Today is Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday. The day goes by various names worldwide depending on local religious affiliations (and language – of course). Some include Holy Thursday, Covenant Thursday, Great and Holy Thursday, Sheer Thursday, and Thursday of Mysteries. It is the day on which Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with the apostles according to the gospels, and the day itself as well as the Last Supper celebrates a number of traditions in Christian churches. Perhaps of prime importance is the institution of the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper during the meal, but there’s also Jesus’ washing of the apostle’s feet, and his betrayal by Judas that night and the accompanying trial. There’s just way too much for me to review in any kind of detail. I’ll just hit some key points.
First let’s consider the word Maundy. The word is obscure but the majority of scholars accept the notion that the English word “maundy” is derived through Middle English from Old French mandé, from the Latin mandatum (also the origin of the English word “mandate”), the first word of the phrase “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos” (“A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another”) in the Latin Vulgate, a statement Jesus made in the Gospel of John 13:34 to explain to the Apostles the significance of his action of washing their feet. By these lights the emphasis of the day is on humility, and many longstanding customs support this notion.
The Washing of the Feet is a traditional component of the celebration among many Christian groups, including the Armenian, Ethiopian, Eastern Catholic, Schwarzenau (German Baptist) Brethren, Church of the Brethren, Mennonite, and Roman Catholic traditions. The practice is also becoming increasingly popular as a part of the Maundy Thursday liturgy in the Anglican/Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, as well as in other Protestant denominations.
In the Roman Catholic Church, the ritual washing of feet is now associated with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, which celebrates, in a special way, the Last Supper of Jesus, before which he washed the feet of his twelve apostles. Evidence for the practice on this day goes back at least to the latter half of the 12th century, when “the pope washed the feet of twelve sub-deacons after his Mass and of thirteen poor men after his dinner.” From 1570 to 1955, the Roman Missal printed, after the text of the Holy Thursday Mass, a rite of washing of feet.
In 1955 Pope Pius XII revised the ritual and inserted it into the Mass. Since then, the rite is celebrated after the homily that follows the reading of the gospel account of how Jesus washed the feet of his twelve apostles (John 13:1–15). Some persons who have been selected – usually twelve, but the Roman Missal does not specify the number – are led to chairs prepared in a suitable place. The priest goes to each and, with the help of the ministers, pours water over each one’s feet and dries them. In a notable break from the 1955 norms, Pope Francis washed the feet of two women and Muslims at a juvenile detention center in Rome in 2013. At one time, most of the European monarchs also performed the Washing of Feet in their royal courts on Maundy Thursday, a practice continued by the Austro-Hungarian Emperor and the King of Spain up to the beginning of the 20th century In 1181 Roger de Moulins, Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller issued a statute declaring, “In Lent every Saturday, they are accustomed to celebrate maundy for thirteen poor persons, and to wash their feet, and to give to each a shirt and new breeches and new shoes, and to three chaplains, or to three clerics out of the thirteen, three deniers [coins] and to each of the others, two deniers”.
Distributing Maundy money is a key element of royal services in England that continues to this day. The first English monarch to be recorded as distributing alms at a Maundy service was John, who on 15 April 1210 donated garments, forks, food, and other gifts to the poor of Knaresborough, Yorkshire. John is also the first English monarch to be recorded as giving gifts of small silver coins to the poor when in 1213 he gave 13 pence to each of 13 poor men at a ceremony in Rochester—the number being symbolic of the Twelve Apostles together with either Jesus or an angel.
By 1363 the British monarch performed foot washing and also gave gifts: that year, fifty-year-old Edward III gave fifty pence to each of fifty poor men. It is not known, however, whether it was as yet the practice each year to have the number of pence and the number of recipients track the monarch’s age: Henry IV was the first monarch to decree that the number of pence given be determined by the monarch’s age.
Although Mary I and Elizabeth I differed religiously, both performed elaborate Maundy ceremonies. Records from 1556 show that Mary washed the feet of forty-one poor women (reflecting her age) while “ever on her knees”, and gave them forty-one pence each, as well as gifts of bread, fish, and clothing, donating her own gown to the woman said to be poorest of all. In 1572, disliking the scenes as each woman tried to secure a piece of the royal gown, Queen Elizabeth granted a sum of £1 to each recipient in lieu of the gown, giving it in a red purse.
The service was usually held somewhere near London. This was done to suit the monarch’s convenience: in medieval times, it was held in Windsor, Eton, Richmond, Greenwich, or wherever the monarch happened to be at Eastertide. In 1714, with the monarch no longer present at the ceremony, the service was moved to the Chapel Royal, Whitehall, where it remained until 1890, when the Chapel was given to the Royal United Services Institute. After 1890, by order of Queen Victoria, it was moved to Westminster Abbey, though in years when there was a coronation and the Abbey was closed for preparations, the service was held at St. Paul’s Cathedral. From 1954 to 1970, it was held in even-numbered years at Westminster, and in odd-numbered years at provincial cathedrals; since then it has, in most years, been held outside London. When the service was confined to London, recipients were customarily householders who had met their financial obligations to society, but had since fallen on hard times.
Queen Elizabeth II views the service as an important part of her devotional life. It is the only occasion on which the Queen visits others to make awards, as recipients of honors usually come to her. The Queen has directed that the service not be held in London more often than once in ten years. Westminster Abbey was the site of the 2001 Royal Maundy, and again in 2011, the first ever televised. On 20 March 2008, at the Church of Ireland St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, the Queen attended the first Maundy service held outside England and Wales.
Today the recipients are pensioners, chosen on an interdenominational basis from various Christian churches for their service to their churches and communities. In most years, recipients are nominated by Christian clergy of various denominations in the diocese where the service is held. In 2011, however, as well as recipients representing Westminster Abbey, forty recipients came from the Anglican Diocese of Gibraltar which covers continental Europe, and forty from the Diocese of Sodor and Man, which consists only of the Isle of Man. For 2012, in honor of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, recipients were selected from all 44 dioceses in the United Kingdom for the service at York Minster.
One man and one woman are chosen for each year the Queen has lived (including the year she is currently living), and they receive Maundy money equivalent in pence to that number of years. Uniquely, in 2011 and 2012 the sovereign was the same age in two successive ceremonies (the 2011 ceremony was performed on the Queen’s 85th birthday).
When I was pastor at Stony Point Presbyterian Church in New York we used to have a token Passover meal on Maundy Thursday, including a communion service, incorporating a tenebrae with appropriate readings, and with the progressive extinguishing of candles (and the lights), until the room was in complete darkness – and the congregation left in silence (sometimes in tears) as one member hammered nails into wood in the sanctuary. Very powerful. This custom symbolized Jesus’ purported actions on that evening on the assumption that the Last Supper was a Passover meal. The Synoptics and John differ on this. John, anxious to underscore the symbolism of Jesus as the sacrificial lamb of God, dates the crucifixion to the day on which the Passover lambs were sacrificed in the Temple. Mark, followed by Luke and Matthew insist that the Last Supper was a Passover meal. I’m inclined to the latter. John is a bit heavy handed with his theologizing of history. Therefore you can emulate Passover meals today if you wish. My post on Passover is here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/passover/ Passover started on Monday night this year (2017) which means we are still in the middle of it because it lasts a full week.
I’m intrigued by the fact that Kerala Christians (known as St Thomas Christians because of the belief that Thomas founded churches in the region) have special recipes for this day. There were a number of Kerala priests in Stony Point when I was there, for some reason, and I liked to share their traditions with them .The day is called Pesaha (പെസഹ), in the local Malayalam language, derived from the Aramaic for Passover (Pesach). It is a statewide public holiday declared by the Government of Kerala because of the high number of Saint Thomas Christians. The tradition of consuming Pesaha appam or Indariyappam is customary after special long services. On the evening before Good Friday the Pesaha bread is made at home. It is made with unleavened flour. A sweet drink or dip made of coconut milk and jaggery is often made to be consumed along with this bread. On Pesaha night the bread is baked or steamed in a new vessel, immediately after rice flour is mixed with water and they pierce it many times with handle of the spoon to let out the steam so that the bread will not rise ( this custom is called ” juthante kannu kuthal” in the Malayalam language meaning “piercing the bread according to the custom of Jews”). This bread is cut by the head of the family and shared among the family members after prayers.
I have zero experience with this tradition, so here’s a video. Unfortunately it’s in Malayalam, but there are adequate subtitles in English to follow the visual instructions: