What is Maundy Thursday/Holy Thursday?

What is Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday?
Brother Lawrence Damien Cos

Dear family
Palm Sunday has come and gone. Holy Week has begun and we are about to witness and be a part of the last few moments of Christ’s life. The first major event of that week comes on Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday if you are from a Catholic tradition. It celebrates two main events foot washing and the institution of the Eucharist or Communion. The term Maundy comes from the Latin and means command. It is taken from the command of Jesus at the last supper when he says
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Thus Maundy Thursday is about love and how to do it as modeled for us by Jesus himself. It is also the first day of the Easter Triduum and the last day of Lent liturgically. A Triduum is a period of three days of prayer before a Roman Catholic feast. Thus the Easter Triduum is a period three days of prayer leading up to Easter.

As I said earlier Maundy Thursday/Holy Thursday commemorates foot washing and the institution of the Eucharist/Communion. Let’s start by looking at foot washing first. In Catholic as well as many other churches foot washing is celebrated once a year as part of the Maundy Thursday service. It is found un John the 13th chapter There Jesus arises from supper, removes his outer clothing, wraps a towel around his waist and precedes to wash the feet of the disciples. He also commands his disciples to go and do likewise.

At the time of Christ poor people went around either barefoot or wore sandals which did little more than protect the soles of the feet. They were open at the top therefore easily attracted dust and mud from their frequent travels about. Therefore the need to wash feet frequently and in a hot, waterless, country surprisingly facilities for performing such a necessary act was not common. Hence it was a natural and an act of kindness and respect to offer a spontaneous gesture a basin of water to a travel stained wayfarer to whom one extended the hospitality of one’s house. If the host really wanted to honor the guest he would kneel and pour the water himself over the feet of his guest. However at the very least he would have a servant ready to do the job. Not to offer water to a visitor was seen as a sign of great neglect, rudeness or as an insult. Thus Jesus complains about this neglect when he says

“Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. 45 You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. 46 You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. 47 Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.”Then He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Another example of this act of washing the feet of guests in found in the example of Abraham. One day he is under some trees at his home in Mamre during the heat of the day. He is approached by three men whom Abraham runs to greet and bows before. He then begs them to stay and accept his hospitality: and let water be brought to wash their feet and food be brought to feed them. They accept his offer and Abraham prepares a feast for them of the best he has.

We see this idea again in the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. When the angels arrive in Sodom they plan to sleep in the city square. However Lot persuades them to enter his home where they can wash their feet and food is offered them.

When David sends servants to offer a proposal of marriage to her upon the death of her husband she accepts and says she will wash the feet of the servants of my Lord.

Saint Paul when enumerating on the qualities required by widows wishing to have their widowhood formally consecrated by the church is she must have washed the feet of the saints.

Observance of Practice in Early Centuries

Foot washing became especially common in monasteries as a sign of hospitality. Saint Benedict wrote
“Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ,
for He is going to say,
"I came as a guest, and you received Me" (Matt. 25:35).
And to all let due honor be shown,
especially to the domestics of the faith and to pilgrims.
As soon as a guest is announced, therefore,
let the Superior or the brethren meet him
with all charitable service.
And first of all let them pray together,
and then exchange the kiss of peace.
For the kiss of peace should not be offered
until after the prayers have been said,
on account of the devil's deceptions.
In the salutation of all guests, whether arriving or departing,
let all humility be shown.
Let the head be bowed
or the whole body prostrated on the ground
in adoration of Christ, who indeed is received in their persons.
After the guests have been received and taken to prayer,
let the Superior or someone appointed by him sit with them.
Let the divine law be read before the guest for his edification,
and then let all kindness be shown him.
The Superior shall break his fast for the sake of a guest,
unless it happens to be a principal fast day
which may not be violated.

The brethren, however, shall observe the customary fasts.
Let the Abbot give the guests water for their hands;
and let both Abbot and community wash the feet of all guests.
After the washing of the feet let them say this verse:
"We have received Your mercy, O God,
in the midst of Your temple" (Ps.47[48]:10).
In the reception of the poor and of pilgrims
the greatest care and solicitude should be shown,
because it is especially in them that Christ is received;
for as far as the rich are concerned,
the very fear which they inspire
wins respect for them”.
At Milan and in Northern Africa Gaul and Spain, the practice of foot washing the feet of candidates for baptism became common. However Rome never adopted the practice. There can be two reasons for this.

First foot washing was seen as a thing belonging to the practice of hospitality rather than to the baptismal rite.
Second and perhaps the true reason is because of the number of catechumens to be baptized on Holy Saturday.

According to Saint Augustine the practice of the washing the feet of the newly baptized on the third or eighth day in fear that that it would become a part of the sacrament. The Council of Elvira (held somewhere between 300- 324 CE) also took a unfavorable to the observance of foot washing as a sacrament.

St. Augustine, in a letter to Januarius, speaks of the washing of the feet: "As to the feet-washing, since the Lord recommended this, . . . the question has arisen at what time it is best, by literal performance of this work, to give public instruction in the important duty which it illustrates, and this time [of Lent] was suggested in order that the lesson taught by it might make a deeper and more serious impression. Many, however, have not accepted this as a custom, and some have denied it any place among our ceremonies" (Ep. lv, 18). In another letter to the same correspondent he speaks of another washing [on Maundy Thursday], but one that had no immediate religious significance: "If you ask me whence originated the custom of using the bath on that day [Maundy Thursday], nothing occurs to me, when I think of it, as more likely than that it was to avoid the offense to decency which must have been given at the baptismal font if the bodies of those to whom that rite was to be administered were not washed on some preceding day from the uncleanness consequent upon their strict abstinence from ablutions during Lent; and that this particular day was chosen for the purpose because of its being the anniversary of the institution of the Supper" (Ep. liv, 7).

The question then arises as to when the practice of foot washing was introduced into the church as a sacrament and a distinctive part of the liturgy of the day. In 694 CE at the Council of Toledo who said
“Since Our Lord has not disdained to wash the feet of His disciples, why should we refuse to emulate the example He gives us? It now happens that, partly from slackness, partly from custom, in sundry churches the priests no longer wash the feet of the brethren on Maundy Thursday” .." The council then threatened with excommunication such bishops and priests who refuse to follow Our Lord’s example by washing the feet of their subjects.

Saint Isidore speaks of a rite which is seen as a variation of the washing of feet.

"Inasmuch as Our Lord on this day washed the feet of His disciples," says the Spanish Doctor, "for that reason, on that same day, the altars, the walls and pavement of churches are washed and the vessels consecrated to the divine worship are purified."

The Ordines Romani (if the twelfth and thirteenth centuries show the ceremony in use at Rome, where in fact there were two washings of feet. The Pope in person first washed the feet of twelve sub deacons at the end of the Mass of the day, and, after the repast, he and his whole court washed the feet of thirteen poor men. The latter ceremony alone survives to-day.

So what is the significance of foot washing for us in the 21st century? While we are celebrating an historical event and doing it because Jesus commands us to I believe there is much more to this event. In describing the even John says Jesus arises from supper, removes his outer garments and wraps his towel around his waist and pours water into a basin and begins to wash the feet of his disciples. For us as Christians this speaks to us to let go of our outer man and letting all pride, selfishness and anything else of the world that keeps us from being able to become like Christ. It is to be stripped naked before the Lord so to be ready to receive our new bodies through the resurrection of Christ on Easter morn. It is to be like the church where the altar is stripped bare, all vestments are removed and no mass is performed after Maundy Thursday until Easter Vigil when Christ rises from the dead, bells are rung in many churches, and we officially welcome Christ back from the dead. Good Friday is the only day in the year when no mass is celebrated anywhere in the world. The host which is served that day is from the left over host that was blesses on Maundy Thursday.

Some may react as did St. Peter did initially when he refused to allow Jesus to wash his feet. This may come from a sense of pride, being better than someone else or simply refusal to be humbled. Whatever the reason Jesus says to us the same thing to us as he says to Peter that if he doesn’t wash Peter’s feet then Peter will have no part of him. Pride will block us from receiving all God has for us and from becoming all God wants us to be. It is only through humbleness that we can receive anything from the Lord. Saint Peter says:

“Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time”
Thus we show God’s love by denying self and becoming a servant to all. There is also in this chapter I think something else that bears noting. According to John foot washing takes place before the last supper and Judas receiving the sop and betraying Jesus. That would mean that Jesus washed the feet of Judas Iscariot even though he Judas would be betraying him in a few hours. This to me speaks a lot about the character of Jesus. Even at this late moment Jesus is showing his love for Judas and honoring him by washing his feet. Even though Jesus knows what is coming and who will be responsible for it he still shows love and respect for Judas. It is my belief that Judas at this point could have changed his and drawn back. It is only after Judas takes the sop from Jesus that John says Satan entered his heart. From that point on Judas’s fate is sealed and acting under satanic influence he will betray Jesus. After the act is done and Judas comes to himself no longer under satanic influence he realizes what he has done and goes and hangs himself in shame.

How would we have handled the situation? Would we have kicked Judas out and had nothing to do with him? Perhaps we would have let him stay but simply refused to wash his feet? Maybe we would have exposed him to the whole group so they could all know what a rotten scoundrel Judas was? Jesus maintains Judas integrity and even after he leaves no one has any idea why he has left. Is that what we would do? Could we forgive and continue to love the one who would ultimately set in motion the events leading to our death? Unforgiveness blocks God from being to fully forgive us and bless us. In the Lord’s Prayer we ask to be forgiven on the same basis we forgive others. So how do we fare? Do we end up on the short end of the stick? Can we be like St. Stephen who forgave his enemies even as they were stoning him to death? Jesus modeled true forgiveness on the cross for us. According to Luke Jesus forgives his enemies asking God to not hold this sin against them. Later when a thief being crucified next him asks to be remembered by Jesus when Jesus comes into his kingdom is told that that day he would be with Jesus in paradise. That is what I believe if we will truly enter the spirit of foot washing will happen. It brings us to the end of ourselves so we are no longer concerned with ourselves and what is happening to us. Instead we become concerned about others and helping them. In all the cases cited here the people had done things which deserved punishment and death, Yet there was a deeper need being expressed here. All were in need of forgiveness, healing, restoration and biblical justice. Biblical justice is to restore someone to where they were prior to their fall or to an even better place. Jesus does that for us by forgiving us and then seating us in heavenly places with him. He also is building a place where we will be with him for eternity. How about us can we give biblical justice to others?

As we move on the following is a ceremony I found that is used for foot washing on Maundy Thursday/Holy Thursday.

"Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ washed the feet of His Apostles. I wash thy feet in order that thou mayest do in like manner to guests and strangers who come to thee. If thou do this, thou shalt have life everlasting, world without end. The ceremony is an integral part of the ritual of Maundy Thursday, and should not be omitted wherever the day is observed with full liturgical splendor. The ritual is simple, but varies somewhat according to different countries.
The bishop, or celebrant, is vested in a purple cope, assisted by a deacon and sub deacon in white dalmatics. The deacon begins by singing the Gospel of the Mass (John, xiii. 1—15), which contains an account of Our Lord's washing of the Apostles' feet. The celebrant then puts off the cope and a white towel is tied round his waist. Kneeling in turn before each of the "apostles," he washes the feet (or the right foot) with water poured out by the deacon, wipes the foot with a towel and kisses it. When he has washed the feet of all, he washes his hands, resumes the cope, and chants the beautiful prayer in which he prays that the Lord God Himself would help him worthily to imitate His own example according as He commanded, to the end that, even as by this ceremony external and purely material stains are washed away, so the sins that are within may be blotted out from the souls of all. These words sufficiently explain the twofold purpose of the rite: on the one hand, we obey Our Lord's injunction to do to one another what He first did to His Apostles, and secondly, the rite is no mere imitative gesture devoid of spiritual virtue, for no rite of the Church is ever barren; on the contrary, it is a sacramental, endowed with spiritual energy for the cleansing of the soul from such lighter sins as are symbolized by the dust that clings to the feet of a wayfarer.

Now we come to the other part of what Maundy Thursday is about the institution of the Eucharist. That story is found in the gospel of Luke.

“When the hour had come, He sat down, and the twelve apostles with Him. Then He said to them, “With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”
Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you.”

So what is important about the institution of the Eucharistic? First of all Luke mentions that Jesus and his twelve apostles were there. Luke is the only one to call them apostles. Apostle in the Greek is one who is sent out. So the institution of the Eucharist was to send the apostles as messengers and servants. In the same manner we have the communion as the last thing we do before the ending of the mass and we leave the church to go forth and serve and be witnesses for Christ.

This institution takes place as a part of the Passover meal. Passover was the celebration of the night when God delivered the children of Israel out Egyptian bondage. He did it by slaying the entire first born of Egypt while passing over the homes of the Israelites who had marked their homes with blood in the sign of the cross. It was a fore shadow of what would happen to God’s lamb at Calvary. As Jesus is sitting at the table he does something never done before at a Passover meal. It says that Jesus takes bread and gives it to them saying that its his body which is given for them and the cup is his blood which is shed for them. It needs to be noted here that the words used for bread and wine refer to literal flesh and blood not symbols. That was what the early church believed and practiced up until the Reformation when John Calvin decided that for his people they would be symbolic only. However in Catholic tradition we believe that when the priest consecrates the host and wine they do in fact become the body and blood of Christ. In the natural there is no difference they still look and taste like bread and wine. However in the Spirit we believe that somehow Christ is present and changes the bread and wine into his flesh and wine. Also this is not a re crucifixion of Christ and he is not be nailed to the cross again every time mass and the Eucharist is offered throughout the world. We believe that in the spirit we are being transported back to the original supper and partaking with them in the events of that night and what will transpire in the following events leading up to Easter. How could Jesus while still alive offer his flesh and blood to his apostles? To understand this we need to look at the words of the Apostles John, Peter and Paul. According to John Jesus was slain from the foundation of the world St. Peter says that Jesus was foreordained to be manifested in our time as an offering for sin for us, St. Paul speaks of a hidden wisdom which God ordained before the beginning of the ages and which if the rulers of this world had understood they would have never crucified Christ. Thus we see that Jesus was crucified from the very foundations of the world. This was before there were any human beings or sin in the world. It was just waiting for a proper time to manifest itself in our world. Therefore Christ having already been slain could offer his body and flesh to his disciples even as he does for us now. What does this mean for us currently?
Luke quotes Jesus as saying that the kingdom of God is within us. Kingdom refers to the rule or realm of God. Therefore as we abide in Christ, feed on him we then allow the realm and rule of God to control and govern our lives. This produces fruit unto eternal life and changes us more into the image of Christ.
We are also to keep doing the Eucharist/Communion until he comes again. We are to remember his death unless we forget. However I believe that is only part of the deal. We also need to remember where all this leading. For without the betrayal of Maundy Thursday, the crucifixion of Good Friday Easter and resurrection can never come. One has to die before one can be resurrected. If there is no resurrection then there can be no Ascension and if no ascension then there can be no Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. If there is no Holy Spirit then there can be no power for us to be witnesses for Christ in our ordinary lives. Luke reminds we shall receive power to be witnesses when the Holy Spirit comes on us. So therefore it is all intertwined and all needed. Another thought is that it is a foreshadowing of the marriage supper of Lamb which all believers will be a part of someday.
Finally in closing when the children of Israel came to sacrifice their Passover lamb they ate immediately afterwards and leave nothing of it till later. If anyone refused to do this they were to be cut off from their people. In the same manner when we eat of Jesus flesh and drink his blood we enter into a new covenant with God which assures us of eternal life and that we will never be cut off from either Jesus himself or from his body the Church. Since that is a reality then we can rest assured of a place in heaven with Jesus and all other believers eternally..
In summation then this is what I believe Maundy Thursday/Holy Thursday is a all about. I hope I have explained it clearly. It is about the dying of self so we can be used as messengers of the gospel of Christ to others. It is also to empower us and give us life through the institution of the Eucharist that we are a part and partake of weekly on Sundays. As always comments are welcomed
Brother Lawrence Damien Cos

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