intimate relationship between these two dimensions: by eating Christ’s body and blood, we are transformed into his Body and so live by his power, like Jesus giving our life to others in humble service:

It is fitting that the sacrament of communion and love should not only signify these realities, but also arouse its recipients to attain them, so that it accomplishes what it signifies. Now what most enkindles us toward mutual love and most fully unites the members is the oneness of the Head. It is from him that a stream of mutual love flows into us by means of the all-pervading and transforming power that his love possesses. Therefore, this sacrament contains Christ’s true body and immaculate flesh in such a way that it penetrates our very being, unites us to one another, and transforms us into him. It does so by virtue of that burning love through which Christ once gave himself to us, and now gives himself back to us, so that he might remain with us until the end of the world. . . Those who feed on Christ in this sacrament with faith and the devotion of love will not be transforming Christ into themselves, but instead will become the Mystical Body of Christ (Works of St. Bonaventure: Breviloquium, 6.3 and 6).


Main image and insert image: The frescoes from the Lower Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi were painted c. 1320 by Pietro Lorenzetti and depict two Holy Thursday scenes: the Last Supper and the Washing of the Feet (you will notice that Lorenzetti has placed Judas [without a halo] among the disciples in both scenes).


Dominic Monti

Dominic Monti

Dominic V. Monti, OFM, is a Franciscan Friar of Holy Name Province (USA) and currently professor of Franciscan Research in the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University. A native of nearby Bradford, PA, he was educated at St. Bonaventure (BA); after joining the Order, he attended the Catholic University of America (STB), Union Theological Seminary, NY (STM), and the Divinity School of the University of Chicago (PhD). He devoted the greater part of his ministry to teaching the History of Christianity, in particular the history of the Franciscan movement. He has contributed two volumes to the Works of St. Bonaventure series and is author of Francis & His Brothers, a popular history of the Friars Minor. He is spiritual assistant to a federation of Poor Clares and the Franciscan Secular Institute, the Missionaries of the Kingship of Christ.