During initial polite conversation, a Roman Catholic editor at the Plain Dealer inquired why the UCC and other Protestants referred to "Holy Thursday" as "Maundy Thursday." The word "maundy" was a mystery to her and her journalism colleagues.
Perhaps others, even in the UCC, find themselves baffled by the "maundyness" of the occasion as well. So here's the answer:
The word "maundy" comes from the Latin word "maundatum" which means "commandment." It refers to Jesus' words to his disciples during their final evening together, at least according to the gospel of John: "A new commandment I give you, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34-35).
While Maundy Thursday is most often remembered by Christians as the day that Jesus shared the Last Supper with the disciples, the Gospel of John includes no such account of the institution of the Eucharist. According to John., there was no ceremonial sharing of bread and wine that night, as Christians often recall today and as recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke, the three synoptic (or "similar") gospels.
According to John's gospel account, the defining sacred moment was Jesus' washing of the disciples' feet, an act that has since become both sign and symbol of Jesus' love-one-another commandment. To this day, throughout the Christian faith, the image of a water basin and towel are highly symbolic of discipleship and servanthood.
Therefore, on "Maundy Thursday" -- as it is called widely in the UCC -- worshipers are likely to participate in services that include either Holy Communion or foot washing, and sometimes both.
With the setting of the sun on Maundy Thursday, the Easter Triduum (or "three days") begins. In many congregations, altars or chancel areas are "stripped" or left bare at the close of the Maundy Thursday service, through Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Then, at the Easter vigil or Easter sunrise service, the chancel is dressed for the Easter celebration, often using white or golden paraments.