Why Celebrate Maundy Thursday?
Most everybody knows what Good Friday stands for, and most of us celebrate Easter, but what in the world is Maundy Thursday? Since it is not something celebrated in my church, I decided to do some research to find out why it is important to the church at large.
First of all, it is always observed on the Thursday before Easter, a day more recently known as “Holy Thursday.” While the term "Maundy Thursday" may be somewhat outdated, it’s meaning and significance certainly are not.
The Origin of the Term Based on Scripture, we know this is the day when Jesus celebrated his final Passover with his disciples. The term “Maundy” comes from a Latin word, mandatum, which means “command.” The Latin term became the Old French term mande and then the English word “maundy.”
While the word “Maundy” is not found anywhere in Scripture, John 13:34 describes that original Thursday evening, and does note that, during the meal, Jesus gave his disciples a new command: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
The Circumstances of the Evening John, one of the disciples who was present that last Thursday of Jesus’ life, begins his narrative with the meal already in progress. As a side note, he records that the devil had already prompted Judas to betray Jesus. This is significant in helping us understand the setting of the evening.
The unspoken backdrop to the events of that night is betrayal. Jesus was mere hours away from his death on the cross. He knew it was coming, but his disciples still didn’t understand this. Jesus himself speaks of Judas and the ultimate betrayal of the evening, but we know there would be even more betrayals in the morning hours to come.
Before sunrise all the disciples in that room, except John, would run and hide in fear, deserting this loving master in his hour of need. Peter, who had pledged undying loyalty, would deny Jesus not once but 3 times. And it was in this setting of betrayal that Jesus began his “sermon” with a living illustration.
John tells us that, during the meal, Jesus stood up and took off his outer clothing, so he was stripped to the waist. Next he wrapped a towel around himself, poured water in a basin and began to wash the feet of his followers. All of their feet, including Judas, including Peter, including all the others. Jesus knew what they would soon do, and he washed their feet any way.
Now, while we can understand the immensity of Jesus’ act of love, I don’t think we can understand the shock his disciples would have felt at that moment. The Jewish culture of their day associated nakedness with shame. Here was their master, naked to the waist, kneeling before them.
Also, foot washing was a menial task, usually assigned to the lowest slave in the household. So here they see the most important man in the room performing the work of a household slave. The disciples must have been shocked and disturbed by this act of Jesus.
As soon as the last foot was washed, Jesus put on his clothes and returned to the table. Once more, he became the Rabbi, teacher of the twelve. The lesson had already been impressed on their minds, but Jesus wanted to make doubly sure they understood what it meant.
The Commandment He was about to give them a “new commandment” which he had just fully illustrated. In that moment, Jesus set the standard for “love one another as I have loved you.” What was so "new" about this command? As he did in many of his teachings, Jesus elevated the definition of love to a higher standard.
By doing something for them as menial as washing their feet, Jesus illustrated that love was an action word, not merely an emotion. We often look for big, impressive ways to show love, but here Jesus demonstrates that love is as simple as washing the feet of a guest. He even showed this love to his “enemies,” those who would soon betray him. Under this new commandment, Jesus directed his disciples –and us– to always demonstrate love, even to those we don’t think deserve it.
The Lord’s Supper But that wasn’t the end of the evening. There was one more important thing Jesus wanted to convey to sum up his ministry. During this celebration of Passover, Jesus instituted what we refer to as “the Lord’s Supper.” If you recall, at the first Passover God commanded Israel to always remember their deliverance from their Egyptian masters by sharing a special meal.
At this point in Jesus’ life, he was about to ultimately fulfil the promise of Passover by his sacrificial death on the cross as the Lamb of God. At this final Passover feast, he changed the Passover meal to a simple one of bread and wine. As he passed these elements to his followers, he directed them to continually remember his sacrifice (and their deliverance from sin) by sharing the same “food.” We call this “The Lord's Supper” or simply “communion.”
To this day, churches all over the world celebrate this new Passover feast on a regular basis, hopefully awaiting the day when we will celebrate it anew with Jesus.
Conclusion I’m so glad I took the time to research and understand the meaning of this “Holy Thursday” evening. It will certainly be a most precious day to me from now on, and I hope you will feel the same.