A Beginner’s Guide to Maundy Thursday

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Darren Staples/Reuters

Britain's Queen Elizabeth leaves after the Maundy Service at York Minster in northern England

Maundy Thursday marks the beginning of the three-day Easter celebration, and you may also hear it referred to as Holy Thursday, Sheer Thursday, or, intriguingly, Thursday of Mysteries.

The meaning is less of a mystery — it’s the Christian holy day that falls before the commemoration of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection that occurs from Good Friday through Easter Sunday. The liturgy is held in the evening, and initiates this Easter period as a tribute to the day of the Last Supper.

Why “Maundy”? It comes from the Latin word mandatum, which means “commandment.” This specifically refers to the commandment Jesus gave to his disciples at the Last Supper, once Judas had scuttled off, which was “That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”

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Jesus also washed his disciples’ feet on this occasion, and the symbolism of this act as a ruler serving their subjects was taken literally in Britain up until the death of King James II, when the monarch would wash the feet of a selected few poor people every Maundy Thursday in Westminster Abbey.

We won’t see Queen Elizabeth busting out a loofah at any point today, but the ancient tradition continues of the monarch giving out Maundy money at the Royal Maundy service. These “alms” are offered in red and white purses to retirees in a practice that rotates every year around different dioceses.

However, today’s ceremony in Britain is special as it’s the Jubilee year. The Queen is handing out Maundy money to 86 women and 86 men – one for each of her 86 years – in recognition of their special services to the community.

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