During my youth in the Presbyterian Church we had one service a year that did not fall on Sunday. It wasn’t on Christmas or Thanksgiving, which I might have understood, but came instead in the week before Easter. It had a strange name: Maundy Thursday. I first misunderstood the day as “Monday Thursday,” never before having heard that word “Maundy” (which in fact for years I spelled “Maunday”).
On Maundy Thursday we had the Lord’s Supper, which made sense: the service was in the evening, at supper time. And it was on the weekday, Thursday before Easter, that Jesus had had his last supper with his disciples. I got why it was special.
Apart from that one evening each year, we celebrated the Lord’s Supper on the first Sunday of the month. This was taken to be rather frequent: previous to that pastor it had been on the first Sunday of each quarter. When I later became an Episcopalian and found Communion celebrated twice a month, I was perplexed by the frequency.
Our Presbyterian Maundy Thursday was nothing more than a regular Lord’s Supper service. There were hymns, there were prayers, and there was a sermon. I recall nothing special—no extra candles or dimmed light, and certainly no foot-washing ceremony. In those days of boys wearing ties and jackets, I could not have imagined people taking off their shoes and someone washing their feet. When I later learned that “maundy” is a sort of English nickname for “mandatum,” and that it translates as “commandment,” and that it refers to the new commandment Jesus gave the disciples after washing their feet—the commandment to love one another as he had loved them—well, I could see this had some sense to it, but it remained decidedly foreign.
It seemed natural, however, to connect “maundy” with the Last Supper itself. At that supper Jesus issued a command: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Those Presbyterian customs of my youth had a certain logic, and they contained a seed for which I remain grateful.
Thanks to Readers. An old friend from New York days who now lives in Massachusetts told me that part of the hymn I quoted last week was written by James Montgomery, a great Scottish religious poet of the 1800s. Montgomery wrote the words for some 400 hymns, of which we have ten crowd-pleasers in the Hymnal 1982. One of them many of us will be singing next week: “Go to dark Gethsemane” (#171). Another is a Christmas favorite: “Angels, from the realms of glory” (#93). He wrote “Shepherd of souls, refresh and bless,” “O bless the Lord, my soul,” and “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed”—among many others.
And he wrote one that begins “Few, few and evil are thy days” and includes “Age, with’ring age, is cropt ere night.” Those words, which never caught the Episcopal imagination, were in many 19th-century hymnals, and somehow got spliced into the Ash Wednesday service I stumbled upon this year.
I am blessed with wonderful readers of amazing resourcefulness.
Out & About. Yours truly is to preach on Maundy Thursday at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas (April 6 at 7pm) and on Good Friday at Incarnation in Dallas (April 7 at noon and 6pm).
The next Good Books & Good Talk seminar, on Sunday, April 16, will take up Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers—the first of her delightful mysteries and the one in which she introduces her famous detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. The seminar meets at Incarnation at 5pm.
On the Web. There’s a fine essay on Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a book we have previously discussed in the Good Books seminar. It’s by Gary Saul Morson and is called “What Pilate Learns,” from the March First Things: https://www.firstthings.com/article/2023/03/what-pilate-learns. Don’t let the title mislead: It’s not about Pilate per se, but about Pilate as the character in this novel. I’ve found Morson a good essayist on Russian literature, and here you can learn (whether you have read it or not) why “no work has inspired greater delight among Russians, or lovers of Russian literature, than Mikhail Bulgakov’s fantastic novel.”