Maundy Thursday

Preaching and Worship Resources about Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday is the day in Holy Week when the church remembers the last evening Jesus shared with his disciples in the upper room before his arrest and crucifixion. The odd-looking word "Maundy" is derived from the Latin of Jesus's words in John 13:34 when he gives his disciples a "new commandment" (mandatum novu) to love one another. This new mandate or command for self-giving love marks Jesus's time with the disciples on that final night of his earthly, pre-resurrection life even as it anticipates Jesus's own ultimate expression of love in the sacrifice he was about to offer on the cross.

In Scripture

The first Passover in Exodus 12:1 - 14: "This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance" (Ex. 12:14).

The divine shepherd in Psalm 23: "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows" (Ps. 23:5).

God delivers in Psalm 34: "I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears" (Ps. 34:4).

Thanksgiving for God's deliverance in Psalm 116: "What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people" (Ps. 116:12 - 14).

God's eschatological feast in Isaiah 25: "On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear" (Isa. 25:6).

The suffering servant in Isaiah 53: "He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account" (Isa. 53:3).

Matthew's account of the first Maundy Thursday in Matthew 26:17 - 46: "While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, `Take, eat; this is my body.' Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, `Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins'" (Matt. 26:26 - 28).

Mark's account of the first Maundy Thursday in Mark 14:12 - 72: "Immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; and with him there was a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, `The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.' So when he came, he went up to him at once and said, `Rabbi!' and kissed him. Then they laid hands on him and arrested him" (Mark 14:43 - 46).

Luke's account of the first Maundy Thursday in Luke 22:1 - 46: "He said to them, `I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God'" (Luke 22:15 - 16).

Jesus provides a feast in John 6: "Jesus said to them, `I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty'" (John 6:35).

John's account of the first Maundy Thursday in John 13 - 17 "Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him" (John 13:3 - 5).

Spiritual food in 1 Corinthians 10:1 - 22: "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (1 Cor. 10:16 - 17).

Proclaiming Christ's death through the Lord's Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:17 - 34: "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Cor. 11:26).

The new commandment in Colossians 3:12 - 17: "Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony" (Col. 3:14).

Jesus the high priest in Hebrews 9: "For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant" (Heb. 9:15).

Abiding in God's love in 1 John 4:7 - 21: "And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us" (1 John 4:14 - 16).

Points to Ponder

Key Events: Maundy Thursday marks three key events in Jesus's last week: his washing of his disciples' feet, his institution of the Lord's Supper, and his new commandment to love one another. The traditional Maundy Thursday worship service begins the Triduum, the three-day period from sunset on Thursday to sunset on Easter Day. The name "Maundy Thursday" comes from the Latin mandatum novum, referring to the "new commandment" Jesus taught his disciples (John 13:34). In other words, this is "new commandment Thursday." In some churches a Maundy Thursday service is the primary or even the only midweek service during Holy Week. In this case, the service needs to call attention both to the events in the upper room and to the events of Good Friday. Because there are so many theologically significant and spiritually nourishing events and themes to be addressed, many congregations find it helpful to have services on both Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

Foot Washing: Because in John 13 Jesus took it upon himself to do the servant's job of washing the disciples' feet, some Maundy Thursday services feature a pastor or other leaders washing the feet of various members of the congregation. In Roman Catholic worship, the pope himself typically washes the feet of poor persons in Rome. No tradition claims that foot washing is sacramental, and it is unclear whether Jesus intended this gesture be something to be repeated in a literal way in centuries to come (he did not, for instance, command that this be done in remembrance of him the way he later would do with the eating of bread and drinking of wine). In that time in history, however, having one's feet washed before a meal was both an act of hospitality performed by lowly servants (it may not have always been a pleasant task) and a nod to good hygiene for people who often reclined at floor-level tables to eat. Jesus made it clear that the act was symbolic of something that needs to characterize the lives of his followers at all times: humble, loving service. When Jesus says in John 13 that he has left them an example, he did not mean the foot-washing act per se but the attitude of the heart that allowed the master to stoop down and take on the role of a servant (cf. Phil. 2). What "foot washing" may mean in other cultural contexts has varied over time. Perhaps it means washing up the dishes after a meal, giving up a good seat at a concert (or even a worship service!) to someone else while you take an obstructed-view seat, not joining elite members-only clubs that discriminate against people of other races or socioeconomic statuses, or volunteering to serve soup at a homeless shelter. It is the attitude of humility and a desire to serve in love — even if that means taking on a position in the lowliest station in society — that is to be the hallmark of all those who claim to live under the lordship of the ultimate servant, Christ Jesus.

The Lord's Supper: Maundy Thursday worship naturally features the Lord's Supper and, in some traditions, an act of foot washing or another sign of mutual love and dedication. Celebrations of the Lord's Supper can call attention to the many theologically rich dimensions of the Last Supper itself, including its attention to communal love and its clear eschatological orientation — its hopeful anticipation of the coming kingdom.

Passover: Jesus's institution of the Lord's Supper was built upon the chassis of the traditional Jewish observance of the Passover meal or Seder. The Seder remembers Israel's final meal before the exodus from Egypt. This meal answers the question traditionally asked at the start of the meal (usually by a child): "Why is this night different from all other nights?" The meal's menu includes the unleavened bread and bitter herbs signifying a meal eaten in haste as Israel prepared to flee that land of slavery. Lamb is eaten as a remembrance of the blood of lambs painted upon the doorposts of Israelite houses, a sign observed by the angel of death to pass over the firstborn in that home. Into this traditional remembrance, Jesus introduced new meaning. The bread was no longer a reminder of a hasty meal but now symbolized his own soon-to-be-slain flesh. The second cup of wine — the cup of blessing — drunk after the Seder then became a sign of a new covenant, symbolizing Jesus's own soon-to-be-shed sacrificial blood. One wonders what went through the minds of the disciples as suddenly Jesus altered a memorial meal each disciple knew by heart. Imagine today witnessing a baptism in a church at which the minister suddenly began to use completely new language to describe what was going on and asserting that the meaning of this washing with water pointed to the need to do a cleansing of polluted areas of the planet. Surely we would be startled and perhaps scandalized to see a traditional sacrament being turned on its head! Something like that may have occurred to the disciples, too, as Jesus now became the sacrificial lamb in a new meal in which his own flesh and blood — and the sacrifice he offered — became the sole focus. But insofar as Jesus turned the traditional meal eaten by God's covenant people into a new covenant sacrament, we are reminded that the whole of Scripture finally narrates but one sacred story: Jesus as the Christ of God is the climax of, and in most ways the whole point of, the entire narrative.


Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.