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.
The Cenacle, or "The Upper Room"
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 morning.
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
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
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 Catholics have a practice of visiting the tabernacles of seven
churches altogether, starting on this day and on through Holy Saturday,
as a sort of
"mini-pilgrimage." In Rome, the list of the seven churches was chosen
centuries ago and consists of the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano;
Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano; Basilica di San Paolo fuori le
mura; Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore; Basilica di San Lorenzo fuori
le mura; Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme; and Santuario della
Madonna del Divino Amore.
the Seven Churches. Click to enlarge
Outside of Rome, any seven Catholic churches would 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 Adoration Falling).
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."