Today is Holy Thursday, or Maundy Thursday. Historically the liturgies of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week do not differ much at all but today the week changes. Liturgically, Lent ends with the Eucharist on this day. This day is the first day of what has been called the Easter Triduum, the three-day period which solemnly celebrates the greatest mysteries of the faith—Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. Many churches will commemorate Jesus institution of the Last Supper with his disciples this evening. This was, all agree, the point in history where Jesus instituted the meal that almost all Christians still remember him by regardless of what they call it, how they understand it, or how frequently they celebrate it. The readings associated with this day are understandable: 1 Corinthians 11:23–26 and John 13:1–15. My own tradition includes the washing of feet in the service of the evening. I had never participated in this until about five years ago and I have come to deeply appreciate its importance in my life as a ritual with incredible meaning.
But why is today called Maundy Thursday? Well, in John 13:34 Jesus commands his disciples to “love one another.” The Latin for commandment is mandatum. Since this Thursday commemorates the events of that Thursday evening we remember it by reminding ourselves that Jesus commanded our love for each other and thus the foot-washing ritual also reminds us of that love.
Like so many of the celebrations of Holy Week the events associated with the liturgy of today developed in the early centuries following the death of the apostles. As the Christian Church began to remember all that Jesus had done and taught, and as the written record of that teaching in the four Gospels circulated and was read and processed (remember only about 10% of the population in the Roman era were literate) the church realized that people would recall these sacred mysteries best if they were visibly re-enacted in worship as holy symbols of the gospel of Christ.
In my first year in the pastorate, in a small Southern Baptist church, I began my first Maundy Thursday service of worship. Some wondered what on earth their young pastor, still in graduate school studying theology, was doing but the event stands out in my mind as one of the more important things I did in that little church. The people were gracious and they attended in significant number that evening. I thus began there, at age 22, to take a special interest in Holy Week. Over time that interest would grow and I would embrace the importance and place of this entire week as one that could provide very unique meaning for my life of faith. I hope you are remembering the mysteries of your great faith this week in some way. You might even find a place today where you can come to the Lord’s Table if your own church has no service. Check around since many churches do offer a special service this evening.