Maundy Thursday and “Holy Week”

The calendar or weekly bulletin published by your local congregation might have said the following for Thursday, April 5, 2012:  

Maundy Thursday: This evening we will have a Communion service with optional footwashing. Services will begin at 7:00 p.m. Please bring your own towel and water pan. This is our annual commemoration of the Last Supper that Jesus Christ had with his disciples. In this service, we along with Christians everywhere remember the meaning of Jesus’ love and his death for our sins.

Christians who are not familiar with the word “Maundy” might wonder what this means. “Why is ‘Monday’ a Thursday?” someone might ask. Some people mispronounce or misspell “Maundy” as Maunday.” To others, “Maundy” sounds like the gloomy word “maudlin,” as in, “He seems very blue and maudlin today.”

Day of the Lord’s Supper

For another article on this topic, see Footwashing: A Tradition of Service.

Yet, Maundy Thursday evening is a time when Christians partake of bread and wine (the “cup” or “fruit of the vine” as stated in Matthew 26:27, 29). The service is a commemoration of the Last Supper, the oldest and most important Christian commemorative service. Jesus, by his example, instituted the practice of the bread and cup for his disciples during the evening meal with them on the night he was arrested. Christians call the taking of these elements by the terms “Lord’s Supper,” “Communion” or the “Eucharist” (from the Greek, eucharistoun, meaning “thanksgiving”).  Here is the account of Jesus creating a practice for his disciples and the people of God, his church:

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” [Matthew 26:26-28]

Luke 22:19 adds Jesus’ statement to the disciples that they should “do this in remembrance” of him. The church did follow Jesus’ example from the beginning, and Christians through the centuries have taken Communion often. It is thought that groups in the earliest church “broke bread” in Communion quite regularly, at least weekly, and in some situations on a daily basis as they ate together. (See Acts 2:42-47, especially verse 46, which describes the fellowship of the earliest believers in Jerusalem.) The apostle Paul gives us the first written account that we have of the church keeping the Lord’s Supper service:

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. [1 Corinthians 11:23-26]

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Note that the Lord’s Supper service is a remembrance of Jesus’ saving work – a proclamation of his death throughout the history of the church until Jesus’ coming in glory. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians around A.D. 55, so we see the congregation observing Communion about two decades after Jesus’ death, though the practice was evident from the beginning of the church from the Pentecost after Jesus’ death, resurrection and Ascension. Christians were celebrating the Lord’s Supper or Communion on a regular basis throughout the year.

“Holy Week” festivities described

In addition to this, the desire naturally grew among Christians to have a special worship season in the spring to coincide as closely as possible with the time in the year when Jesus offered the bread and wine to his disciples – and when he was betrayed, crucified, buried and resurrected. After all, these were among the most important saving events that God had brought to pass through his Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ.

We saw that the apostle Paul described the church’s regular Communion services in memory of Jesus’ death in 1 Corinthians. In the same book he also explained that this event was one of the foundational facts and events of salvation history, tied closely to Jesus’ resurrection:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. [1 Corinthians 15:3-5]

The Christian church went beyond the simple “breaking of bread” in Communion in its desire to commemorate that which was “of first importance” in Christ in the history of salvation – the Incarnation and birth of Jesus, his coming, his death, resurrection and Ascension. Advent and Christmas, of course, celebrate the Incarnation, birth and coming of Jesus.

The Christian church in its desire to worship Jesus and to recall the great saving events in his Person thus formed a tradition of having “Holy Week” services in the spring to commemorate the events surrounding his death and resurrection. To one degree or another, the church has participated in such worship opportunities throughout most of its history.

This week of worship begins with Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered Jerusalem amidst a huge demonstration of support by the common people. They erroneously thought he was going to declare himself a Messiah in the tradition of the conquering Maccabees, who had once temporarily restored the glory of the Jewish nation, until it was conquered by the Romans in 63 B.C. Far from being a “triumphant” entry, however, the fanfare on Palm Sunday was the epitome of irony. Those who supported Jesus so openly and vocally would quietly forsake him five days later when he hung on the cross.

“Holy Week” festivities continue on through the week, culminating in Maundy Thursday, Good Friday[1] and a quiet Saturday, which represents Jesus’ resting in the tomb. “Holy Week” then takes us to Easter Sunday, the great festival of Jesus’ resurrection on Sunday morning, often commemorated in a “sunrise service.” In our day, generally only Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are times of special observance in most churches, and this culminates in Easter or Resurrection Sunday.

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Whether anything approaching our Holy Week celebrations existed in the early church, we do not know. We do know, however, that they existed in the church in Jerusalem in the fourth century. The Pilgrimage of Aetheria contains a detailed account of the Christian festivities during the entire time span of Holy Week.

Events calendar

Here’s a summary of traditional Christian worship during Holy Week, and the events in Jesus’ life that are memorialized: 

  • Palm Sunday: Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a colt (Matthew 21:1-11). He is accompanied by crowds of people who create a path for him with their cloaks and branches cut from trees.

  • Monday: Jesus drives the money changers from the temple and spends the night in Bethany (Matthew 21:12-17). 

  • Tuesday and Wednesday: Jesus continues to teach in Jerusalem (Matthew 21:18-26:16). The chief priests and Jewish religious elders form a plot “to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him” (26:1-5). Judas agrees to be a conspirator and to hand Jesus over to them (26:14-16).

  • Thursday: Jesus has his last meal during his earthly ministry with the disciples. He washes the disciples’ feet and institutes the Lord’s Supper or Communion. After teaching and encouraging them, he goes to Gethsemane, where he prays in anguish. He is arrested by the Jewish temple police and is taken to the Sanhedrin, where he is condemned (Matthew 26:17-75).

  • Good Friday: Jesus is shuttled between Pontius Pilate and Herod Antipas. Pilate finally orders Jesus to be beaten and then crucified. Jesus dies in the late afternoon on Friday. Around sunset, Jesus is buried in the tomb (Matthew 27:1-61).

  • Saturday: Jesus rests in the tomb (Matthew 27:62-66).

  • Easter[2] Sunday: Jesus is resurrected (Matthew 28:1-15).

Time issues raised

Some might point to a difficulty in the above chronology. The account in the three synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – implies, at least on the surface, that Jesus ate his last meal on the Jewish day of Passover. (See Matthew 26:17, for example.) However, John in his Gospel seems to say Jesus ate the supper one day earlier than the Jews ate the Passover meal (John 18:28).

Also, Christians who interpret Matthew 12:40 in a strictly literal manner – as 72 hours or three full days – insist that there is not enough time in the Christian Good Friday-Easter Sunday tradition for Jesus to have spent the prescribed time in the tomb. To refresh our memory, here is what Matthew tells us that Jesus said about his burial:

For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Most Christians throughout the history of the church have relied on the other 20-plus New Testament references mentioning the length of Jesus’ burial, which allow for his time in the tomb to be much shorter, and hence, to fit into the Good Friday-Easter Sunday tradition.

In any case, we need not quibble about these issues of chronology. There is no New Testament command that Christians must have their celebrations on some specific “holy” day, or that such festivities must coincide, time-wise, exactly with the events they memorialize. Holy Week[3]celebrations are not like the Old Testament annual festivals, which God commanded Israel to observe on specific days of the Hebrew calendar.

We aren’t obligated to solve these puzzles of chronology in order to worship in the way we do on Maundy Thursday and the rest of Holy Week, that is, to celebrate and participate in the love, death and resurrection of Jesus. Minor questions about time should not distract us and take our attention away from the real focus of our worship during this time – the saving work of Jesus Christ and our participation in his merciful grace towards us.

Another issue some raise is whether Christians are allowed to set up their own seasons or days of worship. Some Christians, taking their cue from ancient Israel’s worship system, conclude that we should not be having any remembrance that isn’t specifically commanded by God in the New Testament. As mentioned above, Israel under the old covenant was given seven annual worship festivals to fall on set days of the year that had to be strictly adhered to.

However, as Christians we do have the freedom to set aside special times of worship and remembrance. This is evident by example even in ancient Israel’s worship, in that they added Hanukkah and Purim to the nation’s festival calendar. These days commemorated events that celebrated God’s saving acts in Jewish history. Such worship was acceptable to God, and even though the days were not mandated by Scripture, Jesus participated in them (John 10:22). These examples have led Christians to conclude that the church also has the freedom to add to its religious calendar festivals that celebrate God’s intervention in human affairs in bringing us salvation through the saving acts of Jesus.

Further, the Communion Christians participate in on Maundy Thursday does reflect Jesus’ command to take the symbols of the bread and wine in remembrance of him “until he comes.” In all our Christian worship between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, the Maundy Thursday Communion is the one celebration that rises to the status of sacrament, precisely because Jesus instituted it. The celebration is also the oldest in the Christian tradition as it goes back to the beginning of the church.

Meaning of “Maundy”

That being so, why is the day of Jesus’ final supper and his institution of the bread and wine service called “Maundy Thursday”? Why not “Last Supper Thursday,” “Lord’s Supper Thursday” or “Communion Thursday,” to give three examples of possible substitute titles? No doubt, some other name might be more descriptive and meaningful in our modern age, but once we understand what “Maundy” signifies, we’ll see that it is an apt term to use for our celebration. In fact, Maundy Thursday is more than just about Communion, though that is certainly the important event.

The word “Maundy” is generally thought to refer to the word “commandment” in Jesus’ command for his disciples to love each other. That being so, the word “Maundy” tells us why it is possible for us to partake of Jesus’ death and life; it is through the love God has for us.

The name of the Thursday of Holy Week – Maundy – is derived from the Latin word mandatum, or command. Hence, the English word “mandate,” or commandment. The idea in “Maundy” is based on the command Jesus gave his disciples at the last evening meal of his earthly ministry, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35). In Latin “a new commandment  I give you” is Mandatum novum do vobis. And that is why the celebration day is called “Maundy Thursday” – or “Holy Thursday,” as it is known outside English-speaking nations. Footwashing, included in some Maundy Thursday services, is simply one illustration of how Christians are to love and humbly serve one another.

It is because God loved us in his freedom that he came in Jesus to save us through his death and resurrection. We read in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” God, because of his love, sent his Son to save the world through him. Jesus’ death is the ultimate expression of this love. Jesus also said: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command” (John 15:13). Here, again, is command – mandatum – Maundy.

Both the bread and wine, symbolizing the body and blood of Jesus given for us, and his washing of the disciples’ feet are acts of love in service to others. It is love that lies behind the acts that Jesus performed during Holy Week – the love of God – for us. And Jesus’ command to us is to love God above all and to love each other as he loved us (John 15:12). Thus “Maundy Thursday,” or to say it in modern English – “Love Command Thursday” – is a perfectly appropriate term to use in summarizing what should be our response to the love and grace of Jesus in his death for our sinfulness.

Additional reading

Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, by Laurence Hull Stookey (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1996. Stookey discusses the theological meaning of the Christian liturgical calendar. He explains how we can benefit from understanding the purpose and themes behind our celebration of the great events of salvation history in Christ.


[1] Why do we call the day “Good Friday,” when that is the day on which Jesus suffered? The reason the phrase seems to be a problem is because, “Emphasis has been on the seemingly senseless human suffering of Jesus rather than on the purposeful humiliation of God through which redemption comes,” says Laurence Hull Stookey on page 96 of Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church. “In other words,” Stookey continues, “we have failed once again to read the sacred story backward. Friday has been observed as if Sunday had never come.”

[2] Many Christians do not know that Easter, in addition to being a day, is also a memorial season of 50 days, culminating in the Christian Pentecost, when Jesus sent the Holy Spirit and the church began.

“Easter” is an unfortunate term because it has no known direct Christian meaning, unless it derives from an Old German root, ostern, for dawn or east, which is the time and place of the rising sun. Thus it would demonstrate a connection to Jesus’ resurrection before dawn on Sunday.  Among Western languages, only English and German have not preserved some form of “Pasch” as their word for Resurrection Sunday. Paul refers to Jesus as our “paschal lamb in 1 Corinthians 5:7, so that the word at least has a direct and known connection with Jesus.

[3] In this context, we should understand that the term “Holy Week” does not imply that there is some inherent holiness in the period of time during which Christians celebrate the events of salvation in the spring, as though God commands us to set aside these days for worship. Holy Week is a “holy” week only in that Christians have chosen to recall a number of saving events in the life of Jesus during this time of the year, by setting the days aside for special worship.

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