What is Maundy Thursday? Meaning, Origins and Traditions

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Easter will be celebrated this year on Sunday, April 17, a date determined by the Full Moon, making the event what is known as a “movable holiday”.

After the arrival of Palm Sunday and the start of Holy Week, Christians begin to prepare to celebrate the Easter weekend.

But before Good Friday, there is another important, but little understood date observed on the Christian calendar: Maundy Thursday.

So what does Holy Thursday mean and what is the story behind this day in the Christian calendar?

Jesus and the Twelve Apostles on Maundy Thursday at the Last Supper. On Maundy Thursday, Christians commemorate the day Jesus Christ shared the Last Supper with his 12 apostles, before his crucifixion
Jorisvo/Getty Images

What is Maundy Thursday?

Maundy Thursday marks the Thursday before Easter and is considered by Christians to be the day when Jesus celebrated his last Passover – a major Jewish holiday – with his disciples.

This Passover meal is perhaps most notable for Jesus’ act of washing the feet of his disciples in what is interpreted as an extraordinary display of humility.

The word “Maundy” derives from the Latin word “mandatum” meaning “command”, and this word is the origin of the English “mandate”.

According to the New Testament, Jesus said to his disciples: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, you must love each other. (John 13:34)

A parishioner reads a prayer book
A parishioner reads from a prayer book at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church on April 1, 2010 in Denver, Colorado. Christians believe that Jesus fed his disciples with bread, which was representative of his body, and wine, which was representative of his blood at the Last Supper.
Matt McClain/Getty Images

It is believed that Jesus fed his disciples bread during the Last Supper, representing his body, and wine, representing his blood.

They form the basis of the ceremonial practice called Communion, Mass or Eucharist.

Christian service still practiced today involves offering consecrated bread and wine to attendees of Catholic Mass and other Christian churches.

1 Corinthians 11:23-26 states, “[…] The Lord Jesus, the night he was betrayed, took bread, and after giving thanks, he broke it and said: “This is my body, which is for you; do this in memory of me.

“Likewise, 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.'”

Maundy Thursday also has a darker side, as it is an opportunity for Jesus to prophesy his death, which is notoriously marked by betrayal.

He declares at the Last Supper: “One of you will betray me. The disciple Judas Iscariot is then identified by Jesus as the culprit.

Foot washing
Foot washing. It was customary for the monarch to wash the feet of the faithful
Jorisvo/Getty Images

How do we commemorate Maundy Thursday?

In addition to attending religious services, Christians traditionally mark and commemorate Holy Thursday with certain archaic customs.

The United Kingdom uses Holy Money, which is money distributed as charitable donations called alms, during Maundy Thursday ceremonies.

During the Royal Maundy service, the serving monarch usually distributes two small leather purses containing special coins to certain elderly attendees.

A red purse contains a standard coin, while a white one contains silver Maundy coins, the equivalent of the same number of pence as the years of the sovereign’s age, which this year is 95!

Until 1689, it was customary for the King or Queen to wash the feet of worshipers at Westminster Abbey in London, in addition to distributing food and clothing as a form of charity.

This practice is a continuing tradition in the Catholic and Armenian Apostolic Churches, where it is practiced by priests.

People pray during the celebration of the
People pray during the celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at the Notre-Dame des Anges cathedral April 9, 2009. The word ‘Maundy’ comes from the Latin word ‘mandatum’ meaning ‘to command’.
David McNew/Getty Images


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