Why Do We Call It ‘Maundy Thursday’ and ‘Good Friday?”

Let’s take a look at these two holy days.

Maundy Thursday. Some people call it Holy Thursday, others as Maundy Thursday. But what does the “Maundy” in “Maundy Thursday” mean? It’s certainly not a commonly-used word or something you’re likely to hear outside the context of Easter. What did this term mean, and where did it come from? The word “Maundy” comes to us as an Anglo-French word derived from the Latin “mandatum,” which means “commandment.” It refers to when Jesus, in the Upper Room during the Last Super, said to the disciples: “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” (John 13:34, Revised Standard Version).

As a reminder of this commandment, some churches hold foot washing ceremonies on the Thursday of Holy Week. If you’ve never been a part of a foot washing ceremony, it’s an incredibly humbling activity—one can imagine how difficult it would have been for the disciples to allow Jesus to humble himself in this way.

In the evening, the washing of feet that is now part of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper is conducted. Such services are reminiscent of the washing of feet by Jesus in the Upper Room during the Last Super and accentuate the theme of humility and service (John’s Gospel, 13:1-20).

Good Friday. The celebration of Good Friday is ancient, dating at least to the 4th century. But why is it called a “good” day? The exact details of what happened on that original Friday are somewhat different in the four Gospels, but this is what we are able to piece together.

Either very late on Maundy Thursday or in the early hours of Friday, after the Last Super, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane to meditate. When he was there, one of his disciples betrayed him by leading the soldiers to him and portraying him as a threat to both the Jewish and Roman authorities. He was arrested and immediately taken before the Sanhedrin (Jewish supreme court), where he was found guilty. From there he was taken to stand before Pilate (Roman manager of Judea, southern division of Palestine), thereafter taken to face Herod (Roman king of Judea), and then back to Pilate again. He was condemned to death. He was stripped of all human dignity: scourged, crowned with thorns, spat upon, made to carry a cross through the streets, actually nailed to the cross, and finally having to suffer the slow and painful death of crucifixion from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. After he died, he was taken from the cross and buried in a tomb.

How is it possible to characterize the horrific events of that day as “good”? How is it that the cross of that Friday has become the universal symbol of Christendom? This would have gone down in history as just another death of a renegade who tried to overthrow Jewish and Roman officials had it not been for what followed.

The third day later it was discovered that Jesus was no longer in the tomb. At first it was thought that perhaps the body had been stolen. But guards had been placed at the entrance of the tomb to keep that from happening, and then Jesus appeared to the disciples. It was clear that he had overcome death.

The Apostles’ Creed, well known outline of the Christian faith ascribed to the early Disciples and used in public worship, puts it in broad but simple terms. Quoting from parts of the Creed relating directly to Good Friday: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth: and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord: who . . . suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried . . . the third day he rose again from the dead: he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty . . . I believe in . . . the life everlasting.”

That terrible Friday has been called Good Friday because it led to the Resurrection of Jesus and his victory over death and sin and the celebration of Easter, the very pinnacle of Christian celebrations. Although Christians, from the very fundamental to the very liberal, vary in their interpretations of exactly how the death of Jesus on the cross frees man from his sins and gives him everlasting life, and exactly what everlasting life means, they all agree that it took the death and burial of Jesus on that Friday to make the victory of the Resurrection possible. John simply says: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (3:16 RSV)

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