Maundy Thursday marks the beginning of the three most important days in the life of the Church. In the days ahead we run the full gamut of emotions, from the intimacy and joy of a shared meal (Communion) to the loneliness of watching in the Garden of Gethsemane. We wait at the foot of the cross where Jesus our Savior dies, and experience the emptiness and loss of his precious life. And at the end of three days there is the light and joy and new life of Easter.
Holy Thursday; Maundy Thursday. Jesus gathered with his disciples and friends to share the Passover. It was an intimate group who had (we assume) met each Passover to share the meal that Jews had shared every year since the exodus from Egypt. They celebrated (and still do so today) God’s faithfulness and steadfastness in their lives … God’s promise to be with the people and care for them on their journey through life. Today we enter into the same relationship, trusting God to walk with us and be with us in life as it continues.
Footwashing: It was the custom for a servant to wash the feet of guests at a meal. Jesus turned that concept on its head, because as the host he became the servant to his beloved friends. On this night our clergy, too, wash and dry the feet of the congregation. It is a reminder that they are servants as well as leaders within this community; we do it because Jesus gave us that example and we do it to remind each other that in life, and especially in the life of the Church, we are all called to be servants to one another and at times to be served, too.
Eucharist: As Jesus first shared bread and wine with his friends we will also share the bread and wine of Eucharist (which itself means “thanksgiving”) to demonstrate our love for Jesus Christ, to recognize and celebrate that through bread and wine that he is present and active in our lives. Tonight we especially recall and celebrate again the simple meal of bread and wine that joined the disciples and others to Jesus in love and service.
After Jesus gathered and shared bread and wine with his disciples and friends, their lives were changed. And so it is for us: each and every time we eat the bread of life and drink the cup of salvation our lives are changed as once again we share in the body of Christ.
Stripping of the Altar: At the end of the service this evening the Church is stripped down to its bare wood. Why do we do this?
The candles are extinguished and removed. Candles represent Christ’s light: “I am the light of the world”. In recognition of the darkness following the death of Jesus on the cross, the candles are removed from our presence.
The communion elements are removed. Jesus’ body and blood have been given to us, have been shed for us, and are given to us in the form of the bread and wine. Just as He was removed from us in the grave, so too the elements and the vessels of the Holy Eucharist are removed from our presence.
The altar itself is in the form of a table. This is the place where Christ serves us as both host and meal at his banquet feast. The altar is dressed in fine linens, coverings and paraments fitting and deserving of such a holy meal, and in the presence of the King of Kings. And just as Jesus’ body was stripped of its coverings, so we too, strip the coverings from this altar.
There is no benediction… there is no postlude, no closing hymn… because the service is not over. It will continue on Good Friday, and on Easter morning we will celebrate again the Risen Lord.