Today is the Christian feast day of Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday, the day that commemorates the Last Supper, the final meal that Jesus Christ had with his disciples.
The Last Supper
At this meal, which was the Passover meal, Luke’s Gospel says that Christ took bread, gave thanks to God for it, broke it and then shared it with his disciples, saying “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” He then took the cup of wine, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” Christians all over the world remember this gesture by celebrating the Eucharist, also known as “communion”. According to John’s Gospel, it was at this meal that Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, and both Luke and John record Jesus saying that there was one among them who would betray him.
Traditionally, the Last Supper has been marked on Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday which commemorates Christ’s crucifixion. Maundy Thursday is marked by different traditions in different churches and countries and may include:-
- The Washing of the Feet
- The Gloria accompanied by bells which are then not rung again until after Easter
- A procession of the Blessed Sacrament to the altar of repose
- The stripping of the altar
- The covering of the Altar table in white linen
- The renewal of the sacrament
- Maundy Money – Alms, or Maundy coins now, being offered to deserving senior citizens by the monarch (UK)
- Monarch washing the feet of the poor (UK up until the death of James II).
- Groups of children walking around their village shaking wooden rattles to call people to church – Czech Republic and Slovakia, Luxembourg
- Tradition of visiting seven churches – Malta, Philippines, Latin America
- Children dressing up as witches, knocking on doors and receiving money or sweets – Sweden
- Cleaning the house and colouring eggs – Bulgaria
Do let me know how your church or country marks this day.
Maundy Thursday in Tudor Times
You can read full details of how Easter was commemorated and celebrated in Tudor times in my article “Easter in Tudor Times”, but Tudor people marked Maundy Thursday by washing the altars of the church with water and wine, in preparation for Easter, and attending confession.
Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Mary I, Elizabeth I and Maundy Thursday
In Medieval times “it became customary for the sovereign to provide a meal and to also give gifts of clothing, food, and money to the poor people involved”1 and by the reign of Henry VIII this had developed into washing the feet of poor people with the number of people equalling the monarch’s age:-
“Each year Henry washed the feet of the number of men who equaled his age and gave each of the poor men whose feet he washed a red purse with the number of pence within it that also equaled his age.”2
Henry’s queens followed the tradition of giving alms to the poor on Maundy Thursday. In March 1535, Anne Boleyn gave alms and there is a letter in Letters and Papers from Sir Edward Chamberlain and Sir Edmund Bedyngfeld to Cromwell telling him that Catherine of Aragon, the “Princess Dowager”, “intends to keep a Maundy, in spite of the King’s order of last year to the contrary.”3 It was no longer her place to give alms to the poor as she was no longer Queen but she was intent on doing so.
Mary I practised feet washing, giving alms and also blessing cramp rings and also carried out “touching for the King’s evil”, a healing ritual which could only be carried out by God’s anointed sovereign. In 1556, Mary “knelt down on both her knees before the first of the poor women, and taking in the left hand the woman’s right foot, she washed it, . . . drying it very thoroughly with the towel which hung at her neck, and having signed it with the cross she kissed the foot so fervently that it seemed as if she were embracing something very precious.”4 As the Queen was 41 years of age, she did this to 41 poor women and then gave them food, wine, clothes and a purse containing 41 pence.
Elizabeth I did not bless cramp rings but she did carry out “touching for the king’s evil” and throughout her reign she washed the feet of the poor on Maundy Thursday. Records and descriptions from Elizabeth’s reign reveal to us what happened on Maundy Thursday:-
“The Hall where the Maundy took place was prepared with long tables on each side, set with all the paraphernalia needed for the ceremony. There were carpets and cushions on which the queen could kneel and basins of holy-water, alms, and other gifts for the recipients. The chaplain entered first, as did all the poor women who were to participate in the ceremony. There were the same number of women as years in the queen’s age, thus the ceremony got longer as the queen grew older. These women would take their places, half on each side of the room. The Yeomen of the Laundry, with towels and a silver basin filled with warm waters and flowers, washed each women’s feet and then wiped them. The women’s feet were then washed by the Sub-Almoner and again by the Almoner.
After all this had taken place the queen then entered the hall and prayers and songs were sung in her honor. For these occasions Elizabeth dressed very formally, sometimes in blue, the color of the Virgin Mary, an identification which was often made for Elizabeth. Then the same number of ladies and gentlewomen as poor women addressed themselves with aprons and towels to wait upon the queen. Elizabeth, kneeling on the cushions, washed each woman’s feet, and then kissed one, and then the other, after which she made on each foot the sign of the cross. After Elizabeth finished the foot washing itself, she gave each woman cloth for a dress, shoes, food, and wine. Then the aprons of each gentlewoman was given to the poor women. Each woman was also given a small white purse containing the number of pence of the queen’s age.”5
What a wonderful tradition!
Not a Thursday at All?
Scientist Colin Humphreys of Cambridge University has just published research in which he suggests that the Last Supper actually took place on a Wednesday, not a Thursday. According to a BBC News report, the metallurgist and materials scientist concludes that the Last Supper took place on Wednesday 1st April AD33, that “discrepancies in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke as compared with John arose because they used an older calendar than the official Jewish one” and that his findings “could present a case for finally fixing Easter Day to the first Sunday in April.”6.
In his book, “The Mystery of the Last Supper”, Humphreys puts forward his argument, using Biblical, historical and astronomical research to address the Biblical inconsistencies regarding the date of the Last Supper:-
“If you look at all the events the Gospels record – between the Last Supper and the Crucifixion – there is a large number. It is impossible to fit them in between a Thursday evening and Friday morning… But I found that two different calendars were involved. In fact, the four gospels agree perfectly.”7
He explains that Matthew, Mark and Luke used am old fashioned Jewish calendar whereas John used the official lunar calendar. Humphreys says “In John’s Gospel, he is correct in saying the Last Supper was before the Passover meal. But Jesus chose to hold his Last Supper as a Passover meal according to an earlier Jewish calendar” and concludes that the Last Supper was therefore on Wednesday 1st April AD33 “according to the standard Julian calendar used by historians”8.
So, perhaps those of us marking the Last Supper today should have been commemorating it yesterday! Interesting.
There’s some interesting information on the Royal family and Maundy Thursday at http://www.royal.gov.uk/RoyalEventsandCeremonies/RoyalMaundyService/Maundyservice.aspx, and here is a video of Queen Alexandra attending a Maundy Thursday service:-
See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-13155577 for a video from today’s Maundy Thursday service which the Queen attended on her 85th birthday.
- “Would I Could Give You Help and Succour”: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Touch, Carole Levin, University of Nebraska, 1989, Published in ALBION: A QUARTERLY JOURNAL CONCERNED WITH BRITISH STUDIES, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Summer, 1989), p194
- LP viii.428
- Levin, p197
- Ibid., p201
- Jesus Christ’s Last Supper ‘was on a Wednesday’, BBC News article
- Easter in Tudor Times
- Maundy Thursday, Wikipedia page
- Luke 22:7-23
- John 13:1-17
- Jesus Christ’s Last Supper ‘was on a Wednesday’, BBC News article