Thursday, March 29, 2018

Green Thursday

Whenever Easter week arrives, and Thursday of that week, we always wrestle with the naming of the day. It takes a while before we re-remember that it is called Maundy Thursday. Not surprisingly, I’ve got a post on that subject going back some years (link). Today we discovered that in German the day is called Green Thursday. That religious day like that would carry a color (well at least since the 17th century and only in Germany) was another surprise and took some research to grasp.

It turns out that German etymologists are not in full agreement on how green came to be attached to Easter Thursday. The Biblical reference around which the discussion swirls is Luke 23:31. In the King James version it says:

For if they do these things [the abuse of Jesus on the way to the cross] in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry.

In German the word used for tree is wood (Holz); green wood is alive while dry wood is dead. 

The green wood here is Jesus himself, made clear in the full quotation, which I take from the Jerusalem Bible (Luke 23:26-32):

As they were leading him [Jesus] away, they seized on a man, Simon from Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and made him shoulder the cross and carry it behind Jesus. Large numbers of people followed him, and of women too, who mourned and lamented for him. But Jesus turned to them and said, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep rather for yourselves and for your children. For the day will surely come when people will say, “Happy are those who are barren, the wombs that have never borne, the breasts that have never suckled!” Then they will begin to say unto the mountains, “Fall on us!”; to the hills, “Cover us!” For if men use the green wood like this, what will happen when it is dry?’ Now with him they were also leading out two other criminals to be executed.

Green, thus has multiple meanings here: life itself, youth, freshness, and, by implication, sinlessness. Green Thursday is thus a day of forgiveness of sin, the renewal of the soul, dry wood made green again. The other explanations offered by etymologists range to references of season, to eating habits on Maundy Thursday in Germany (heavy on vegetables in a fasting season) and other similar associations. But the biblical reference is used most often, and, it seems, rightly so. The words come from Jesus’ mouth as he is making his way to crucifixion—to be followed by Resurrection!

The Hungarians and the Poles (to mark Brigitte’s and my places of birth) call this day Great Thursday. The French call it Jeudi Saint; that Saint we would here render as Holy.

Brigitte, whose gift for words is very deep, correctly surmised, before any research took place, that the Green in that Thursday may hark back to the green palms seen just a few days before on Palm Sunday. That turned out to be one of the competing explanations the German etymologists mentioned as well!

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In the course of this venture we also looked up why the Germans call Good Friday Karfreitag. The meaning of that Kar escaped us. That word comes for Proto-Germanic karo or kara, sorrow, trouble, and care. The word care comes from kara. If we wished to follow the German model, we’d call Good Friday Care Friday.

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