The Three Holiest Days by Medieval Flemish Masters:
MAUNDY THURSDAY: Dieric Bouts, (Last Supper, St. Peter’s Church, Leuven, Belgium); GOOD FRIDAY: Flemish School, (Crucifixion, Private Collection); HOLY SATURDAY: Hans Memling, (Resurrection, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Hungary).
On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. John 20:1
MAUNDY THURSDAY: First off, what is “Maundy” Thursday? In many English-speaking countries, this is the normal name for Holy Thursday, but I suspect there my be some even there who don’t know what the name means. Well, the Maundy Thursday evening service commemorates the Last Supper in a really special way: there is a washing of the feet ceremony, mentioned in John’s gospel (John 13:1-16). Jesus was making a point that he came to us to serve, not to be served, and he demonstrated graphically what he meant. It was too much for Peter who protested vehemently, to no avail. Jesus washed his feet:
The Washing of the Feet, Tintoretto, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.
The Washing of the Feet (detail).
Jesus is insistent that he serve them all in the most humble way by performing the work of a slave. If you have ever participated in this ceremony by having your feet washed, you know how difficult it is to accept. It is said that some of the Muslim migrants whose feet Pope Francis washed in 2016 had tears straming down their faces:
Pope Francis at Maundy Thursday Ceremony, Castelnuovo di Porto Refugee Center near Rome, The Washington Post, March 25, 2016.
All baptized Christians are called to the exact same service: we are here to serve in whatever sphere of influence in which we find ourselves. In that way we serve God, whose Son came to serve us. For Jesus instructed them: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet…” (John 13:14). That is a command, a mandate if you like, and “Maundy” is a corruption of the Latin word mandatum, command, the Thursday on which Jesus commanded all of us to serve one another.
Jesus gave himself to us on that same evening in another way which was unique and utterly unpredictable. He took simple bread and wine and declared that they were his body and blood, and invited all present to eat and drink. The reaction of those first to hear that can hardly be imagined. It was unparalleled in human history, and it has linked us from that time to the Lord in the most intimate possible way.
It echoed the event when the Hebrew people became God’s Chosen people on Mount Sinai. The blood of sacrificed animals was cast over both them and a stone altar representing God (Exodus 24:3-8). The blood (signifying life) symbolically linked the life of God to the life of the people. But at the Last Supper, on the first Maundy Thursday, it was the life blood of Jesus himself linking him to each of his disciples, to us, then, now and forever. This was the “New and Eternal Covenant”. The gospels have Jesus say at this moment “take and eat…take and drink…” which can be considered to be part of that same command just mentioned, (and this has been taken by the church as the establishment of the priesthood: the priest’s supreme privilege is to preside at the Eucharist because Jesus said to them, “Do this in memory of me…”). The events of that Thursday commanded all of us to be Christ to the world forever more, and gave us the strength to do it in the bread of angels. It is summarized in the ultimate command, or mandate, expressed clearly in the gospel of John 13:34. again at the Last Supper, where Jesus states “I give you a new commandment, love one another….”
GOOD FRIDAY: Very shortly after the Last Supper the disciples were in the Garden of Gethsemane when the dread events of Jesus’ passion began. He was arrested, given a show trial, hauled to the Roman governer, the only authority able to pronounce a death sentence, was condemned, mocked and scourged, and crucified. Note that there was nothing special in being crucified; it was the standard method of execution for non-Roman citizens of the Roman Empire, and deliberately brutal to discourage law-breaking, hence its public display. Nailed to a wooden cross, the prisoner was completely immobilized, and death was agonizingly slow, perhaps two to three days. Jesus has been horribly scourged by the Roman soldiers however, and must have lost much blood, causing his death to be quicker. The Holy Shroud of Turin, which may or may not be the shroud which wrapped Jesus’ body, clearly shows the dumbell-shaped metal tips of the scourge over the man’s body. The crowd brayed at him, according to Matthew’s gospel, “If you are the Son of God, come down from that cross” (Matthew 27:40-44). You might recall that when he was in the wilderness following his baptism, the devil unsuccessfully tempted him, and left him “for a time” (Luke 4:13). This was the moment the devil’s temptation returned. Could Jesus have saved himself? Yes. Did he? No. Jesus never used his divine power for himself, only others, even at that critical moment. Then, in John’s gospel, the one we hear today, Jesus’ last words are “It is finished” (John 19:30). He is referring to the mission his Father gave him at his baptism, to be the Messiah, fulfill all the prophecies concerning that figure, achieved at the moment of his death. Even the worst Suffering Servant prophecies of Isaiah were fulfilled. Hence Jesus’ ministry began with his baptism in the River Jordan by John, and ended with his last crucified breath on the cross.
HOLY SATURDAY: Visiting a church on Good Friday or during the day on Holy Saturday is a strange experience for a Catholic. The tabernacle door, normally locked and containing the consecrated bread, Christ’s body, is open and empty. The absence of the Lord is palpable. The church feels deserted and cold and lifeless. It is simply a building. It awaits the return of the Savior to give it life. That is accomplished in the Easter Vigil, the supreme ceremony of the church’s year. It begins appropriately with a ceremony of light which breaks through the darkness of the church. It is the longest church service; the readings cover everything from the world’s creation to the Resurrection. Those adults who have prepared for entry into the church are baptized, confirmed and receive Holy Communion for the first time, the three sacraments of initiation, echoing the mission of Jesus himself. All this to celebrate an event which is not mentioned in the gospels! Not one word concerning Jesus’ conquest of death can be found; simply an empty tomb. Jesus appears thereafter, but as to his resurrection, nothing. His disciples were a bunch of terrified people, scared that their connection to Jesus would be an excuse to crucify them too! They were barricaded behind locked doors hoping for who knows what? Even the appearance of the Lord wasn’t enough. They had to wait for the miracle of Pentecost to overcome their supreme fears. So Easter simply celebrates Jesus’ conquest of the most powerful enemy of all, death itself. Scripture had declared that the Messiah would conquer his enemies, and death was the most powerful of all, now crushed. No wonder our Greek Christian brothers and sisters do not say Happy Easter. They say Χριστός ἀνέστη! (Christos anesti!) meaning Christ is risen! The response to the greeting is “Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη!” (Alithos anesti!) or “He is truly risen!”. Today’s feast is the foundation of the Christian faith, without which there would be no Christian church, hence its supreme importance. Χριστός ἀνέστη!
Russian Orthodox Icon of the Resurrection, Provenance Unknown.
The Resurrection Stone inside the Aedicule in the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where it is believed the Resurrection happened. The Irish Times, April 2019.