Musings on Maundy or Holy Thursday

Today is Holy Thursday in the Roman Catholic Church. The old English term “Maundy Thursday” is not used much anymore and I never considered its source. However, this old historian couldn’t resist doing some research into its meaning.

The English word “maund” refers to a small basket held out by beggars. Thus, the term Maundy Thursday is thought to arise from a medieval custom wherein alms were given to the poor on that day. Most of us, however, equate Holy Thursday mainly with the Last Supper of Christ and his Apostles. Some of that celebration or service is given to the washing of the feet and the collection of food baskets for the poor. I find these rituals or customs impressive and very moving — as concrete expressions of Christ’s love, carried out for and by his followers. Here in Sacred Heart Chapel we have been washing the feet and collecting food for at least 20 years.

Historically, English monarchs had the custom of washing the feet of 12 poor people and giving alms to the poor on Holy (or Maundy) Thursday. There is even a sketch of Queen Elizabeth I, drawn in the 16th century, washing people’s feet. English monarchs ceased this particular custom by the 18th century, though the giving of alms continues. And, recently I learned that there is a connection between Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Easter Triduum.

The section of The Divine Comedy titled “The Inferno” describes Dante’s journey through hell which begins on Holy Thursday night and continues to the dawn of Easter Sunday when he emerges from hell.

Symbolically, this is a period of “death” for Dante, when he suffers but also rises from the darkness of sin into the glory of resurrected life. In New York City, the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine presents an annual reading of key selections from “The Inferno.” This occurs every Maundy Thursday evening and over 20 people serve as readers. While I don’t intend to read “The Inferno” this Holy Thursday, I shall keep these historical references in mind as our community gathers to recall Christ’s Last Supper and reaches out to the needy in spirit and in body.
photo: This painting on porcelain, “Charity,” by 19th century Austrian artist Josef Zasche, was donated to the monastery by Connie (Grell) Schutta in December 2009.