Maundy Thursday: What is it and why do we celebrate it?

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“Part of the Bigger Story”

On Maundy Thursday we remember a story, a story about Jesus’ last evening with all of his 12 disciples. It is a night for Jesus to continue teaching His disciples through His words and deeds.

What does Maundy Thursday Mean?

Christ’s “mandate” is commemorated on Maundy Thursday—“maundy” being a shortened form of mandatum (Latin), which means “command.” It was on the Thursday of Christ’s final week before being crucified and resurrected that He said this commandment to His disciples. Jesus and his disciples had just shared what was known as the Last Supper and he was washing their feet when he stated:

“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” (John 13:34).

It is this night on which they will share a supper, the last supper, and they are invited to share this supper again and again in the years to come and to remember this night and to remember Jesus.

This night is actually just part of a larger story that we will remember this weekend during worship services tomorrow, Good Friday, and on Sunday, Easter. But without tonight’s story, the stories that follow cannot be fully understood, and without the story of Easter Sunday, tonight’s story is the prologue to the greatest tragedy the world has ever known.

Have you ever read a book and then seen a movie and been sorely disappointed by the movie? Sometimes the movie tells just part of the story. I am always disappointed when I see a movie about the life of Jesus that portrays His crucifixion and not Jesus’ resurrection. I was a little disappointed by the movie, “Unbroken,” because it told only part of a much larger story of redemption and grace in the life of Louis Zamperini, a talented runner who competed in the Berlin Olympics in 1936.

Laura Hillenbrand’s book tells the story of Louie’s life more fully than the movie.

During World War II, Louie served as an airman in the army stationed in Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands. While serving on a Pacific rescue search for a plane that had not returned, the engine of Louie’s search plane failed. The plane plunged into the Pacific carrying Louie and the other men deep into the ocean depths. Louie fought his way to the surface of the water and found two small life rafts and two other survivors, injured but alive. Existing on occasional rainwater and a few raw fish, the men drifted for 47 days and 2,000 miles in the blazing sun by day and the cold by night. They endured shark attacks, leaking rafts, thirst and starvation and enemy aircraft attacks.

One man did not survive, but Louie and his pal, Phil, battled on. Louie was not a religious man, and during his youth, he had been something of a delinquent, breaking into houses, stealing and brawling. Louie had no idea how to speak to God. But Louie’s human strength was dwindling, the elements of nature threatened his life, and friendly human rescue was unlikely. Adrift on a raft facing almost certain death, Louie began to pray out loud to God. Louie had nowhere to look for help but from God, through prayer.

There is something within us that draws us to God and to prayer, especially during difficult times when life is too challenging for us to handle. Louie floated on the life raft in the midst of an immense ocean, parched and dying of thirst, and he looked into the sky, and he prayed, “If you will save us, I will serve heaven forever.”

After 47 horrific days on the life rafts, the men were found by the Japanese and put into prisoner of war camps where they suffered terribly. Known to be a former Olympic star, Louie was particularly abused by his captors and endured unimaginable beatings and cruel abuse.

When the war ended, Louie was able to return home to his family and to a hero’s welcome, and the movie of his life ends here, telling basically a story of human survival against great odds. Laura Hillenbrand’s book tells the rest of the story of Louie Zamperini. Louie’s post-war life was a nightmare. He suffered from the tension of the stress and humiliation endured while a POW when his rights as a human being were stripped from him. He experienced nightmares about strangling his former captives. Louie drank too much, and his life and his marriage were in shambles.

At the insistence of Louie’s wife, Cynthia, Louie attended a Billy Graham crusade in California. Billy Graham asked the question, “Why is God silent while good men suffer?” He began his answer by asking the audience to consider the evening sky. Billy Graham said, “If you look into the heavens tonight, on this beautiful California night, I see the stars and can see the footprints of God…. He runs the whole universe and He’s not too busy running the whole universe to count the hairs on my head and see a sparrow when it falls, because God is interested in me….”

Louie remembered the day when he and Phil were slowly dying on the raft. Above them, the sky had been a swirl of light and below, the stilled ocean had mirrored the sky. Louie had been awed and silent, and had forgotten his thirst and his hunger. He had forgotten that he was dying. Louie had known only gratitude. Louie had believed that day that what lay around him was the work of an infinitely broad and benevolent hand, and a gift of compassion. Louie remembered his prayer to God while at sea adrift on a life raft.

Billy Graham spoke of God reaching into the world through miracles and in tangible blessings that give men the strength to outlast their sorrows. He said, “God works miracles, one after another, and God says, “If you suffer, I’ll give you the grace to go forward.”

Louie remembered his many close encounters with death, trapped in the sinking hull of his plane, when wires that had trapped him, were suddenly and inexplicably gone; the Japanese bomber that swooped over the life rafts and riddled them with bullets and not a single bullet struck the men aboard the life rafts. The only explanation that Louie could find was one in which the impossible was possible.

Billy Graham spoke to the thousands of worshippers attending his service, “This is it. God has spoken to you. You come on.”

Louie knew that these words were meant for him. Louie came forward and gave his life to Jesus. Louie’s life was forever changed. He poured out the liquor, threw out the cigarettes and the girlie magazines. Louie forgave his captors and began a new life as a Christian inspirational speaker, telling his story all over America. The transformation of Louie’s life was even more amazing than his survival as depicted by the movie. But both Louie’s survival and his transformation were evidence that God was at work in Louie’s life. Without the story of Louie’s transformation, the story of Louie’s survival is without its full meaning, and we cannot fully appreciate how God’s hand was at work in Louie’s life.

The story of Jesus and the disciples on the night that we know as Maundy Thursday is a night of preparation for the events that will follow, for the story of Jesus is part of the ongoing story of God’s redemption and grace.

It is a story of loving and forgiving those who wrong you.

Maundy Thursday is part of the story that shows us God’s power to transform death into life, hopelessness into hope.

Maundy Thursday is the occasion of Jesus’ last meal with His disciples and it is the Passover meal. Jesus removes His outer garment, wraps a towel around Himself, and begins to wash the disciples’ feet. One dirty foot after another, even the feet of Judas, the one who would betray Jesus in just a few short hours.

Foot washing was a common practice in the ancient Mediterranean world. A host would welcome guests with foot washing to cleanse their feet from the dust of the journey. The guests often washed their own feet or the host would instruct a servant to wash the guests’ feet. Foot washing was an act of hospitality and of service.

Jesus assumes the role of both servant and host as He washes the feet of His disciples. Jesus kneels before Peter to wash his feet, and Peter protests, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus’ response is that Peter must allow Jesus to wash his feet or Peter will not share in Jesus’ life and ministry. Peter must receive the love and life offered by Jesus. Peter must allow Himself to be served by Jesus if he is to serve others as Jesus’ disciple. Unless Peter receives these gifts from Jesus, Peter has nothing of eternal value to share with others. Jesus is offering His disciples a relationship with Him and through Jesus, with God.

Jesus’ disciples are bewildered by Jesus’ actions so He explains. Jesus, their Teacher and Lord, has washed their feet as an example of servanthood. Jesus offers them the commandment that reflects the guiding principle of Jesus’ life and the life of any who seek to follow Jesus. Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

We, as later disciples of Jesus, wonder at these words as Jesus’ disciples must have also wondered. Love everyone, Lord? How is this even possible? There are some people in the world right now who are doing some really evil things. Are we to love them, too? Are we to love those who would do unkind things to us and disappoint and hurt us again and again?

Jesus is the light of the world that radiates love, pure love not dimmed or diffused by fear or self-interest or mixed motives. In such pure light, we can see, if we are willing to be honest, the dark places of our lives, the sins we do not like to admit, the judgmental thoughts we do not even want to acknowledge, and the desire for our way both before and after praying for guidance concerning God’s way and God’s will.

In the presence of such pure light, we may rush to ask Jesus to wash all of us, our hands, our heads. But Jesus wants to wash only our hearts so that we are cleansed of all hatred, jealousy, strife and all that would block His Light from shining in us. Jesus wants His love to shine in and through us. Jesus whispers in our ears, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Jesus’ story continues. Tonight He will go into a garden to pray for the Father’s will to be done in His life. One disciple will betray Him and deliver Him to His enemies who want to have Him killed. Another disciple will deny Him three times before the cock crows. All of His disciples will flee in fear of losing their lives. Jesus will forgive and love them all. Jesus will be left alone with His enemies who will deliver Him to be beaten and condemned to die a humiliating death on a cross. They could crucify Jesus’ body, but they could not end His story of Jesus’ love and the faithful love of His Father God. No one could extinguish the transforming, redeeming love of God.

Episcopalian, Barbara Brown Taylor, once wrote,
“In the presence of … [Jesus’] constancy, our cowardice is brought to light. In the presence of his fierce love for God and for us, our own hardness of heart is revealed…. He is the light of the world. In his presence, people either fall down to worship him or do everything they can to extinguish his light…. Make yourself look in the mirror. Today no one gets away without being shamed by his beauty. Today no one flees without being laid bare by his light.”

Allow yourself to be laid bare by the Light of the world and in His light to examine your story.

I invite you to see how your story is part of the on-going story of Jesus and His disciples in the world. Find yourself among Jesus’ disciples and allow Jesus to wash your feet as you receive His love.

Receive the bread tonight as if from the hand of Jesus. Then ponder this question: What will be the rest of your story, tonight, tomorrow, Easter Sunday and beyond? Is Jesus part of your story?

I don’t think there has ever been a child who didn’t think I was saying Monday Thursday during the Holy Week announcements. Growing up, I thought today was Monday Thursday until about age 14. And when I finally learned it was “Maundy,” no one could explain why it was called that!

But friends, ‘Maundy’ is derived from the latin ‘mandatum’ which means basically “commandment.”

Because Thursday night of Holy Week corresponds to the Last Supper, it includes Jesus saying, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you. This is the night of that New Commandment, in other words, it is New Commandment Thursday.

Maundy Thursday services traditionally include a focus on the Last Supper, not only as the beginning of the Triduum (the Great Three Days), but also as the institution of the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, Communion.

Right now, we’re battling a national and global pandemic of the corona virus. Social distancing mandates have shut us down economically and even impacting the church. But, this virus has not shut down the Kingdom of God. It has not shut down the Body of Christ. The church is more than just a building. It’s made up of all born-again believers, of every race, color and creed, that confess Christ as their personal Lord & Savior, that cling to the cross as their only means of salvation, that believe God raised Christ from the dead that first Easter morning and that submit their lives to His Lordship by turning from their sins and following the risen Lord Jesus Christ as yielded believers seeking to worship and obey Him with all their heart, soul and mind.  

You see, there’s ‘the church within the church.’ The true church within the organized church. People can be a member of the organized church and yet not know Christ as Lord and Savior. Their ‘knowledge’ of Christ is merely intellectual, but it hasn’t changed their hearts or life. They aren’t filled by God’s Holy Spirit. They are like the folks who stood around the cross, while Jesus was being crucifed, and just stared in disbelief at Him, no remorse, no repentance, no faith that transforms. These were mere spectators and we still have them today.

Are you a true follower or a mere spectator? 

I’m asking you this Easter to revisit the cross and renew your faith and commitment to Christ. We are hearing of many people daily who have ‘found Christ’ through this pandemic in a fresh, new way that has made a huge difference in their life. The same can happen to you. That’s why He died on the cross for you—to save you from yourself and your sins. God loves you deeply, but it won’t do you any good unless you personally recieve His love and offer of mercy and forgiveness through the cross of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ and respond by turning from your sins and confessing Christ publicly to the world. Jesus has no secret followers. Your eternal future in heaven or hell is your choice and we only get to heaven by Christ and Christ alone, not our good works, good intentions or sincerity, only the blood of Jesus shed for you in your place. 

As you’re reading this, we pray God’s Holy Spirit will nudge your heart to surrender your heart and life to Christ right now by prayer. God bless you as you do, “For whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”  Be blessed this Holy Thursday in Jesus’ name!

Author: David Crews Ph.D.

As a published author, David's first book was "A Comparative Analysis of Theological and Psychological Worldview Perspectives" (Scholar's Press, 2018). His second book, "Union with Christ for Today," followed it's release. David holds two earned Doctorates; a Ph.D. in Philosophy and a D.Th. Doctorate in Theology. He also graduated with Honors with two additional, earned degrees, two Master's degrees (M.A.) Additionally, he has pursued Post-Doctorate Studies in Archeology and Ancient History from Oxford University and the London School of Theology in the U.K.