What is Maundy Thursday?
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I don’t think there has ever been a child who didn’t think I was saying Monday Thursday during the Holy Week announcements. Growing up, I thought today was Monday Thursday until about age 14. And when I finally learned it was “Maundy,” no one could explain why it was called that!
But friends, I have trekked through the boring dictionaries of liturgy for you! ‘Maundy’ is derived from the latin ‘mandatum’ which means basically “commandment.” Because Thursday night of Holy Week corresponds to the Last Supper, it includes Jesus saying, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” This is the night of that New Commandment, in other words it is New Commandment Thursday.
Maundy Thursday services traditionally include a focus on the Last Supper, not only as the beginning of the Triduum (the Great Three Days), but also as the institution of the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, Communion. In many places a foot washing service is included, and the service often ends with the Stripping of the Altar.
A new trend has emerged for holding a Seder Dinner. Seder is the historic Jewish feast that was held on the night before Passover. Jesus and his disciples would have been meeting that night for such a feast of remembrance. The only problem with today’s Seders is that they are often based on Jewish traditions that were developed much later than the time of Jesus. Some have felt that we were displacing the authenticity of Judaism by holding these meals. In recent years attempts have been made to acknowledge that fact and to see the Seder as not only a remembrance of the Last Supper, but also as an acknowledgement that the Jewish people are especially beloved to Christians.
Interestingly, the Stripping of the Altar did not grow out of a liturgical decision made from “on high” (actually few liturgical developments were planned beforehand, but thats a story for another day). Instead, this tradition developed simply because the altar guilds needed to strip the altar after Maundy Thursday in preparation for the bare, stark altar on Good Friday. People stayed after worship to observe this, and it was soon experienced as a powerful spiritual moment. Today, the stripping and washing of the altar is often an integral part of Maundy Thursday.
Traditionally, there would be no eucharist on Good Friday. But in some places, sacrament is reserved from Maundy Thursday to be administered on Good Friday. Either way, Maundy Thursday ends with the starkness of the empty, bare altar. Our souls are bare as well, as we begin to walk through the rest of the weekend.
As we enter the Great Three Days, we need to be open to silence, to reverence, and to a somber tone. One thing I appreciate about Anglicanism is how it doesn’t shy away from these modes. In some traditions, the tone is always either happy or sad. But in the classic Christian tradition, there is another “key” we can worship in. For example, during the Stripping of the Altar. We sit in silence and we depart in silence. This is not intended to be sad or depressing. It is contemplative, reflective, and reverent. If that’s new for you, try it out this year. Just experience it openly and then reflect on your experience later.
Maundy Thursday doesn’t end on Maundy Thursday. This New Commandment and the Holy Meal are instituted this night, not completed. Jesus was shaping his disciples around servanthood and fellowship. Serving one another, serving the least and the outcast, and seeing ourselves not as masters but as those who serve. And this servanthood is grounded on holy fellowship, with God and man at the table. Maundy Thursday was only the beginning! We are called to be Maundy Christians every day.
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