Maundy Thursday: the Origin of the Term

The Last Supper by Hans Leonhard Schäufelein (1511).
The Last Supper by Hans Leonhard Schäufelein (1511). anagoria/Public Domain

Maundy Thursday is a common and popular name for Holy Thursday, the Thursday before the Christian celebration of  Easter Sunday. Maundy Thursday gets its name from the Latin word mandatum, which means "commandment." Other names for this day include Covenant Thursday, Great and Holy Thursday, Sheer Thursday, and Thursday of the Mysteries. The common name used for this date varies by region and by denomination, but since 2017, the Holy Roman Catholic Church literature refers to it as Holy Thursday.

"Maundy Thursday, " then, is a somewhat outdated term. 

On Maundy Thursday, the Catholic Church, as well as some Protestant denominations, commemorate the Last Supper of Christ, the Savior. In Christian tradition, this was the meal at which He instituted the Eucharist, the Mass, and the priesthood—all core traditions in the Catholic Church. Since 1969, Maundy Thursday has marked the end of the liturgical season of Lent in the Catholic Church.

Because Maundy Thursday is always the Thursday before Easter and because Easter itself moves in the calendar year, the date of Maundy Thursday moves from year to year. However, it always falls between March 19 and April 22 for the western Holy Roman Church. This is not the case with the Eastern Orthodox Church, which does not use the Gregorian calendar. 

The Origin of the Term

According to Christian tradition, near the end of the Last Supper before the crucifixion of Jesus, after the disciple Judas had departed, Christ said to the remaining disciples, "I give you a new commandment: love one another.

As I have loved you, so you also should love one another" (John 13:34). In Latin, the word for commandment is mandatum. The Latin term became the Middle English word Maundy by way of the Old French mande.

Modern Usage of the Term

The name Maundy Thursday is today more common among Protestants than among Catholics, who tend to use Holy Thursday, while Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox refer to Maundy Thursday as Great and Holy Thursday.

 

Maundy Thursday is the first day of the Easter Triduumthe final three days of the 40 days of Lent before Easter. Holy Thursday is the high point of Holy Week or Passiontide.

Maundy Thursday Traditions

The Catholic Church lives out Christ's commandment to love one another in a number of ways through her traditions on Maundy Thursday. The best known is the washing of the feet of laymen by their priest during the Mass of the Lord's Supper, which recalls Christ's own washing of the feet of His disciples (John 13:1-11).

Maundy Thursday was also traditionally the day on which those who needed to be reconciled to the Church in order to receive Holy Communion on Easter Sunday could be absolved from their sins. And as early as the fifth century CE, it became the custom for the bishop to consecrate the holy oil or chrism for all of the churches of his diocese. This chrism is used in baptisms and confirmations throughout the year, but especially at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday, when those who are converting to Catholicism are welcomed into the Church.

Maundy Thursday in Other Countries and Cultures

As with the rest of Lent and the Easter season, the traditions surrounding Maundy Thursday vary from country to country and culture to culture, some of them interesting and surprising: 

  • In Sweden, the celebration has been blended with the day of witches in folklore—children dress up as witches on this day of Christian celebration. 
  • In Bulgaria, this is the day on which people decorate Easter eggs. 
  • In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, it is traditional to make meals based on only fresh green vegetables on Maundy Thursday. 
  • In the United Kingdom, it was once customary for the monarch to wash the feet of poor people on Maundy Thursday. Today, the tradition has the monarch giving alms coins to deserving senior citizens. 
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Richert, Scott P. "Maundy Thursday: the Origin of the Term." ThoughtCo, Jan. 8, 2018, thoughtco.com/maundy-holy-thursday-541524. Richert, Scott P. (2018, January 8). Maundy Thursday: the Origin of the Term. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/maundy-holy-thursday-541524 Richert, Scott P. "Maundy Thursday: the Origin of the Term." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/maundy-holy-thursday-541524 (accessed February 19, 2018).