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.
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.” In both of these cases, they converge in the English tradition, dating back to King John of England in 1210, of the crown giving gifts to the poor on this date in a container called a “maund” or “maundy purse.”
In the Roman Catholic tradition, Maundy Thursday Evening marks the beginning of Easter Triduum. A triduum is a space of three days — usually accompanying a church festival or holy days — that is devoted to special prayer and observance. Maundy Thursday is followed by Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and concludes with evening prayers on Easter Sunday.
Protestant churches that do 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 more 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.
During medieval times, Maundy Thursday was sometimes called Shere Thursday, where shere means “pure” or “guilt-free.” (“Shere” also had something to do with shearing, as it was customary for medieval men to cut their hair and beards on this day.) 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. New converts who had prepared their hearts and memorized their creed during Lent 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 conduct Confirmation on this day. Eastern Orthodox clergy take time during the liturgy to prepare the “Amnos,” the Communion elements that will be given to the sick throughout the year.
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. King John of England gave garments, knives, food, and other gifts to poor men on Maundy Thursday in accordance with 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