What is Maundy Thursday?

            As we observe Holy Week, we pause and reflect on a series of events that radically altered the course of history and changed many of our lives forever. If you grew up in a church tradition that followed the liturgical calendar, all of the events and language surrounding Holy Week might be familiar. However, there are many traditions that don’t typically place much emphasis on or even acknowledge Holy Week as being anything other than the week before Easter Sunday. That said, there is an incredible value for the church to be in a rhythm of reflecting on these events together each year. As we remember the week leading up to Christ’s death and resurrection, we are reminded of the very essence of the gospel.

            Today we celebrate and remember Maundy Thursday, the beginning of the Easter Triduum which begins the day before Jesus crucifixion and culminates on Easter Sunday with His resurrection. The commemoration of Maundy Thursday typically revolves around two events from that day in the Biblical narrative: the last supper (Luke 22:19-20) and the washing of the disciples’ feet (John 13:3-17). In the Last Supper, Jesus gathers his disciples around the table to explain to them what would transpire in the coming days. During this meal, he invites them to take of the bread and wine, representing his body that would be broken and his blood that would be shed on the cross. It is in this interchange that Jesus teaches his disciples the covenant that would be sealed in his blood – that men could be reconciled to God through His atoning work that was to come. The Last Supper foreshadowed events that had yet to unfold but serves as a standing reminder for the Church today of what Christ has now completed. In remembrance of this, the Church is commanded to take of this meal each time we gather to “proclaim his death” until Jesus comes again (1 Corinthians 11:26). Although this is a practice that persists in churches regularly, some traditions celebrate communion in a special way on Maundy Thursday to reflect on the unfolding of events as they took place. 

With that said, the primary aspect of Maundy Thursday is found in the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in John 13. Though Jesus entered Jerusalem like a King, the events that followed were for anyone but a king. He humbled himself to a task that was, in the minds of many, far below his station. The washing of feet was a task for a servant- certainly not a peer and much less, for the Son of God. Yet, Jesus was found to be one who took the place of a servant instead. His washing of the disciples’ feet embodied his declaration that, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve”. Of course, this act of humility to wash dirty feet merely signaled the greatest act of humility that was to come when Jesus would submit himself to death on the cross for an undeserving people (Philippians 2:8). 

The word “maundy” probably isn’t a common feature in our vocabulary, but it comes from the Latin mandatum, meaning commandment. The commandment behind this name comes from John 13:34 as Jesus says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” The challenging notion behind Maundy Thursday is that Jesus models radical, self-sacrificial love and commands us to do the same for one another. To love one another as Christ has loved us comes at great cost to what we prize most: self. Paul reminds us that we should be imitators of Christ’s humility (Philippians 2:1-11); that, according to the example of our Savior, we should love one another with a self-sacrificial, radically risk-taking, others-centered kind of love. When Jesus calls us to love one another “just as” he has loved us, he calls us to an ethic – a way of life – of loving one another. 

First and foremost, Maundy Thursday is a reflection on Christ’s humility and love for his people; it’s a reminder that before we ever knew him, he loved us (Romans 5:8). However, this isn’t just a day in history where we reflect on God’s love for us; it’s a reminder that we, as the Church, have been called to presently embody this same love for one another. This is a type of love that subverts the narrative of self-interest we see at work in the world today and calls us to center on the greater love shown by our Father in Heaven. As we pause this week to reflect upon and celebrate the story of God’s radical love for us, let us be reminded that we embody this reality and proclaim His goodness to the world in how we persist in loving one another. 

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