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Holy Thursday

In another journal a comment was made that a lot of people would be "busy today being Jewish." I casually remarked that it was a pretty big day for Christians, too. Someone else replied, "I know Friday's a big day for Christians, but what do they do on Thursday?"

This got me thinking. I'm so involved in all this churchy stuff that I lose perspective on what is common knowledge and what isn't. I might be tempted to respond, "Duh! It's Holy Thursday!" much the same way I'd like to respond, "It's Ash Wednesday, you moron," whenever someone points out that I have something on my forehead.

How soon I forget! I wasn't always such a devout Christian. I was only confirmed Catholic some 11 years ago. And I didn't fully understand a lot of things about Catholicism in particular or Christianity in general. I suppose there's still a lot I don't fully grasp. A lot of active Christians, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, seem not to understand or appreciate a lot of these things as well. For instance, I ran into a regular parishioner on the way to Mass tonight and was surprised to learn he didn't realize there was a special Mass. The point is I shouldn't assume people will know about important Christian holidays other than Christmas and Easter, and I should, therefore, do a better job of understanding their perspectives. I attempted to answer the commenter's question in that spirit, but I felt I should expand on my answer and post it for a wider audience.

Before I do so, I want to clarify something. I am a devout Catholic. However, what I'm about to post isn't specific to Catholicism. It's what is practiced by the major Christian denominations (Catholic, Anglican/Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist). I regularly attended a Methodist church for over a year when I dated emilykb and an American Baptist church for two years and taught at a Presbyterian Vacation Bible School, all before I returned to Catholicism. I just wanted to dispel any idea that this post is pushing a Catholic-centric line of thought.

So, what is Holy (or Maundy) Thursday?

Holy Thursday, the Feast of the Lord's Supper, is the first feast day of the Easter Triduum, which also includes Good Friday and Easter Sunday (observance of which begins with a vigil mass/service on Saturday night). Collectively, these three celebrations mark the most important dates in the Christian calendar. I'm going to assume you know that Good Friday commemorates the Christ's crucifixion, death, and descent into hell and Easter Sunday, His resurrection.

On Holy Thursday we celebrate three things. First, we remember the Passover. Christians do not regard their religion as a rejection or derivative but rather a culmination of Judaism. We believe the Lord made good on his Covenant and gave us His only son to be the promised Messiah, bringing a new covenant. Yet, as Exodus 12:14 tells us, "This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as an ordinance for ever." The Christian heritage is the Hebrew heritage, and we have not forgotten. I think it is extremely symbolic that the Christ's last supper with his apostles was a Passover seder.

Second, we celebrate the institution of the Mass and the Eucharist. I speculate that we don't have seders because we celebrate a daily seder, Mass, with our Church family. The main elements of the high church Mass are drawn from the last supper: the reading of Scripture, the blessings, the communal sharing of unleavened bread and wine. The meaning of the bread and wine differs amongst denominations, with Catholics believing it to be transsubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ and others seeing it as an important symbolic gesture, yet this shared meal is common to them.

The third thing we celebrate is the washing of the feet. In washing the apostles' feet, Christ gave us a very powerful testament to his message of love: "For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you." (John 13:15) It was a small gesture, but one that underscores what He preached throughout His mission: Christian love is not about self-importance or self-aggrandizement but about humility, self-sacrifice, and service to others.

This is why Holy Thursday is so significant to Christians. Please accept this post in the spirit it is intended, which is to promote understanding.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 10th, 2009 04:00 am (UTC)
At our (Episcopal) church, the Maundy Thursday service concludes with the stripping of the altar: as Psalm 51 is recited (or sung, sometimes) the candles are put out and the big golden cross and all the rest of the stuff that adorns the altar is taken away. All that is left is a wooden cross with a small black cross draped over it. It will stay like that until Saturday, when the church is decorated for Easter.
Apr. 10th, 2009 10:39 am (UTC)
I forgot to include that, thank you.

Also, in the Catholic church (and I assume Anglican/Episcopal as well — I don't know if the others pay so much attention to colors) the celebrant's vestments change. Gone is the purple of Lent, replaced with white.
Apr. 10th, 2009 12:59 pm (UTC)
Yes, we do the purple/white/green thing (and occasionally red, which I think is only used at Pentecost).
Apr. 10th, 2009 04:47 am (UTC)
Thank you. That was a very helpful introduction to traditions that I grew up totally unfamiliar with.
Apr. 10th, 2009 08:23 am (UTC)
I presume you realise that 90% of British people do not go to church except for baptisms, weddings, and funerals. This is a post-Christian society. Good Friday is seen as an opportunity to go out and shop, as is Easter Monday.

There are also many Holy Rollers out there who do not celebrate Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, or Easter Eve. They are likely to have only a Dawn Service on Easter.

It's linked to the fact that most people under the age of 45 or so here haven't a clue about such things as the King James Bible or the Book of Common Prayer. So literary allusions to those books go right over their heads. (Same is true of Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass allusions, of course.)

There was some hope earlier in the recession that people would return to religion when the material world failed them. Doesn't seem to be happening.

The new Abp. of Westminster was on Today this morning and was really having trouble getting his spiritual message across as the interviewer concentrated on condoms, abortion, and the increasing distance between British people and religion. The interviewer won, I think.
Apr. 10th, 2009 10:36 am (UTC)
I do realize that, one of the reasons I pointed out that even regular churchgoers may not be completely informed about it's importance. Our church was only about three-quarters full, which, when you consider that we're drawing attendance from four regular Masses, isn't very impressive at all. Of course, ignorance and apathy do not lessen the feast's importance.

Not surprised about the interview. As long as the public/media continue to focus only on a small number of controversial issues, the gap between religion and the people will continue to widen.
Apr. 10th, 2009 12:58 pm (UTC)
At our church last night, the congregation consisted of members of the altar guild, a couple of ushers, and one member of the vestry. The minister was almost literally preaching to the choir.
Apr. 10th, 2009 01:37 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting this...you have a marvelous way of summarizing oodles of theology in three paragraphs. I couldn't make it to church last night, so it was lovely to read this over and remember the importance of the day on my own.
Apr. 10th, 2009 03:01 pm (UTC)
I'm neither a Christian nor a Jew (nor much of anything definite, really), but I also appreciated this post. It is my experience that some non-Christians have some pretty wacky and ignorant received notions about the faith; and while I wouldn't ever want to dictate what people believe or think about others' beliefs, clear factual information may at least dispel certain prejudices.

I remember arguing with a Jewish ex once about the crucifix. She maintained that it was a grotesque symbol, and that was all there was to it. While she is entitled to her opinion, of course, I tried in vain to explain the rich polysemy of the crucified Christ to believers. She wasn't having it -- not just for herself, but for anyone. I dropped the subject, but her attitude did sadden me.

There are a lot of Christians out there who quite frankly behave like self-righteous and bigoted asses. That to me is antithetical to Christ's words as they appear in Scripture, and I can understand why the behavior of His putative followers turns off so many non-Christians. That said, there are creepy and intolerant members of many other faiths as well (like the weirdass followers of Menachem Schneerson, or some pagans I've met who had a major axe to grind against everyone else). At the very least, we owe each and every religion that preaches tolerance (as to my mind Christians are compelled to do by Jesus's teachings) that same tolerance in return.
Apr. 10th, 2009 07:38 pm (UTC)
Yay, understanding.

And yay, remembering that the last supper was a seder. My mom tells the story of utterly wigging out her classmates by making that observation, decades ago, so it stays in my mind as one of those context-tests.

And unrelatedly: is there a Thirsty Monday to go with Maundy Thursday?
Apr. 10th, 2009 10:29 pm (UTC)

(I wish I had a forehead-slapping userpic for this)
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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