On the Thursday before Easter, the Church begins the Triduum: a three-day commemoration of Christ’s passion. Today we remember the Last Supper and the events that followed it that evening: the agony of Jesus in Gethsemane, the betrayal of Judas and the denials of Peter, and the various questions and trials of Pilate, Herod, and Caiphias.
On that evening Peter, James, John, and the other disciples probably expected a simple meal in the upper room with nothing out of the ordinary. What they got was quite different. Jesus starts the meal by quietly taking the place of a servant and washing the disciples’ dusty and filthy feet. Afterwards He charges them (and us) to love each other: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
In Latin, the word used for “commandment” was mandatum, which led to “Maundy” Thursday. The day is associated with Tenebrae, a ceremony of the extinguishing of candles in preparation for Good Friday. Many churches continue the practice of foot-washing on Maundy Thursday, often with the priest doing the washing. In England a custom survives of giving alms (“Maundy pennies”) to the poor; this recalls an earlier practice in which the sovereign washed the feet of the poor on Maundy Thursday. In most European countries, the day is known as Holy Thursday.
You might wonder why the traditional colour for Maundy Thursday evening is white, rather than the the red of Holy Week or the black of Good Friday. But, unlike the disciples, we know how the story ends: “We cannot even pretend to forget momentarily that this is not Jesus’s last meal.” Although we know Jesus’s body will be broken and his blood shed, we also know that on the third day, he will rise again. In the Eucharist, we remember it all: “his blessed passion and precious death, his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension.” When Christ says, “This is my Blood, of the New Covenant…” we understand what that means: God’s promise that Christ’s death redeems us from sin. And so we rejoice, even as we prepare for the road to Golgotha that lies ahead on Friday.
At the end of the evening service, the priest will strip the altar: the candlesticks are taken off, the linen is put away, and what’s left is plain wood or stone table. The rest of the church, if necessary, is also stripped: crosses are veiled, flowers are removed, and in general the worship space is made as bare as possible. These actions symbolize the body of Christ, who was stripped of His garments by Roman soldiers.
Many churches will keep the church open throughout the night, offering a space to pray and keep vigil before the (now-bare) altar. We remember Christ’s command to the disciples: to keep watch while He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. Like Peter, James, and John did, we keep watch–and perhaps fall asleep–and we remember Christ being taken away from them, to be questioned, tortured, and crucified. It is an appropriate way to end Maundy Thursday and continue into Good Friday.
View excerpts from the Maundy Thursday service from All Saints’ Cathedral, Edmonton