By Stephen W. Hiemstra
“Three times a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God at the place that he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread (הַמַּצּ֛וֹת), at the Feast of Weeks (הַשָּׁבֻע֖וֹת), and at the Feast of Booths (הַסֻּכּ֑וֹת; Deuteronomy 16:16 ESV).
Holy Week as we know it is often celebrated at the same time as the Jewish Feast of Unleavened Bread (Festival of Matzos) often called Passover. Dates differ because of differences in the calendar rules. In Jesus’ time, Passover was one of three festivals that required the faithful to travel to Jerusalem. The other festival familiar to Christians is the Feast of Weeks commonly known as Pentecost. The Feast of Booths is a harvest festival in the fall.
Passover commemorates the release of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. God instructed Moses to tell the Israelite to sacrifice a lamb and place the blood of the lamb over their door-posts so that the angel of death would pass them by. On the night of the Passover, the angel of death struck down the first born of Egypt and passed over the Israelite households. Pharaoh reacted immediately by expelling the Israelite slaves. They left so quickly that there was not time to bake bread for the journey. Instead, they prepared bread without letting the dough rise—unleavened bread (Exodus 12). Mark 14:12-26 describes how Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Passover meal in Jerusalem now remembered as the Last Super.
The Last Super is important to Christians because it introduces the new covenant in Christ. The word, covenant, found in v. 24 appears nowhere else in Mark’s Gospel and alludes to the covenant meal that Moses and the Elders of Israel shared with God on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:9-11). The grim symbolism of the wine as the blood of Christ is an allusion to the blood of the Passover lamb (Exodus 12:7) which alerted the angel of death to pass over households displaying the blood. In this sense, as Christians we are (like the door posts) covered by the blood of Christ. By Jesus’ blood our sins are forgiven and we are passed over (Hebrews 9:11-28).
Where does the name, Maundy Thursday, come from? One theory is that it is Middle English for the Latin word, Mandatum, which means command. According to some traditions, Maundy Thursday focuses on Jesus’ lesson on servant leadership: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14 ESV).