The days between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and his resurrection are the high point of the Biblical narrative. Large portions of each gospel focus on what Jesus did and said during those days, and some of his most famous teaching comes from this week. Most of all, this week focuses on the story of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection.
Christians all over the world celebrate these stories with worship services during Holy Week, Palm Sunday , Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Each service focuses on a different theme, using ritual and symbolism to rehearse the story of salvation. As we head to Holy Week, let’s explore each of the traditional services and their message.
Just a note: I am most familiar with the Western worship tradition, that is the Catholic Church and the churches that follow her traditions. While the Orthodox have a rich worship tradition, I don’t know anything about it. So, the following will focus primarily on the Western church.
Depending on your tradition, you may call the Thursday before Easter, “Holy Thursday” or “Maundy Thursday.” While the name you choose doesn’t change the service, there is meaning behind them. Holy, of course, reminds us that this day is set apart to remind us of the most important time in Jesus’ life, the week of his death and resurrection.
“Maundy Thursday” comes from a Latin word, “Mandatum,” which means, “command.” It refers to one of the stories celebrated on this night. Jesus gathered his disciples in the upper room, and he have them a new command. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34).
Jesus did a lot, and suffered a lot, on Holy Thursday, so it would be difficult for any single service to focus on all of them. On this day, Jesus:
That is a lot of narrative ground to cover. A church could focus on Jesus’ prayer in the garden, discussing the words, “Thy will be done.” A church could focus on the disciples, who fell asleep while Jesus prayed and ran away when he was arrested.
But they don’t. These stories are part of the Good Friday liturgy. Instead, the Revised Common Lectionary appoints two different stories for Holy Thursday, when Jesus washes the disciples feet (John 13:1-17, 31-35), and when Jesus eats the last supper with his disciples (Matt. 26:17–30, Mark 14:12–26, Luke 22:7–20).
The last supper happened on the first day of the feast of unleavened bread, also called Passover. The passover celebrated the day that God saved Israel from slavery in Egypt. God commanded all of his people to sacrifice a lamb at their front door. They took the lamb’s blood and painted the door frame with it. Then, they roasted the lamb over the fire and ate unleavened bread while they were dressed in travelling clothes. God wanted them to be ready to leave.
While they ate, God killed the firstborn sons in all Egypt. Every household, from the richest to the poorest, was affected. Every household, except for the people with the doors painted in blood. This is what God said in Exodus 12:13, “The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.”
To remember this day, God commanded that the Israelites hold the passover feast every year. For seven days, there were not to eat anything with yeast. Then there would be a festival to celebrate the passover.
We don’t know much about what Jesus did and the rituals they followed when they ate the last supper. Many churches host a seder dinner to show Christians how that ceremony prefigures Christ, but we don’t know when that ceremony actually started. Depending on who you ask, you may get dates as early as 70 AD or as late as the middle ages.
What we do know, however, is that Jesus gave the disciples bread and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” He took the cup of wine, and he said, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
The Jews in Egypt sacrificed and ate the passover lamb, and they used its blood to mark them for salvation. Jesus sacrifices himself, and he offers his body and blood to the disciples. They are marked by his sacrifice, so death will pass over them when it comes.
The second story for Maundy Thursday focuses on Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. Jesus removes his outer garment, and he ties a towel around his waist. He takes a bowl of water, and he begins to wash each disciple’s feet.
I think that would be gross if we had to do that, today. I know what my feet smell like after a day in dress shoes. But it would have been worse in Jesus’ day. The disciples walked around in sandals on dusty roads. They were fellow travellers with all sorts of animals, too. There would have been any number of donkeys, sheep, or whatever else you can think of crammed into Jerusalem. So, it wasn’t just dirt on the disciples’ nasty feet.
Yet, Jesus, the Son of God, slips down onto his hands and knees to serve his disciples. When Jesus gets to Peter, we see how shocking this was for all of them. Peter cries out, “You shall never wash my feet.”
A master doesn’t serve, and Peter knows this. Instead, the servants are supposed to serve. Peter thinks that it is far beneath Jesus’ dignity to wash his feet, so he protests for Jesus’ sake.
But this is exactly the point Jesus wants to make. Jesus wants us to know that even he did not come to be served but to serve. Jesus, the creator of the universe, gets his hands truly dirty. If that’s how God acts, how could we not do the same. Jesus says, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet” (John 13:14).
The Roman Catholic Church remembers this story each year with a special ceremony. The Pope, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, washes the feet of twelve people on Holy Thursday. This is exactly the model that Jesus leaves us. Leaders are not there to be served but to serve. This annual example reminds us what true leadership is in the church.
Many Catholic churches celebrate their own version of this on Holy Thursday. Several selected members of the congregation come forward, and the priest washes their feet. He moves from person to person with a basin and towel, just like Jesus did. This ritual action brings the lesson closer to home, when the people watch their spiritual leader serve.
After the Holy Thursday worship service concludes with a benediction, the congregation prepares the sanctuary for Good Friday worship with a ceremonial stripping of the altar. As the congregation looks on, altar attendants remove the candles, paraments, stands, crosses, and any other decoration near the altar.
They do it slowly, ceremonially, to symbolize how Jesus was abandoned by the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, after Jesus was betrayed. It can be a powerful moment, especially in ornate sanctuaries, as the decoration slowly leaves, and the area around the altar becomes stark, barren.
Congregations practice a number of traditions as the attendants strip the altar. One of the most common is reading or singing Psalm 22 which begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?” Sometimes a lector simply reads the text. Others a choir might sing the psalm with a congregational refrain. Either way, it provides a background of God’s word while we ponder the abandoned, betrayed savior.
After the altar has been stripped, the congregation leaves in silence. The respectful silence prepares them for the somber service to follow on Good Friday when the congregation will gather in the same silence as they left on Holy Thursday.
This dramatic worship service celebrates what Jesus and his disciples did on the Thursday of Holy Week so many years ago. Jesus shows the disciples and us how he serves, either by offering up his body and blood as a sacrifice or by washing their feet. He shows us how much he loves us.
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