Holy Thursday

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Ascension, name usually given to the departure of Jesus from earth as related in the Gospels according to Mark (16) and Luke (24) and in Acts 1.1–11. The annual commemoration of this is one of the principal feasts in most Christian churches. Ascension Thursday, as it is called, occurs on the 40th day after Easter, being the Thursday of the sixth week of Easter. In early English usage this festival was known as Holy Thursday.
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Holy Thursday

For the Thursday of Holy Week, see Maundy Thursday; for Ascension Thursday, see Ascension Day
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002

Maundy Thursday (Holy Thursday)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: Between March 19 and April 22 in the West; between April 1 and May 5 in the East; Thursday before Easter
Where Celebrated: England, Europe, United States, South America, and throughout the Christian world
Symbols and Customs: Blessing the Oils, Foot Washing, Maundy Money, Silencing the Bells
Colors: The liturgical color for this day is white, the symbol of joy.
Related Holidays: Corpus Christi, Easter, Good Friday, Passover


Maundy Thursday is part of the religious tradition of Christianity. The word Christian refers to a follower of Christ, a title derived from the Greek word meaning Messiah or Anointed One. The Christ of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, a man born between 7 and 4 B . C . E . in the region of Palestine. According to Christian teaching, Jesus was killed by Roman authorities using a form of execution called crucifixion (a term meaning he was nailed to a cross and hung from it until he died) in about the year 30 C . E . After his death, he rose back to life. His death and resurrection provide a way by which people can be reconciled with God. In remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection, the cross serves as a fundamental symbol in Christianity.

With nearly two billion believers in countries around the globe, Christianity is the largest of the world's religions.There is no one central authority for all of Christianity. The pope (the bishop of Rome) is the authority for the Roman Catholic Church, but other sects look to other authorities. Orthodox communities look to patriarchs and emphasize doctrinal agreement and traditional practice. Protestant communities focus on individual conscience. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are often referred to as the Western Church, while the Orthodox churches may also be called the Eastern Church. All three main branches of Christianity acknowledge the authority of Christian scriptures, a compilation of writings assembled into a document called the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation vary among the different Christian sects.

The day before GOOD FRIDAY has been observed since very early times with acts of humility in imitation of Jesus Christ, who washed the feet of his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. The name "Maundy" probably came from the Latin mandatum, meaning "commandment." After the FOOT WASHING took place, Christ said, "A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another as I have loved you." (John 13:34) Some say that "Maundy" came from an old word meaning "basket" in England, where the poor used baskets to carry the food and money distributed to them on this day (see MAUNDY MONEY ).

The real significance of Maundy Thursday lies in the fact that it was the day of the Last Supper, when Jesus and his twelve apostles gathered to share the traditional Passover meal, as many others were doing all over Jerusalem. Jesus took the bread and the wine and described them in symbolic terms as his body and his blood, thus instituting the ceremony known as the Eucharist. He was trying to tell his disciples that just as the Jews had been saved from bondage in Egypt by the blood of a lamb smeared on their doors (see PASSOVER), all of mankind would be saved from the bondage of sin by the sacrifice he was about to make. He wanted his disciples to use this ceremony as a pattern for a memorial service they could hold later in his memory.

In some western European countries, the Thursday before EASTER is called Green Thursday. In Germany it's called Gründonnerstag, a name that is thought to have derived from grunen or greinen, meaning "to mourn," later corrupted into grün (green). In Austria and Hungary, it is customary to eat spinach and green salad on this day- perhaps because the Jews ate green vegetables or herbs at their Passover feast.

At one time, this day was known as Pure or Clean Thursday, from the ancient tradition of cleansing the soul as well as the body in preparation for Easter. The Old English name Shere (or Shier) Thursday referred to the practice of men shaving their beards on this day.


Blessing the Oils

The ceremony performed on the morning of Maundy Thursday and known as the Blessing of the Oils takes place at St. Peter's in Rome and in cathedrals elsewhere. It dates back to an ancient rite, the renewal of the supply of oils used to anoint people who are baptized at EASTER. There are actually three types of oils that are blessed: (1) the oil of catechumens, used in baptizing people, consecrating churches, ordaining priests, and crowning sovereigns; (2) the oil used in administering extreme unction to those who are dying; and (3) the oil of chrism, used in confirmation, the consecration of bishops, and the blessing of bells. These oils are kept in a chrismatory or casket made of silver or brass. Maundy Thursday

Two of the oils blessed on Maundy Thursday are actually olive oil. But the chrism is an ointment based on olive oil to which balsam or a perfume has been added, symbolizing "the sweet savor of Christ." In the morning service, the bishop not only blesses the oils but invites his priests to renew their commitment to their calling.

Foot Washing

The act of washing someone's feet was a courtesy offered to a guest and usually performed by a female servant, or by the women of the family if there were no servants. When Jesus washed the feet of his twelve disciples at the Last Supper, it was more than a dramatic gesture on the eve of his crucifixion: he was teaching them that by humbling themselves, they could show their love for one another.

Foot washing has been a Maundy Thursday custom since the early days of the Church. Bishops, abbots, prelates, and other religious officials participated in the ceremony, as did the popes. In medieval times-and in some countries up to the present century-Christian emperors, kings, and lords washed the feet of poor men on Holy Thursday, after which they were given money and provided with a meal. The king of England used to have poor men brought to him-one man for each year of his age. Then he washed their feet and gave them food, money, and clothing. The last British monarch to perform the foot-washing ceremony was James II (1685-88). Today, British rulers attend a special Maundy Thursday service and distribute MAUNDY MONEY to the poor afterward.

At St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome, it used to be the custom for the Pope to wash the feet of subdeacons on Maundy Thursday. He no longer takes part in the ceremony, which is performed at the Church of the Ara Caeli. The biblical account of the event is chanted and then the bishop, who wears a linen cloth at his waist, kneels to wash the right foot of each of the thirteen men selected for the occasion. Twelve of them represent the apostles and the thirteenth represents the angel who, according to legend, appeared to Gregory the Great when he was performing an act of charity on this day in the late sixth century. Some say the thirteenth man represents St. Matthias, who replaced Judas Iscariot after he betrayed Jesus.

Some Roman Catholic churches still carry out the foot-washing ceremony on the Thursday preceding Easter. It symbolizes Jesus' commandment that his followers show humility.

Maundy Money

At one time in England, the king would have as many men brought before him as he was years old. Then he would wash their feet with his own hands and distribute maunds, which consisted of meat, clothing, and money. Queen Elizabeth in 1572 gave each person enough cloth for a gown, half a side of salmon, six red herring, bread, and wine. In 1838 Queen Victoria gave out woolen and linen clothing, shoes and stockings, and new coins minted specially for the occasion, which were referred to as "Maundy money."

Today, it is the Archbishop of Canterbury who distributes the Maundy money, which is carried into London's Westminster Abbey on a huge platter by the Yeoman of the Guard. The Archbishop and the Dean of Westminster wear only plain white instead of their usual elaborate robes, and they carry linen towels on their shoulders to commemorate the FOOT WASHING ceremony, which is no longer performed. The Maundy money, contained in red and white purses, consists of specially minted silver coins that total in value the monarch's age. Although they are considered legal tender, most recipients keep the coins as souvenirs.

England is one of very few countries where the ancient custom of distributing royal Maundy gifts is still continued.

Silencing the Bells

There is a universal legend among children that all the church bells "fly to Rome" after the Gloria of the Mass is sung on Holy Thursday. In Germany and central Europe, children are told that the bells make a pilgrimage to the tomb of the apostles, or that they go to the pope to be blessed and then sleep on the roof of St. Peter's Cathedral until Easter. In France, they are told that the bells fly to Rome to fetch the Easter eggs.

Whatever the reason for their departure, the silencing of the bells after the Gloria on Maundy Thursday has produced the popular expression that "the bells have gone to Rome" and will return after the Gloria is sung on Holy Saturday. Children run through the streets shaking various types of rattles and clappers to communicate the great sorrow associated with this period. In rural parts of Austria, boys with wooden clappers go through the villages announcing the time, because even the church clock is stopped.

After the Holy Thursday Mass is sung in Rome's Sistine Chapel, no bells are allowed to ring in the city until the following Saturday morning. This means that all the bells in Rome are silent from about 11:30 a.m. Thursday until the same time on Holy Saturday. Even the hand-held bells used to summon hotel guests to dinner are silent, although occasionally wooden clappers are used instead. Since the ringing of bells symbolizes a joyous event, their silence is an appropriate symbol for the sorrow associated with Jesus' suffering and death on the cross.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Maundy Thursday

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New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia www.newadvent.org/cathen/10068a.htm
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Holy Thursday

Between April 30 and June 3; 40 days after Easter
Holy Thursday usually refers to Maundy Thursday, but in parts of rural England, it traditionally refers to Ascension Day, the day on which Jesus Christ ascended into heaven. The English custom of "well dressing," which may have had its roots in a pagan festival, became associated with Holy Thursday in 1615. There was a severe drought in Derbyshire that year and most of the wells and streams dried up. The only wells that still had water were at Tissington, where people came to get water for their livestock. From that time onward, a special thanksgiving service was held there on Ascension Day, and Tissington became known as "the village of holy wells."
The well-dressing ceremony developed into a full-fledged festival in the 19th century. After delivering his sermon, the priest leads a procession to the wells, which are nearly hidden by screens of fresh flowers fastened to wooden frames. There follows a simple ceremony at each well, asking God to bless and keep the waters pure.
Ashbourne Tourist Information Centre
13 Market Place
Ashbourne, Derbyshire DE6 1EU United Kingdom
44-13-3534-3666; fax: 44-13-3530-0638
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BkDays-1864, vol. I, p. 595
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 135
EncyEaster-2002, p. 13
SaintFestCh-1904, p. 231

Celebrated in: Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru

Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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