“The name ‘Maundy’ is from ‘Mandatum,’ the ceremony of washing the feet at the end of the Mass, whose first antiphon begins: ‘Mandatum novum do vobis.’ It is usual to call a service after the first word of its chants. In the same way we speak of a ‘Requiem,’ a ‘Dirge’ (‘Dirge’ is the beginning of the first antiphon at Matins for the dead), and so on. It is curious that in England the ceremony of washing the feet should have given its name to the whole day.
THE MAIN FEATURE
The main feature of the function today and tomorrow is that on Good Friday the holy Sacrifice is not offered. That is as old a custom as any in the Church. It obtains equally in all rites. Indeed, in most of the Eastern rites, as once at Rome, there were many ‘aliturgical’ (that is, days on which the holy Liturgy [Mass] was not celebrated) days in Lent. The Byzantine rite, for instance, has this Liturgy of the Presanctified every Wednesday and Friday in Lent, and on Monday and Tuesday in Holy Week. We now have it only on Good Friday. But, although no priest consecrates on Good Friday, it is the equally old custom that the priest (and once the people, too) should make their Communion. For this purpose it is necessary to reserve the Sanctissimum consecrated at the Mass the day before. Nowadays, it would be easy to take the Sanctissimum from the tabernacle; but the ceremonies of Holy Week date from a time when it was by no means the universal custom to reserve in every church. So special arrangements had to be made to reserve for this occasion. At the Mass on Maundy Thursday the priest consecrates [hosts, some of them he takes to a place prepared where they are kept] till Communion on Good Friday. That is the root of the service on both days.
THE BETRAYAL OF JUDAS
For the rest, the Mass of Maundy Thursday is a festal Mass, with white vestments, with the ‘Gloria in excelsis.’ It is the only case in the year when the Mass of the day and office do not correspond. The office is all mournful. Here the memory which seems most to fill the mind of the Church is the betrayal of Judas. But when Mass is said the Church cannot forget, although it is the middle of the week of mourning, that this is the day to which we owe the Holy Eucharist. So, a startling exception to the usual note of the time, at Mass at least we put aside all thought of mourning and celebrate with joy our Lord’s last gift before he died.
The ringing of the bells at the ‘Gloria’ is only the sign that from now on they will not be heard again until the first Easter Mass. The Church is accustomed to do a thing solemnly for the last time before it ceases, as we say the ‘Alleluia’ solemnly twice at the end of Vespers before Septuagesima. Probably the time of the ‘Gloria’ is chosen because it corresponds to the time when the bells ring out on Holy Saturday. The playing of the organ at the same time is obviously a further development of the same idea. The organ, too, comes back at the ‘Gloria’ on Holy Saturday. (Thurston, pp. 277-281). To play the organ on Maundy Thursday is less logical, since it should not have been heard during all Lent; but one can see the connection of ideas.
From this time begin the ‘still days’ of our forefathers, on which all are to be intent only on the memory of what our Lord bore for us.
After Mass the procession takes the Sanctissimum to the place where it is kept till the next day. This is an example of a real Roman procession, having a definite object. It is usual to call the place to which the Blessed Sacrament is taken the ‘altar of repose.’ This is a harmless popular name; but it is not really an altar. No sacrifice is offered on it.
THE ‘ALTAR OF REPOSE’
At first it seems that nothing more was done than to keep the Sanctissimum reverently in some safe place, often in the sacristy, as it is still reserved in many Eastern Churches. Then people realised that this was the one occasion when they had the Blessed Sacrament in their churches. So they made much of it. They fitted up and adorned a place of honour; they began to watch and pray before the ‘altar of repose’ all the day and all night. Much of the ideas of such later developments as Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, of the ‘Forty Hours’ and so on, seems to have begun during this time between Mass on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. And then, even after it had become usual to reserve the Sanctissimum on the altar of nearly every church all the year round, the old custom of special reverence on this occasion went on. That, too, is nearly always so. Custom preserves many things in liturgy after their first reason has ceased.
This accounts for the special reverence with which we still treat the Sanctissimum at the altar of repose, although we have it now in the tabernacle always. And, indeed, on this night of all nights, when our Lord was suffering his bitter torment, it is natural that people should spend part of the time with him in prayer, honouring the gift of that day.
REGARDING THESE FAST DAYS
We leave the altar of repose, come back to the High Altar and say Vespers. This is not really a special feature of these days. On all fast days Vespers are now said in the morning, from the old idea that one does not break one’s fast till after Vespers. Easier rule now allows people to eat at midday on fast days; but the liturgical sequence is preserved; so the meal pushed Vespers back to the morning. The fact that on fast days at the end of Mass the deacon says not: ‘Ite missa est,’ but ‘Benedicamus Domino,’ meant once that he did not dismiss the people then, because they were to stay for Vespers.
STRIPPING THE ALTAR
After Vespers the altar is stripped. This ceremony has become to us one of the features of Holy Week; yet it is only one more case of an archaic custom, otherwise abolished, but preserved on these days. Once, after Mass on any day, the altar was stripped. Now on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday the stripping of the altar has become a symbol of desolation, or a memory that our Lord was stripped of his garments.
THE WASHING OF FEET
The Maundy follows. When our Lord had washed the feet of the Apostles he gave us a clear command to do as he had done (John xiii. 15). Doubtless this means, in the first place, rather the general attitude he then observed; but the Church has always taken his command literally too. There are innumerable cases of washing feet (at one time a very practical work of charity) by Heads of religious houses, done to poor travellers, pilgrims, and so on, by Popes, bishops, Kings. Still in Catholic countries it is the custom for the Sovereign to wash the feet of thirteen poor men today. Indeed, so definite is our Lord’s command to carry out this ceremony, so clear the implication of a grace given thereby (John xiii, 10, 11, 17), that at one time it seems to have been considered almost to approach the dignity of a sacrament. We shall certainly not consider the Mandatum to be a real sacrament; but it may be counted among the sacramentals.
Naturally, it was most of all on this day that people obeyed our Lord’s command. Whereas Fathers and synods, from the fourth century, recommend the washing of feet in general, often especially the washing of the feet of the newly baptised (Thurston, pp. 307-309. As a typical example see the Rule of St Benedict, chap. 35 and 53), in the seventh century we find a Spanish council insisting on the restoration of this ceremony on Maundy Thursday, since in some places it was falling out of use (Seventeenth Syn. of Toledo (694), can. 3 (Hefele-Leclerq: Hist. Des Conciles, iii, p. 586). It is curious that thirteen men whose feet are washed, not twelve, are constantly mentioned. In the twelfth century the Pope washed the feet of twelve subdeacons after Mass, and of thirteen poor men after dinner (Ordo rom. xii, 25, 27). Various explanations are given of the number thirteen. Either it is meant to include St Matthias, or St Paul, or perhaps the Lord himself. There is a legend about an angel who appeared and joined the twelve poor men entertained on one occasion by St Gregory I. No number is specified in the missal; but the Ceremonial of Bishops speaks of thirteen (Caer. Ep., L. II, cap. XXIV, 2); this is the usual number now in the West (the Eastern rites keep to twelve).
After the washing of feet the church is left all empty and bare; only in a distant chapel the lights burn and people watch silently before the altar of repose, waiting for the service of the next morning.”
– Adrian Fortescue, from “The Holy Week Book”, Burns Oates & Washbourne, London, 1913