History of Maundy Thursday: a Shere or Green Thursday?
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.
Alternatives Meanings of Maundy
Later tradition, however, suggests the term comes either from the Saxon word mand, which afterward became maund — a name for a basket, and subsequently for any gift or offering contained in the basket — or from the French word maund, from Old French mendier, which in turn comes from Latin mendicare, meaning “to beg.” It’s the same root from which we get “mendicant order” or those that rely on the giving of alms.
In both cases, they converge in the English tradition, dating back to England in 1210, of the Crown giving gifts to the poor on this date in a container called a “maund” or “maundy purse.”
Medieval Maundy Thursday Traditions
During medieval times, Maundy Thursday was sometimes called Shere Thursday, where shere means “pure” or “guilt-free.” (“Shere” may also have had something to do with shearing, as it was customary for medieval men to cut their hair and beards on this day and priests to have their tonsures re-cut.) Medieval Christians believed they could achieve purity by performing penance throughout Lent.
The Catholic Church recognized the achievement by formally reconciling penitents and, in some areas, giving them a green branch. During Lent, new converts who had prepared their hearts and memorized their creed were taken through baptism at the Thursday service.
Because of the Maundy Thursday connection with baptism, it has long been a Catholic custom to consecrate the year’s supply of holy oils for baptism, anointing the sick, and Confirmation on this day. Eastern Orthodox clergy take time during the liturgy to prepare the “Amnos,” the Communion elements given to the sick throughout the year.
Roman Catholic Celebration of Maundy Thursday
Protestant Practices of Maundy Thursday
Protestant churches that observe Maundy Thursday may offer a dramatic re-enactment of the Last Supper or another special Communion service. Foot-washing services and adapted Passover Seders are also fairly popular, especially in Anglican, Lutheran, and other liturgical Protestant churches. Not surprisingly, Protestants generally stick close to Biblical texts when constructing a special service. Catholic and Orthodox traditions add a few other elements to the observance.
Europe and Maundy Thursday
A few European countries have added cultural observances to the list of church traditions. In England, the monarch distributes small purses of Maundy Money to elderly residents of the town selected for each year’s service. The practice dates back to 1210, when King John of England gave garments, knives, food, and other gifts to poor men on Maundy Thursday, following Christ’s mandate to love others.
Germans, who call the day Gründonnerstag or “Green Thursday,” eat green vegetables, especially spinach. The association with green may come from the gift of green branches to penitents or from a confusion of the old German words meaning “green” (grun) and “to weep” (greinen), connected to the English word “to groan.”
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
I always wondered about Maundy/Green Thursday. Washing feet as Jesus did is the only observance of the day I have seen happen at my church. thanks for your explanation.
Hi Bill, Thanks for this wonderful article. Though I have been attending the Thursday special communion service for many years, I did not know the real reason until today. Thanks again !!!
I always wondered why my mother served green on Maundy Thursday. Being from German descent, I now understand. Thank you for this enlightening article. Blessed Easter
Good to know that not only the Irish are invested in green.
Our priest used the word “triduum” in today’s e-mail to the congregation. I am not a “cradle Episcopalian,” so the term was new to me. I was glad to see it defined in your excellent article.
Nicholas Orme’s 2021 book, “Going to Church in Medieval England” says that the original meaning of “shere” or “sheer” was “to purify” (by absolution, and perhaps later by washing the church altars), and that the etymological confusion with “shear” was a use that had only grown up by the late fifteenth century. The OED gives examples of the earlier use from, effectively, the beginnings of the English language – 1200AD and later. But by the reformation in England you were expected to shave on Shere Thursday, priests were expected to have their tonsures re-cut.