Holy Thursday and the Last Supper is the culmination of the Divine Drama in the Greek Orthodox Church, as it is the last day of Jesus Christ on earth.
It is the day that Judas Iscariot betrays Jesus and on which the Last Supper, during which Jesus gathers his Apostles to tell them about the Mystery of Holy Communion and how to live their lives ever after in humility, takes place.
In the Supper, a crucial date in Greek Orthodox Easter, Jesus instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist with the communion of the Apostles.
In the Greek Orthodox Church, Holy Thursday and the Last Supper are dedicated to the remembrance of four events that are described in the Gospels and which occurred shortly before the Crucifixion.
One of these events is the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, which is the supper of Jesus Christ with the Twelve Apostles as described in the Gospels of Matthew (26, 17-30a), Mark, (14, 12-26) and Luke (22: 7-23),
The second of these events is comprised of the washing of the feet of the Twelve Apostles by Jesus Christ, as described in the Gospels of Matthew (23: 6-12), Luke (22: 24-28), and John (13: 1-20).
Jesus’ prayer to his Father after the Last Supper on Holy Thursday and shortly before his arrest, as described in the Gospel of John, is the third of the events before the Crucifixion (17: 1-26).
Lastly, the betrayal of Judas which resulted in the arrest of Jesus, as described in the Gospels of Matthew (26, 47-56), Mark (14, 43-50), Luke (22, 47-53) and John (18, 1-11) is the fourth event before the Crucifixion.
The symbolism of the Last Supper
The ritual that Jesus followed at the Last Supper on Holy Thursday is full of symbolism. Jesus knew that the hour had come for Him to leave this world and go to the Father.
Before starting the meal, Christ poured water into a bowl and started to wash his disciples’ feet. Initially, the Apostles complained and refused to allow their Lord and Teacher to wash their feet. Jesus was showing them they should be humble and serve their fellow men. He said:
“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them,” Jesus said to them.”
The Last Supper is called a mystery not because it occurred in secret but because Christ wanted to reveal to his disciples the mystery of the Holy Communion.
That is why He said to them, “Receive and eat,” offering them bread (His body) and wine (His blood), which in Greek is:
“Λάβετε φάγετε τοῦτό μου ἐστι τὸ σῶμά… Τοῦτό ἐστι τὸ αἷμά μου τὸ τῆς καινῆς διαθήκης τὸ περὶ πολλῶν ἐκχυνόμενον.”
At the Last Supper, Christ taught by example, showing the value of humility and self-sacrifice rather than by exhibiting external, miraculous, godly powers.
Judas left the table, carrying out his plan of betrayal. After the Last Supper, Jesus handed over the Sacrament of the Eucharist to his disciples and then made the final teaching to His disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Jesus’ last prayer and arrest
When the disciples left, Jesus remained and prayed to His Father. His prayer revealed the depths of His agony and sorrow. He had to experience suffering and learn obedience as humans do.
In the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, the Son of God assumed the role of a servant. He lived a truly human existence. Though He was Himself sinless, He allied Himself with the whole human race and experienced the same tests and trials.
After His prayer, Judas arrived at the Garden, accompanied by Roman soldiers. He pointed to Jesus, and gave him a kiss. Jesus was arrested and taken to High Priests Annas and Caiaphas.
Then Jesus was put on trial. They asked him if he was Jesus Christ and He admitted it. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. The path of the Passion then begins from the Garden of Gethsemane to Golgotha and the Crucifixion.
Time and place of the Last Supper
Historians estimate that the date of the Crucifixion took place between 30 and 36 AD. Isaac Newton and Colin Humphreys have ruled out the years 31, 32, 35, and 36 on astronomical grounds, leaving April 7, 30 AD and April 3, 33 AD as possible Crucifixion dates.
Therefore, Humphreys proposed narrowing down the date of the Last Supper as having occurred in the evening of Wednesday, April 1st, 33 AD.
While church tradition assumes that the Last Supper was held on the evening before Crucifixion Day, there is no Gospel saying that the meal took place on the night before Jesus died, or Holy Thursday as tradition has it.
Greek Holy Thursday traditions
Οn the morning of Holy Thursday many believers receive Holy Communion. For those who fast strictly during Holy Week (without consuming any oils), on Holy Thursday, they may partake of Holy Communion.
Parishioners are able to consume the oils since they are celebrating the tradition of the Eucharist from Christ to the Church and honor this day separately.
On Holy Thursday, women dye all the Easter eggs for the family. Traditionally, the eggs are dyed red in order to symbolize the blood of Christ. The tsoureki, the Greek Easter bread, symbolizes the body of Christ, as in the Last Supper.
In recent years, eggs with different colors and decorations can be found in many households to please the children.
Even though it is a day of mourning for Greek Orthodox Christians, households are filled with the smell of the Easter tsoureki, the special sweet bread made to be eaten on Easter Sunday.
The kneading of the tsoureki is of great importance. The loaves are usually round, featuring a red-dyed egg in the middle. Depending on the region in which the tsoureki bread is made, it will contain various spices and have different shapes.
They also have different names, depending on the region. Names such as koutsounes, kouzounakia, kofinia, kalathakia, doxaria, avgoules, lazarakia among others, but all refer to the same sweet loaf.
Smaller tsourekia are also made for children usually in the shapes of animals.
Late on Holy Thursday, women gather in churches across the country to decorate the Epitaph and mourn for Jesus.