Amid the bustle of Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter, Maundy Thursday is easy to overlook. Few calendars label it, and some churches don’t observe it at all, though it may be the oldest of the Holy Week observances. It’s worth asking why, and how, generations of Christians have revered this day.
The Middle English word “Maundy” comes from the Latin mandatum, meaning “command.” The reference is Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 13:34:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.“
Jesus spoke those words at the Last Supper, which took place the Thursday before Easter.
Sunset tonight, March 27, marks the beginning of Passover. Exodus 12 in the Hebrew Bible tells the story of Passover from the life of Moses. Ten plagues were visited upon the Egyptian pharaoh (starring Yul Brenner in The Ten Commandments, but he was much better in “The King and I”) to get his attention to release the Children of Israel from bondage.
The final plague was the death of the first-born son visited upon the land by the angel of death. The Jews were to smear the blood of a sacrificed lamb upon their doorposts so that the angel of death would “Passover” them unharmed. Pharaoh relented and released the Israelites. The Israelite slaves took the “road out” of Egypt; the Greek word is Exodus.
Seder of Passover
In making their hasty exit, the Jews did not have time to let their bread rise, so in commemoration, they celebrate the Passover Seder (“order”) meal with unleavened bread (matzo), bitter herbs, and roast lamb to be eaten in traveling garb. The term Passover is often used interchangeably with the term Feast of Unleavened Bread at least in St. Luke’s Gospel (Chapter 22:1,) though the first century Pharisees marked the seven-day feast to begin on the day after Passover. Nevertheless, during the seven days celebration following Passover, only unleavened bread was eaten. In present-day celebration, all yeast is to be removed from a Jewish house during this time.
HISTORY OF PALM SUNDAY
The week we now call Holy Week or Passion Week started with Palm Sunday. Why was this week so important that three of the gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) devote a full third of their contents to reporting this week, and The Fourth Gospel (John) dedicates its entire last half?
Jerusalem, which had a normal population of about 50,000 at the time of Jesus, had at least tripled in size because of the influx of pilgrims celebrating the Jewish holiday Passover. Early Sunday morning, Jesus made his dramatic public entry into the city. This was the end of any privacy and safety his ministry had afforded previously. It marked the beginning of an inevitable collision course with the religious and political authorities: both Jewish and Roman. (more…)
The Greek word Συνέδριον, sunedrion, means literally “sitting together” and is usually translated as “council.” It is referred to in the New Testament alternately as “the Great Law-Court,” “the Court of Seventy-One,” and “the rulers and elders and scribes.”
It was the supreme theocratic court of the Jews and reflected the local autonomy which first the Greek and later the Roman powers granted the Jewish nation during their successive sovereignty over the Land of Israel.
Origin of the Sanhedrin
Its origin can be traced back as far as 200 B.C. during what is called the “Intertestamental Period,” meaning that period extending about 400 years after the close of the Old Testament to the beginning of the New Testament writings. We hear about it during the Hasmonean period, following the Maccabean Revolt — which you can read more about in the History of Chanukah — and there are references to it in the Mishnah section of the Talmud. But there is no reference to this body in the original Old Testament. The council had about 70 members plus the ruling high priest. Three professional groups composed the council:
- High priests — the acting high priest and former high priests, and members of the chief-priestly families
- Elders — tribal and family heads of the people and the priesthood
- Scribes — legal professionals
Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great (whom we met in the Christmas story) and Malthake. After his father’s death in 4 B.C., he was made tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea in the Trans-Jordan area of Palestine which he ruled as a client state of the Roman Empire.
Like his father, he was a lover of great and artistic architectural works and built the beautiful Tiberias (named after guess who) as the capital of his kingdom on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, which was renamed to Sea of Tiberias. Similar to his father, you could say he was an Italophile. Jesus appeared before him during his many trials on Good Friday, having been sent to him by Pilate. But after the audience, Antipas sent Jesus back to Pilate.
HISTORY OF PONTIUS PILATE
The Roman governor who presided over the trial of Jesus and ordered his crucifixion had a complex background. The name Pontius Pilate provides two valuable clues to his background and ancestry.
The family name, Pontius, was that of a prominent clan among the Samnites, hill cousins of the Latin Romans. They had almost conquered Rome in several fierce wars. The Pontii were of noble blood, but when Rome finally absorbed the Samnites, their aristocracy was demoted to the Roman equestrian or middle-class order rather than the higher senatorial order.
It is Pilate’s praenomen, his personal name Pilatus that proves almost conclusively that he was of Samnite origin. Pilatus means “armed-with-a-javelin.” The pilum or javelin was six feet long, half wooden and half pointed iron shaft, which the Samnite mountaineers hurled at their enemies with devastating results. Its hardened iron tip could pierce shields and body armor. The Romans quickly copied it, and it was this pilum in fact, during the Late Republican period that made the Roman Empire possible.
As we begin Passion Week next weekend, what was the historical climate of Easter Week almost 2,000 years ago surrounding the last week of the life of Jesus of Nazareth? This was a man born to die, not just in the normal sense but also in some special sense. Jesus entered Jerusalem amidst a torrent of turbulence: religious, political, military, social, and economical.
At that time, the events in ancient Palestine are rarely linked to the larger context that controlled the province: the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, the culmination of Jesus’ career was a tale of two cities – both Jerusalem and Rome. In this series on Easter, we’ll discuss:
The Events of Easter
- Palm Sunday: what was the climate of the city when Jesus entered?
- The Trial: what took place during the trials, what laws were involved?
- The Crucifixion: what was involved on Good Friday?
- The Resurrection: what do we know about it?
HISTORY OF THE SPRING
In Colorado we have a saying, we begin the first day of Spring in the same way we began the Fall: with snow. This symmetry is relevant as both the beginning of Spring and Fall coincide with the Equinox. This word is made up of two Latin root words aequus and nox meaning “equal night” referring to the fact that daylight and night time are equal in duration.
Date of Spring
This year, the vernal equinox (Spring) occurs on March 20 at 09:37 UTC. This means Temps Universel Coordonne, or Coordinated Universal Time if you don’t speak French, roughly equivalent to Greenwich Mean Time if you’re British, or Zulu Time if you’re a pilot. The Autumnal Equinox occurs 6 months later. Since each equinox occurs at the same time whether in the northern hemisphere as the southern hemisphere, though the seasons are reversed, it is becoming common to call the (northern) vernal equinox the March Equinox and the Autumnal Equinox the September Equinox.
HISTORY OF ST JOSEPH
Today, March 19, is Saint Joseph’s Day, or the Feast of St Joseph. It is celebrated by the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran Churches worldwide. The terms feast and festival are often used interchangeably and often refer to a religious holiday.
What is the history of the holiday and of Joseph himself?
Why don’t we hear more about St Joseph’s Day?
I cannot think of St Joseph’s Day without recalling the skits from the ’70s Saturday Night Live by comedian and show writer Don Novello as the (fictitious) Father Guido Sarducci, papal legate and gossip columnist for The Vatican Enquirer. He talked about St Patrick as compared to St Joseph:
“You see, [St Patrick] was a good-a saint. But he wasn’t a great-a saint. Like-a Saint Joseph, the patron saint of Italy. He’s a great-a saint and not just a good-a saint. Saint Joseph’s named day is-a coming up-March 19th. But-a, there won’t-a be no parades, no parties, not even a song for Saint-a Joseph.
“And-a the reason is-a because of-a Saint Patrick. You know, it’s just like having a birthday two days after Christmas-you just don’t get-a the same attention. And it just-a breaks my heart that he was a great-a saint, and this good, mediocre saint gets all-a the glory…
“But-a you know, he did-a invent-a Saint-a Joseph’s Aspirins. Think of all-a the lives he’s-a saved with-a those tiny little aspirins. People take-a the Saint-a Joseph’s Aspirins to-a prevent-a the heart attack.”
While St Joseph’s Day is It is not a holy day of obligation (to attend mass) for Catholics in the United States, it is a big deal in Europe. It is celebrated as Father’s Day in Spain, Portugal, and especially Italy.