This is from a post I wrote in 2009:
Happy Maundy Thursday, everyone!
For those of you who don’t know, Maundy Thursday is the day before Good Friday. The word “Maundy” comes from the word “command,” referring to Christ’s command for His disciples to serve. Because Good Friday is the anniversary of our Lord’s death on the Cross, Maundy Thursday is the anniversary of the Last Supper, and everything associated with it. You may be surprised that so much attention is given to the day before Christ died on the Cross, but I would note that John’s Gospel in particular shares this focus. He begins at Chapter 13, and it stretches onwards to the end of Chapter 17. He gives as much attention (4 chapters) to that one meal as he gives to the Agony in the Garden, Crucifixion, and Resurrection combined. Also, remember that for Jews, the day began at sundown, so the Last Supper was actually the kickoff to the Passion, if you will. So it’s a pretty big deal. For Catholics, today celebrates the introduction of a whole lot of things:
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:26-28)
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes. Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. (1 Corinthians 11:26-28).
Washing of the Feet: See John 13:3-17. Some churches celebrate this by having the priest wash certain congregants’ feet. If memory serves, our parish priest washed my dad’s feet one time, and my dad looked pretty awkward about having this done in front of the whole congregation. In a broader sense, this represents the need for all of us, but especially those in positions of authority, to care for each other, and to help each other out, even when it’s something we view as beneath us.
Baptism, Confession, the Priesthood (Holy Orders): In John 13:8-10, Jesus and Peter have a fascinating dialogue during the washing of the feet:
“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” Jesus answered, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.”
This washing of the feet is also strongly tied to the sacramental priesthood. In the Old Testament, we hear that:
Aaron and his sons shall use it in washing their hands and feet. When they are about to enter the meeting tent, they must wash with water, lest they die. Likewise when they approach the altar in their ministry, to offer an oblation to the LORD, they must wash their hands and feet, lest they die. This shall be a perpetual ordinance for him and his descendants throughout their generations.” (Exodus 30:19-21)
Now look to what Jesus says in this context. Regarding the Eucharistic sacrifice, He commands of His Disciples, “do this in memory of Me.” (Luke 22:19, 1 Corinthians 11:24). He’s instructing this select group to offer up His Body as a sacrifice to the Father. About the washing of the feet, He says, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13:15). That’s the mandate (mandatum) where we get the maundy in Maundy Thursday from. In some manner, these instructions apply to all of us. We should all partake in the Eucharist in memory of Christ, and we should all serve one another. But in a particular way, this applies to His shepherds. After all, even in non-Catholic ecclesial communities, Communion (in whatever sense that term is understood) is almost exclusively administered by the priest or pastor. There’s a general recognition, even if unrecognized, that there’s a reason Jesus addresses this to His Twelve Disciples, rather than to the crowd generally.
For this reason, the custom is for the pope to write and release an encyclical on Maundy Thursday, directed just at the priests. It generally makes for a pretty good read, if you’re interested in how things work between individual priests and the pope.
The Start of Triduum: Triduum is the three-day period stretching from Thursday night to Easter Sunday. It’s considered the holiest part of the Catholic calendar. If you’re like me, your first thought is… that’s not three days. But it is if you use a Jewish calendar, which is how the New Testament measured the three days Jesus was in the grave. Day One is tonight through Friday night, and is the Last supper and the full Passion (from the Agony in the Garden to Jesus’ condemnation, to the carrying of the Cross, to the Crucifixion, to Jesus dying on the Cross). It’s a really intense 24-hours. Day two is Friday night through Saturday night. I like to use that time to reflect upon what the disciples must have felt: to really experience, for 24 hours out of the year, the mental anguish of a dead God. The sense of betrayal, hurt, and most of all, despair, must have been overwhelming. Day 3 begins, in Catholic tradition, with the Easter Vigil, a beautiful Mass that’s really long. If you’re patient, and want to see Catholicism at its very best, this is the Mass for you. It’s an amazing experience, there’s like eight readings when the full Vigil is said, and converted Catholics are brought into the Church. It’s a really joyful experience. To combine the joy of the Resurrection with the joy of entering into the Church was a really smart idea. Good thinking, early Church! After that, of course, comes Easter morning. You’re allowed to go to Mass both at the Vigil and on Easter morning, and receive Communion both times, but make sure you go when different priests are officiating, because sometimes they repeat their same sermon from the night before.
That’s what’s going on today, folks (as well as a preview of the upcoming few days). We celebrate the birthday of four of the Seven Sacraments (Baptism, Confession, Eucharist, and Holy Orders), as well as prepare for tomorrow’s Big Day.
You can find out more about the long history of Maundy Thursday here. It includes some interesting stuff about how the early Church celebrated it – I especially liked the bit about Augustine. Of course, this is an encyclopedia entry, so if you’re really interested, this may not fully satiate you.
Have a safe and blessed Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday!