Holiday History: What is Maundy Thursday?

At the Last Supper, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. He also shared dinner with the twelve apostles, the origin of holy communion in Christian churches.

Plus, John 13:34 says he told them something new: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Today is Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter. It is the Latin version of the word for commandment, mandatum, that is generally considered to be the origin of the word Maundy.

Today is also known by other names including Holy Thursday. A wide variety of Christian denominations observe the day in a number of different ways.

Frequently, that includes a mass or a communion service, echoing the Last Supper. In his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul says “…that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”

Foot washing may also be part of a service today. Jesus humbled himself to wash the feet of his disciples to show the importance of service. He told them, “You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (John 13:13-15 NRSV)

Maundy Thursday ceremonial foot washing in France

The Last Supper is not a Biblical term, of course. However, it is recognized as a description of the meal Jesus would share with his disciples prior to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he would pray and eventually be arrested by the Romans. That would lead to trials, torture, and his death by crucifixion. It would also lead to his resurrection on Easter.

Rev. Alex Farmer, rector of Servants of Christ Anglican Church in Gainesville, said the day marks an important moment in the life of the church. 

“Maundy Thursday brings us to remembrance of Jesus’ institution of his new community, a community marked by serving one another (foot washing) and unified around his sacrifice for us (Last Supper),” Farmer said. “This night is a high feast day for us, where we give thanks for the Body of Christ.” 

As with many if not most Christian celebrations, traditions vary by denomination and by country. In the United Kingdom, Queen Elizabeth II has assiduously followed the example of giving Maundy coins to deserving senior citizens. The idea is to echo Jesus’ call to service in washing his disciples’ feet. For the first time in her 70-year reign, Elizabeth II will not be able to do this herself this year. Prince Charles will take her place.

In Seville, Spain, Maundy Thursday is the highlight of a week of pageantry and reverence known as the Semana Santa. Massive processions featuring floats of moveable wood adorned with sculptures all converge on the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See, better known as the Seville Cathedral.

Maundy Thursday is a legal holiday in all or parts of many countries, including such varied places as Honduras, The Philippines, Denmark, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In The Philippines, employees who are required to work today are entitled to extra compensation.

For many churches, their bells fall silent some time during Maundy Thursday. They will remain silent through Good Friday, not returning until Saturday or even Easter Sunday.

Because the Last Supper was a Passover meal, some churches will hold their own Passover Seders as a way to connect the current church to its Jewish roots.

While not observed by all Christians, many of the world’s 2.3 billion believers see Maundy Thursday as an important part of Holy Week and what is to come. It recognizes that Christ was preparing for his death on the cross that would occur during the anguish of Good Friday, as a way to pay for the sins of the world, and that he was also preparing for his resurrection on Easter, providing victory over death for all.

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