What is “Maundy”?

Christianity in Canada has different faces. Our history of establishment, colonialism, immigration and refuge have painted a complex picture. Sometimes, the complexity paints over the depth and beauty of particular Christian customs. Maundy is one of those lovely practices that has often gotten lost in the mosaic.

A new commandment: Love one another!

On the day before he was crucified, Jesus sat down at dinner for supper with his friends. We all know Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper that, however inaccurately, shows that event. Many people know that this is where Judas decided to betray Jesus. Some people know that this is where Jesus established the sacrament or ritual of Holy Communion, and where Jesus washed His disciples’ feet. It was also where Jesus declared “A new commandment I give to you: that you love one another.”

In Latin, the word “commandment” is “mandatum”, which migrated through Old French and Middle English to become both our word “mandate”, and the name given to our memorial of the day on which Christ gave us that new “mandatum” — Maundy Thursday.

Throughout the middle ages, Europe’s nobility celebrated Maundy Thursday by ceremoniously washing the feet of paupers, and clergy celebrated Maundy Thursday by ceremoniously removing all ornaments and decoration from the sanctuary in preparation for Good Friday the following day. Some churches have maintained those practices into the twentieth century, combining them with an evening service of Holy Communion.

So, if Maundy Thursday has been around for so long, why don’t more people know about it? Well, one reason has to do with substantive “establishment”.

What do we mean by “Establishment”?

“Establishment”, in the context of Christianity, means a religion’s being integrated into the fabric of a society’s government and norms. From the early middle ages through the nineteenth century, Western European society held firmly to, at least nominal, Christianity. Although individuals and distinct minorities might hold to different religions or philosophies, countries often give Christianity special status, even apportioning some of their taxes to the state church, and incorporating church ceremonies into official civil functions.

Canada has never officially had an established religion, although the pre-confederation colonies did, but well into the twentieth century Canadian society simply assumed that Christianity was the social norm. That cuts two ways: government-funded schools could teach children the Lord’s Prayer in morning assembly and include nativity plays in their Christmas concert without consideration for the non-Christians in the school; but at the same time official acts like declaring statutory holidays for Good Friday and Easter Monday, but not for Holy Wednesday or Maundy Thursday, were assumed to represent “Christian” policies. Some people call Canada a “Christian country”, reflecting their perception that all their neighbours are at least nominally Christian, without considering that Christ’s radical call to mutual submission is antithetical to the very idea of nationalism, without recognizing the holy truth that it is people, not countries, that have the privilege of being “Christian”.

“You use that word a lot. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Official state religion or not, Christianity is seen by most people as something familiar, something that they’ve been around all their lives — even if in those lives they have never themselves experienced prayer, worship, the bible, or theology. Since it’s familiar, they don’t feel any need to learn about it! One student asked their faculty advisor for a religious exemption to a mandatory lecture, so they could go home to celebrate Maundy Thursday with family, as they had done every year since they were born. The faculty advisor said, “I’ve never heard of Maundy Thursday. Exemption denied.” The advisor assumed they already knew the Christian feast-days, so they didn’t inform themselves before making their decision.

The freedom that we experience in Christ, also backfires on us. New forms of Christianity not connected to the mainstream protestant churches grab the attention of the news media who are always looking for things strange, controversial or shocking. Traditional worship, in-depth scholarly study of the Bible, meaningful liturgy and historical context are often overshadowed by the novelty and ecstacy of these novel denominations. Our neighbours — secular people who engage in only cultural Christianity if at all —  see news coverage highlighting those groups’ excessive claims or extreme practices, and begin to think that those extreme beliefs are normal Christian beliefs.

So, if you have never heard of Maundy Thursday, I invite you to check it out, before you use any “exemption denied” stamp that you might have at hand.

So, what happens at Maundy worship?

The two Maundy traditions that survive from the middle ages are ceremoniously washing one another’s feet, and ceremoniously removing all ornaments and decoration from the sanctuary. Since the last decades of the twentieth century, churches have been adding a simple meal recapitulating the meal Jesus shared with his friends on the last evening of his life. Because that meal was the occasion of Jesus’ instituting the Eucharist, holy communion is usually a feature of the worship service that links the three elements together.

At Emmanuel, we set up tables inside the sanctuary, so that we can stay in one place for all the parts of the ceremony. Because this service is lay-led with no ordained pastor present, we cannot have the Eucharist, but we tell the story of Christ’s “mandatum” using the story materials from our children’s programme.

1. Foot washing

Following the natural order of events usually foot-washing takes place first. The pastor, other clergy, elders, and lay-leaders in the congregation may wash the feet of representative members of the community. Or everyone may take their turn in either washing the feet of their fellow believers, or having their feet washed, or both. Some churches arrange for men to wash the feet exclusively of men, and women of women.

At Emmanuel, a basin, warm water, and towels are set up next to a chair to the side of the tables. During the meal, people invite one another to the basin, and take turns washing one another’s feet. Often children wash their parents or grandparents feet, and have their feet washed in turn. The experience is deeply spiritual. Because mutual submission is a profoundly Christian principle, I urge you to allow yourself to experience both sides of the act.

2. The Agapé Supper

Then, a simple meal is served. The first Christians were known for their Agapé, or Love, Feasts. Scripture is ambiguous as to whether the Last Supper was a Passover meal, or a meal on the Day of Preparation before the Passover. We do know, however, that it was not a “Seder” meal. Seder meals, as they are known today, developed well after the time of Christ. They are an exclusively Jewish tradition, and should not be appropriated for a Christian feast. Nonetheless, our Agapé feast does look back to the events commemorated at Passover: we too are children of Abraham by adoption, and we too read in our Scripture God’s command:

17 Celebrate this Festival of Thin Bread as a way of remembering the day that I brought your families and tribes out of Egypt. And do this each year. 24-25 After you have entered the country promised to you by the Lord, you and your children must continue to celebrate Passover each year. 26 Your children will ask you, “What are we celebrating?” 27 And you will answer, “The Passover animal is killed to honor the Lord. We do these things because on that night long ago the Lord passed over the homes of our people in Egypt. He killed the first-born sons of the Egyptians, but he saved our children from death.” — Deuteronomy Chapter 26

At Emmanuel, we gather around a long table set up in the sanctuary, with platters of bread, apples, and herbs; bowls of honey and salt water, and flasks of wine and grape juice. We enjoy quiet conversation while we eat together. During the supper, children are coached to ask three questions, and different members of the fellowship read aloud the answers to those questions from Scripture.

3. Stripping the Altar

At the end of the meal, everyone joins in clearing away the food, plates, and tables. We all help remove the ornaments in the sanctuary: the candlesticks, bible stand, and altar-cloth from the altar, the banners from the walls. And then we leave. There is no blessing or dismissal. As the disciples did two thousand years ago when soldiers came to arrest their Teacher, we all leave in disarry.


2 Replies to “What is “Maundy”?”

  1. Ross Heikkila

    I Am a Believer and Am looking at joining your Congregation, This Passover is the Whole Reason we Worship. I Am older at 66. I have moved into the Forest Lawn Area. I will visit the week after Easter. Have a Great celebration of King Jesus as He Is Celebrated!

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