Thursday, April 09, 2009

Maundy Thursday

This phrase is relatively new to me. Although I've been an Episcopalian for many years, I grew up Catholic and they call today "Holy Thursday." I wonder about "Maundy Thursday" every year and tonight I finally decided to look it up.
MAUNDY THURSDAY: The Thursday before Easter, observed in commemoration of the Last Supper of Jesus. Also called Holy Thursday.

[From Middle English maunde, ceremony of washing the feet of the poor on this day, from Old French mande, from Latin (novum) mandātum, (new) commandment (from Jesus's words to the Apostles after washing their feet, John 13:34).]

Here's what happens in the service. There are three readings, the first from the Passover service, which is familiar to both Christians and Jews (mark the lintel with blood, roast the lamb and eat all of it, consume bitter herbs, salt water, charoses, etc). The other two readings are about Christ's interaction with the Apostles on that Passover night, in which he established both the rite of Holy Communion (consecrating the bread and wine as his body and blood as a promise that he will always be with us) and the concept of Ordination (ordaining his apostles as priests, his surrogates, in the church). And then, he picked up a towel and basin and washed each of their feet. They protested, but he insisted.

Tonight, I took off my shoes and socks and Father Tom washed my feet to remind me of Christ's teachings about humility and the requirement of service to one's fellow man. The master is not greater than the servant, nor is the teacher of more value than the student. The washing of the feet is a concrete representation of the fundamental "Do unto others" principle.

The other thing that I love about Maundy Thursday is the vulnerability of Christ. Because he was God, he knew that he was going to die, yet because he was incarnated as a human being, he was terribly afraid. After the Seder (what Christians call The Last Supper), he goes into the garden to pray to his Father for help, and he asks Peter and some of the other apostles to come and pray with him. They have been drinking wine and they are tired - they keep falling asleep. Jesus is afraid, and he knows the Romans are coming after him - he wakes his apostles and begs them to stay awake and watch. But they fall asleep.

So for me, this is the most important day of the year to show up at church. I never miss the service on Maundy Thursday because I feel as though the least I can do is be there, be awake, and offer whatever comfort and support that I can. I know everyone doesn't believe that Jesus was (or is) God, but surely he was a tremendous human being in anyone's eyes - the "Obama" of his time.

In the Maundy Thursday service we end by singing a mournful, ancient chant, over and over, as Father Tom and his acolytes strip all the vestments from the altar. One by one, the lights are extinguished, until the congregation is in complete darkness.

The refrain we sing goes like this:


I wouldn't miss it.

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