Today is Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday, sometimes also called Covenant Thursday, Sheer Thursday, or Thursday of Mysteries. It commemorates the Last Supper and Jesus’ foot washing of the apostles. It comes the Thursday before Easter. The date of Easter is always the first Sunday after the full moon following a spring equinox. This year, Easter is on Sunday, April 16.
Maundy Thursday is preceded by Holy Wednesday and followed by Good Friday. The date is always between March 19 and April 22.
Learn more about the history and origins of Maundy Thursday below!
1. It Has Pagan Origins
Saturnalia was a rowdy holiday that ran from December 17 to December 25. During this time Roman courts were closed and people couldn’t get in trouble for damaging property, hurting other people, or rape. According to History Today, during Saturnalia, Roman community leaders would pick one individual as “an enemy of the Roman people” to represent the “Lord of Misrule.” This unfortunate individual, man or woman, would be forced to indulge in orgies of food and sex throughout the holiday week, then on December 25 would be brutally murdered by the authorities as a representation of vanquishing evil.
Another aspect of Saturnalia included “role reversal,” where servants would be served by their masters throughout the holiday. This role reversal also played out during the Christian Feast of Fools, which may be a contributor to our modern April Fools’.
The Feast of Fools was a feast day first celebrated by the clergy in Europe in the early Middle Ages. It began in northern France but later spread to the majority of Europe. Its original date of celebration was the Feast of the Circumcision on January 1, which marked the circumcision of Jesus. During this time, role reversal was also practiced to mimic Jesus washing his disciples’ feet in John 13:1-17.
The Feast of Fools continued to grow in its rowdiness until it was banned by the Council of Basel in 1431, however it continued to be celebrated at some levels in France as late as 1644.
Role reversal is a common theme in Christianity and is not only played out with Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, but also with his mother, Mary. At the time of Jesus’ birth, Judea was ruled by a Rabbinic ruling class backed by the Romans. Yet, Mary, “low” in the social hierarchy of her time as an impoverished woman and Jew, gave birth to the Christ child. It introduced the idea of power arising from “below” to a new religion, drawing from the pagan customs of the Romans.
2. ‘Maundy’ Probably Comes From Latin
The most popular theory for the origin of the word “Maundy” is that it is a bastardization of the beginning of the Latin text of John 13:34, which reads, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” In Latin, the verse reads, “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos.” “Maundy” is drawn from the first word of the verse, “mandatum,” which is also the origin of the English word “mandate.”
However, another theory is that “Maundy” comes from “maundsor baskets” or “maundy purses,” which were charity baskets that the king of England gave out to the poor at Whitehall before attending Mass on that day. Thus, “maund” is connected to the Latin “mendicare,” meaning “to beg.” However, according to The Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman, this is “utterly wrong.”
3. It Commemorates the Last Supper
Maundy Thursday commemorates Jesus’ Last Supper, which was held on our around the first day of the week-long Jewish festival of Passover.
In three out of the four canonical gospels, (Matthew, Mark and Luke), it is written that Jesus’ Last Supper occurred “on the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb,” according to Mark 14:12. The Festival of Unleavened Bread is also known as Passover.
Passover is a week-long Jewish festival that commemorates the emancipation of the Israelites by God from slavery in ancient Egypt. The story of the Exodus is described in the Hebrew Bible, especially in the Book of Exodus. In the Book of Exodus, Moses leads the Israelites across the Red Sea and through the deserts to Mount Sinai, where God promises them the land of Canaan as thanks for their faithfulness.
However, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus had his last supper on Nisan 14, the night before the first night of Passover. Therefore, whether Jesus was celebrating Passover during the Last Supper is up for debate.
According to Biblical Archaeology, we may also be projecting our zeitgeist onto the past, especially because the gospels were written by anonymous authors decades after Jesus died. Biblical Archaeology writes, “if we cannot know how Jews celebrated Passover at the time of Jesus, then we have to plead ignorance, and we would therefore be unable to answer our question.”
4. It Is Celebrated at Night
The Mass or service of worship for Maundy Thursday is usually held at night. This comes from Jewish tradition.
Jewish holidays begin at sundown because, according to the Bible, days begin at sundown. This is based on the story of creation from Genesis, where at the end of each day it reads, “And there was evening, and there was morning” after every day. Because the Torah defines a day as beginning with the evening, so do the Jewish people.
The observation of a new day beginning with the moon is also reflected in the Hebrew calendar, which is a lunar calendar. This is also the reason why the dates of Jewish holidays change every year. The lunar calendar reflects the cycles of the moon, and when it is compared to or tried to fit into a 12-cycle solar calendar (that most of the Western world uses), there are slightly more than twelve lunations (or moon phases) in a solar year.
5. It Has Many Traditions Around the World
The Washing of the Feet is an important traditional component of Maundy Thursday. It is practiced not only by Catholics but also Protestant denominations.
Another ancient tradition is visiting fourteen churches on Maundy Thursday, a reference to the fourteen stations of the cross. The stations come from a series of images depicting Jesus on the day of his crucifixion. The stations are imitations of Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, which is believed to be the actual path Jesus walked to Mount Calvary.