Maundy Thursday, the story, and later
Maundy Thursday is the day when Christians remember the Last Supper, the meal at which Jesus blessed bread and wine and commanded his disciples to eat and drink in remembrance of him whenever they met to share food and wine. From this instruction comes the institution known under a variety of names – the Eucharist, the Mass, the Holy Communion, the Breaking of Bread, the Divine Liturgy. This celebration has become a central act of worship in almost all Christian traditions.
The night before Jesus was crucified, he shared a Passover supper with his disciples. After supper, he washed his disciples’ feet in an incredible demonstration of humility and servanthood. Finally, he gave bread and wine to his followers and told them to partake of it in remembrance of him. The sharing of bread and wine is the basis of today’s Holy Communion or Last Supper.
The original Last Supper is believed to have taken place in ‘the upper room’ of the house reputedly owned by John Mark and his mother, Mary. This site is reported to be first site on which a Christian church – a basilica was built in the 4th century. It was later destroyed and subsequently re-built by the Crusaders. Underneath the place is the tomb of David.
In Roman Catholic and some Anglican churches the feet of twelve members of the congregation are washed in remembrance of Jesus’ washing the feet of the twelve disciples. The priest ties himself with a cloth and washes the feet of 12 men chosen to represent the Apostles for the ceremony.
In the days when Kings and Queens of England were Catholic, they would wash the feet of 12 subjects in Westminster Abbey, seeing the foot washing rite as an example of service and humility. They would also give money to the poor on this day, a practice said to have begun with St. Augustine of Canterbury in A.D. 597, and performed by royalty since the time of Edward II. Since 1689 the foot washing is no longer performed, but a special coin called “Maundy Money” is minted instead and given to the selected elderly of a representative city.
In Britain today, the Queen follows a very traditional role by giving Maundy Money to a group of pensioners. Every year on this day, she attends a Royal Maundy service in one of the many cathedrals throughout the country. ‘Maundy money’ is distributed to male and female pensioners from local communities near the Cathedral where the service takes place. Yeomen of the Guard carry the Maundy money in red and white leather purses on their heads on golden alms trays. The money in the red purse is money in lieu of food and clothing while the money in the white purse consists of the Maundy coins. From the fifteenth century, the amount of Maundy coins handed out, and the number of people receiving the coins, is related to the years of the Sovereign’s life.
The colours for Maundy Thursday for the priest or vicars’ robes and the pulpit and alter frontals are usually the colours of Lent, royal purple or red violet. Some traditions, however, use red for Maundy Thursday, the colour of the Church, in order to identify with the community of disciples that followed Jesus. Along the same line, some use this day to honour the apostles who were commissioned by Jesus to proclaim the Gospel throughout the world.
During the Middle Ages, the holy day was sometimes called Shere Thursday; shere means ‘pure’. In England during this time, bearded men found another reason for that name when they sheared their beards on Maundy Thursday as a symbol of the cleansing of body and soul readying themselves before Easter.