I am very excited today to have my friend Liz from Michigan, USA share her thoughts on Maundy Thursday as a guest writer here on Gathering Faith. I have long admired Liz and am so grateful she was willing to share some experiences and traditions that have inspired her.
Here is what Liz had to say:
Maundy Thursday: the beginning of the Easter Triduum. The evening of Maundy Thursday is start of the three most Holy days in the church year. The Triduum officially ends the evening of Easter Sunday. As opposed to talking about what Maundy Thursday is, I would like to talk about why it is important to me as a practicing Christian.
There are 3 aspects of the Maundy Thursday liturgy that keep me finding a service to go to each year. They are: 1) the Washing of the Feet 2) Stripping of the Altar 3) the Watch at the Altar of Repose. I grew up in the Episcopal Church and currently worship in that tradition. It is part of the Anglican Communion. Keep in mind as you read this that there are many diverse ways of observing these traditions throughout Christian denominations. It is also possible for congregations within the same denomination to have varying traditions.
Washing of the Feet
The first time I went to a Maundy Thursday service was when I was about 14 and I was scheduled to be an acolyte for the service. An acolyte is a layperson who assists the clergy during worship. I remember the priest explaining to us that we would assist her with towels and water. During the service, after the appointed readings, members of the congregation would have the opportunity to come to the altar to have his or her feet washed. I remember telling the priest that I was uncomfortable with the thought of this, especially because I was ticklish. She told me that maybe that is why I should have my feet washed, but that I didn’t have to do it. I ended up going through with it and have always done it since.
The tradition of who does the washing of the feet varies as well. At some of the congregations I have attended you wash the feet of the person in front of you. The person standing in line behind you washes your feet.
At my current parish, the priests wash the feet of the members of the congregation. Anyone can participate but no one has to. One of the priests at my congregation was elderly and about to retire. The year she washed my feet the congregation was singing “Will you let me be your servant? Let me be as Christ to you. Pray that I might have the grace to let me be your servant too.”
Stripping of the Altar
Much of the Maundy Thursday service focuses on the Last Supper and the Lord’s Commandment to love one another just as He loved us. The end of the liturgy focuses on the suffering Jesus is about to experience and how all seemed lost before the resurrection. Following communion, everything is removed from the Altar. Normally the altar or the Lord’s Table would look beautiful, with candlesticks and cloth adorning the table. At the end of the liturgy, everything is removed and put in the sacristy.
During the same service where I participated in the washing of the feet for the first time, I also got to participate in the stripping of the Altar. The congregation sits in darkness (or low lighting) while everything is put away. This experience helped me understand what the Christian disciples were going through during that first Holy Week.
After the Last Supper, when Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane, He asked His disciples to watch with Him. At my current parish the Blessed Sacrament is processed from the large church to the small chapel where there is an Altar of Repose. Throughout the night and the next morning (until the Good Friday service), people can watch with Jesus.
I hardly feel as if I can do any of these experiences justice by writing about them. Any person is welcome at a service during the Triduum, whether it be Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Great Vigil of Easter, or Easter Sunday. A great resource is the Washington National Cathedral Youtube channel—they broadcast all of their services, even those during Holy Week.
To learn more about the Anglican Communion visit: https://www.canterbury-cathedral.org/worship/anglican-communion/
The Episcopal Church: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/