This day, Maundy Thursday (also "Holy Thursday" or "Shire
Thursday"1) commemorates Christ's Last
Supper and the initiation of the Eucharist. Its name of "Maundy" comes from
the Latin word mandatum, meaning "command." This stems from Christ's words
in John 13:34, "A new commandment I give unto you." It is the first of the
three days known as the "Triduum," and after the Vigil tonight, and until
the Vigil of Easter, a more profoundly somber attitude prevails (most especially
during the hours between Noon and 3:00 PM on Good Friday). Raucous amusements
should be set aside...
The Last Supper took place in "the upper room" of the house believed to have
been owned by John Mark and his mother, Mary (Acts 12:12). This room, also
the site of the Pentecost, is known as the "Coenaculum" or the "Cenacle"
and is referred to as "Holy and glorious Sion, mother of all churches" in
St. James' Liturgy. At the site of this place -- our first Christian church
-- a basilica was built in the 4th century. It was destroyed by Muslims and
later re-built by the Crusaders. Underneath the place is the tomb of David.
After the Supper, He went outside the Old City of Jerusalem, crossed the
Kidron Valley, and came to the Garden of Gethsemani, a place whose name means
"Olive Press," and where olives still grow today. There He suffered in three
ineffable ways: He knew exactly what would befall Him physically and mentally
-- every stroke, every thorn in the crown He would wear, every labored breath
He would try to take while hanging on the Cross, the pain in each glance
at His mother; He knew that He was taking on all the sins of the world --
all the sins that had ever been or ever will be committed; and, finally,
He knew that, for some people, this Sacrifice would not be fruitful because
they would reject Him. Here He was let down by His Apostles when they fell
asleep instead of keeping watch, here is where He was further betrayed by
Judas with a kiss, and where He was siezed by "a great multitude with swords
and clubs, sent from the chief Priests and the ancients of the people" and
taken before Caiphas, the high priest, where he was accused of blasphemy,
beaten, spat upon, and prepared to be taken to Pontius Pilate tomorrow
As for today's liturgies, in the morning, the local Bishop will offer a special
Chrism Mass during which blesses the oils used in Baptism, Confirmation,
Holy Orders, Unction, and the consecration of Altars and churches.
At the evening Mass, after the bells ring during the Gloria, they are rung
no more until the Easter Vigil (a wooden clapper called a "crotalus" is used
insead). Parents explain this to their children by saying that the all the
bells fly to Rome after the Gloria of the Mass on Maundy Thursday to visit
the Popes. Children are told that the bells sleep on the roof of St. Peter's
Basilica, and, bringing Easter eggs with them, start their flight home at
the Gloria at the Easter Vigil, when when they peal wildly.
Then comes the Washing of the Feet after the homily, a rite performed by
Christ upon His disciples to prepare them for the priesthood and the marriage
banquet they will offer, and which is rooted in the Old Testament practice
of foot-washing in preparation for the marital embrace (II Kings 11:8-11,
Canticles 5:3) and in the ritual ablutions performed by the High Priest of
the Old Covenant (contrast Leviticus 16:23-24 with John 13:3-5). The priest
girds himself with a cloth and washes the feet of 12 men he's chosen to represent
the Apostles for the ceremony.
The rest of the Mass after the Washing of the Feet has a special form, unlike
all other Masses. After the Mass, the priest takes off his chasuble and vests
in a white cope. He returns to the Altar, incenses the Sacred Hosts in the
ciborium, and, preceded by the Crucifer and torchbearers, carries the Ciborium
to the "Altar of Repose," also called the "Holy Sepulchre," where it will
remain "entombed" until the Mass of the Presanctified on Good Friday.
Then there follows the Stripping of the Altars, during which everything is
removed as Antiphons and Psalms are recited. All the glorious symbols of
Christ's Presence are removed to give us the sense of His entering most fully
into His Passion. Christ enters the Garden of Gethsemani; His arrest is imminent.
Fortescue's "Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described" tells us: "From now
till Saturday no lamps in the church are lit. No bells are rung. Holy Water
should be removed from all stoups and thrown into the sacrarium. A small
quantity is kept for blessing the fire on Holy Saturday or for a sick call."
The joyful signs of His Presence won't return until Easter begins with the
Easter Vigil Mass on Saturday evening.
And, of course, tomorrow's Matins and Lauds may be read as part of the "tenebrae
service" (see Spy Wednesday).
As to customs,
many families have a practice of visiting the tabernacles of three or seven
nearby churches after the Mass on this day as a sort of "mini-pilgrimage"
(any nearby Catholic churches will do). Some families visit the churches
directly after the evening Mass; others go home and wake up in the middle
of the night to make the visits (though since churches are rarely open all
night these days, this would be hard to do). The spirit of the visits to
the churches is keeping vigil in the Garden of Gethsemani while Jesus prayed
before His arrest. Matthew 26:36 "Then Jesus came with them into a country
place which is called Gethsemani; and he said to his disciples: Sit you here,
till I go yonder and pray."
In Germany, Maundy Thursday is known as "Green Thursday" (Grundonnerstag),
and the traditional foods are green vegetables and green salad, especially
a spinach salad. In Latin countries, Jordan almonds ("confetti") are eaten
today and also throughout Eastertide.
Back when Kings
and Queens of England were Catholic, they, too, would wash the feet of 12
subjects, seeing the footwashing rite also as an example of service and humility.
They would also give money to the poor on this day, a practice is said to
have begun with St. Augustine of Canterbury in A.D. 597, and performed by
Kings since Edward II. Now the footwashing isn't done (it was given up in
the 18th c.), but a special coin called "Maundy Money" is minted and given
to the selected elderly of a representative town.
On this day, one may gain a plenary indulgence, under the usual conditions,
by reciting the Tantum Ergo (Down in
1 The name "Shire Thursday" is explained in "Festival"
printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1511: "Yf a man aske why Shere Thursday is
called so, ye may saye that in Holy Churche it is called (Cena Domini) our
Lordes Souper daye; for that day he souped with this Discyples openly; and
after souper he gave them his flesshe and his blode to ete and drynke. It
is also in Englysshe called Sher Thursdaye, for in olde faders dayes the
people wold that daye sher there heedes, and clyppe theyr berdes, and poll
theyr heedes, and so make them honest ayenst Ester Day."