Great and Holy Thursday
Two events shape the liturgy of Great and Holy Thursday: the Last Supper of Christ with His disciples, and the betrayal of Judas. The meaning of both is in love. The Last Supper is the ultimate revelation of God’s redeeming love for man, of love as the very essence of salvation. And the betrayal of Judas reveals that sin, death and self-destruction are also due to love, but to deviated and distorted love, love directed at that which does not deserve love.
Here is the mystery of this unique day, and its liturgy, where light and darkness, joy and sorrow are so strangely mixed, challenges us with the choice on which depends the eternal destiny of each one of us. “Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour was come… having loved His own which were in the world, He loved them unto the end…” (John 13:1).
To understand the meaning of the Last Supper we must see it as the very end of the great movement of Divine Love which began with the creation of the world and is now to be consummated in the death and resurrection of Christ.
God is Love (1 John 4:8). And the first gift of Love was life. The meaning, the content of life was communion. To be alive man was to eat and to drink, to partake of the world. The world was thus Divine love made food, made Body of man.
And being alive, i.e. partaking of the world, man was to be in communion with God, to have God as the meaning, the content and the end of his life. Communion with the God-given world was indeed communion with God. Man received his food from God and making it his body and his life, he offered the whole world to God, transformed it into life in God and with God.
The love of God gave life to man, the love of man for God transformed this life into communion with God. This was paradise. Life in it was, indeed, eucharistic. Through man and his love for God the whole creation was to be sanctified and transformed into one all-embracing sacrament of Divine Presence and man was the priest of this sacrament.
But in sin man lost this eucharistic life. He lost it because he ceased to see the world as a means of Communion with God and his life as eucharist, as adoration and thanksgiving. . . He loves himself and the world for their own sake; he made himself the content and the end of his life. He thought that his hunger and thirst, i.e. his dependence of his life on the world—can be satisfied by the world as such, by food as such.
But world and food, once they are deprived of their initial sacramental meaning—as means of communion with God, once they are not received for God’s sake and filled with hunger and thirst for God, once, in other words, God is no longer, their real “content” can give no life, satisfy no hunger, for they have no life in themselves…
And thus by putting his love in them, man deviated his love from the only object of all love, of all hunger, of all desires. And he died. For death is the inescapable “decomposition” of life cut from its only source and content. Man thought to find life in the world and in food, but he found death. His life became communion with death, for instead of transforming the world by faith, love, and adoration into communion with God, he submitted himself entirely to the world, he ceased to be its priest and became its slave.
And by his sin the whole world was made a cemetery, where people condemned to death partook of death and “sat in the region and shadow of death” (Matt. 4:16).
But if man betrayed, God remained faithful to man. He did not “turn Himself away forever from His creature whom He had made, neither did He forget the works of His hands, but He visited him in diverse manners, through the tender compassion of His mercy” (Liturgy of Saint Basil). A new Divine work began, that of redemption and salvation. And it was fulfilled in Christ, the Son of God Who in order to restore man to his pristine beauty and to restore life as communion with God, became Man, took upon Himself our nature, with its thirst and hunger, with its desire for and love of, life.
And in Him life was revealed, given, accepted and fulfilled as total and perfect Eucharist, as total and perfect communion with God. He rejected the basic human temptation: to live “by bread alone,” He revealed that God and His kingdom are the real food, the real life of man. And this perfect eucharistic Life, filled with God, and, therefore Divine and immortal, He gave to all those who would believe in Him, i,e. find in Him the meaning and the content of their lives. Such is the wonderful meaning of the Last Supper. He offered Himself as the true food of man, because the Life revealed in Him is the true Life. And thus the movement of Divine Love which began in paradise with a Divine “take, eat. ..” (for eating is life for man) comes now “unto the end” with the Divine “take, eat, this is My Body…” (for God is life of man).
The Last Supper is the restoration of the paradise of bliss, of life as Eucharist and Communion.
But this hour of ultimate love is also that of the ultimate betrayal. Judas leaves the light of the Upper Room and goes into darkness. “And it was night” (John 13:30). Why does he leave? Because he loves, answers the Gospel, and his fateful love is stressed again and again in the hymns of Holy Thursday. It does not matter indeed, that he loves the “silver.” Money stands here for all the deviated and distorted love which leads man into betraying God. It is, indeed, love stolen from God and Judas, therefore, is the Thief.
When he does not love God and in God, man still loves and desires, for he was created to love and love is his nature, but it is then a dark and self-destroying passion and death is at its end. And each year, as we immerse ourselves into the unfathomable light and depth of Holy Thursday, the same decisive question is addressed to each one of us: do I respond to Christ’s love and accept it as my life, do I follow Judas into the darkness of his night?
The liturgy of Holy Thursday includes: a) Matins, b) Vespers and, following Vespers, the Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great. In the Cathedral Churches the special service of the Washing of Feet takes place after the Liturgy; while the deacon reads the Gospel, the Bishop washes the feet of twelve priests, reminding us that Christ’s love is the foundation of life in the Church and shapes all relations within it. It is also on Holy Thursday that Holy Chrism is consecrated by the primates of autocephalous Churches, and this also means that the new love of Christ is the gift we receive from the Holy Spirit on the day of our entrance into the Church.
At Matins the Troparion sets the theme of the day: the opposition between the love of Christ and the “insatiable desire” of Judas.
The Holy Apostle and Evangelist Mark
The Holy Apostle and Evangelist Mark, also known as John Mark (Acts 12:12), was one of the Seventy Apostles, and was also a nephew of Saint Barnabas (June 11). He was born at Jerusalem. The house of his mother Mary adjoined the Garden of Gethsemane. As Church Tradition relates, on the night that Christ was betrayed he followed after Him, wrapped only in a linen cloth.
He was seized by soldiers, and fled away naked, leaving the cloth behind (Mark 14:51-52). After the Ascension of the Lord, the house of his mother Mary became a place where Christians gathered, and a place of lodging for some of the Apostles (Acts 12:12).
Saint Mark was a very close companion of the Apostles Peter and Paul (June 29) and Barnabas. Saint Mark was at Seleucia with Paul and Barnabas, and from there he set off to the island of Cyprus, and he traversed the whole of it from east to west. In the city of Paphos, Saint Mark witnessed the blinding of the sorcerer Elymas by Saint Paul (Acts 13:6-12).
After working with the Apostle Paul, Saint Mark returned to Jerusalem, and then went to Rome with the Apostle Peter. From there, he set out for Egypt, where he established a local Church.
Saint Mark met Saint Paul in Antioch. From there he went with Saint Barnabas to Cyprus, and then he went to Egypt again, where he and Saint Peter founded many churches. Then he went to Babylon. From this city the Apostle Peter sent an Epistle to the Christians of Asia Minor, in which he calls Saint Mark his son (1 Pet 5:13).
When the Apostle Paul came to Rome in chains, Saint Mark was at Ephesus, where Saint Timothy (January 4) was bishop. Saint Mark went with him to Rome. There he also wrote his holy Gospel (ca. 62-63).
From Rome Saint Mark traveled to Egypt. In Alexandria he started a Christian school, which later produced such famous Fathers and teachers of the Church as Clement of Alexandria, Saint Dionysius of Alexandria (October 5), Saint Gregory Thaumatourgos (November 5), and others. Zealous for Church services, Saint Mark composed a Liturgy for the Christians of Alexandria.
Saint Mark preached the Gospel in the inner regions of Africa, and he was in Libya at Nektopolis.
During these journeys, Saint Mark was inspired by the Holy Spirit to go again to Alexandria and confront the pagans. There he visited the home of Ananias, and healed his crippled hand. The dignitary happily took him in, listened to his words, and received Baptism.
Following the example of Ananias, many of the inhabitants of that part of the city where he lived were also baptized. This roused the enmity of the pagans, and they wanted to kill Saint Mark. Having learned of this, Saint Mark made Ananias a bishop, and the three Christians Malchos, Sabinos, and Kerdinos were ordained presbyters to provide the church with leadership after his death.
The pagans seized Saint Mark when he was serving the Liturgy. They beat him, dragged him through the streets and threw him in prison. There Saint Mark was granted a vision of the Lord Jesus Christ, Who strengthened him before his sufferings. On the following day, the angry crowd again dragged the saint through the streets to the courtroom, but along the way Saint Mark died saying, “Into Your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.”
The pagans wanted to burn the saint’s body, but when they lit the fire, everything grew dark, thunder crashed, and there was an earthquake. The pagans fled in terror, and Christians took up the body of Saint Mark and buried it in a stone crypt. This was on April 4, 63. The Church celebrates his memory on April 25.
In the year 310, a church was built over the relics of Saint Mark. In 820, when the Moslem Arabs had established their rule in Egypt and oppressed the Christian Church, the relics of Saint Mark were transferred to Venice and placed in the church named for him.
In the ancient iconographic tradition, which adopted symbols for the holy Evangelists borrowed from the vision of Saint John the Theologian (Rev 4:7) and the prophecy of Ezekiel (Ez. 1:10), the holy Evangelist Mark is represented by a lion, symbolizing the might and royal dignity of Christ (Rev 5:5).
Saint Mark wrote his Gospel for Gentile Christians, emphasizing the words and deeds of the Savior which reveal His divine Power. Many aspects of his account can be explained by his closeness to Saint Peter. The ancient writers say that the Gospel of Mark is a concise record of Saint Peter’s preaching.
One of the central theological themes in the Gospel of Saint Mark is the power of God achieving what is humanly impossible. The Apostles performed remarkable miracles with Christ (Mark 16:20) and the Holy Spirit (Mark 13:11) working through them. His disciples were told to go into the world and preach the Gospel to all creatures (Mark 13:10, 16:15), and that is what they did.
(Translated into English by oca.org)
Saint Pious Basil
Saint Pious Basil was born to righteous parents, in 1692, in Russia. Having loved Christ ever since he was a young man, he left the world and lived in asceticism for a long time, in the hermitages of Russia, then in Mosenschi Mountains, close to Kiev, living in spiritual endeavour and often contacting the prayerful monks and other hermits experienced in the spiritual inner effort.
Because the Orthodox faith was persecuted in that part of the world and especially the monks, he fled his homeland, together with his disciple hieroschimonk Mihail, coming to Wallachia and settling at Dălhăuţi Monastery. There he was elected abbot, advising with wisdom and gentleness that community for almost 20 years.
As he wished to retire to a more secluded place, he left together with some of his disciples, 12 in all, for Poiana Mărului Skete, in Buzău Mountains, where he gave advice to the monastic community in this part of the country, since monks from Trăisteni, Cârnu, Răteşti, Ciolanu, Bonţeşti, Pometul, Rogozu, Coteşti, Găvanu and Valea Neagră Sketes, all of them in Buzău and Vrancea Mountains, came to receive his spiritual guidance.
One of his contemporaries wrote: “This man pleasant to God impressed all the fathers who were living there at the time and who were trying to understand the divine Scriptures. He taught them the teaching of the God-bearers Fathers, the spiritual wisdom and the good knowledge of the dogmas of the Holy Church of the East, of the Holy Canons and their right interpretation”. This venerable Father was the father confessor and adviser of Saint Paisios from Neamţ, whom he tonsured into monasticism in 1750, while they were at the Holy Mount Athos.
Venerable abbot Basil drafted some very useful writings for those willing to read and understand correctly the writings of the Holy Fathers on the prayer of the heart and on vigilance. He gathered facts from the lives and teachings of the monks, from the monastic regulations and church typikon, showing that the monks should not give blessing for eating meat. He has also written a nice essay about repentance.
After the patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, who were in Bucharest at the time, examined him, they blessed him and his teaching was considered completely Orthodox and useful for the soul. Towards the end of his life, he fell ill, but he endured thankfully and persisted in the prayer of the heart. He received the Holy Communion and passed away on 25 April 1767, venerated by all as an experienced teacher in the holy efforts and as an outstanding spiritual adviser.
On 5 March 2003, the Holy Synod of the Romanian Orthodox Church included Venerable Basil of Poiana Mărului in the calendar, being celebrated on 25 April.
Through his holy prayers, Lord Jesus Christ, our God, have mercy on us. Amen.