Not being a priest, I have no authority to shape liturgical celebrations at the local level. In a certain sense, this gives me the freedom to play “what if” and think through various scenarios without having to commit to one to embody in the midst of community that has its own histories that may either support or resist what I dream up in my head!
Of the various liturgical possibilities and quandries within the span of high-church Anglicanism, I think that perhaps the most interesting with which to wrestle is the tone of Maundy Thursday.
As I interpret the various services I’ve seen and attended, there seem to be two main types. The first is to emphasize the establishment of the Eucharist. In this version, Maundy Thursday is radically different from the Lenten and Holy Week liturgies around it. The vestments are white, the Gloria in Excelsis—unheard since the Sunday of the Transfiguration (or perhaps the Annunciation)—peals out its joy, and the Eucharist is celebrated in its highest possible state.
The second is to emphasize its setting within Triduum and Holy Week. Here the vestments are either the crimson or ox-blood or Lenten purple of the season, the Gloria remains tucked away, and the emphasis rest less on the gift of the sacrament to the Church than a man’s prophetic—and proleptic—last meal with his friends.
Like most of the mysteries of the Church, there ought to be a sense of both/and rather than a strict either/or. However, when it comes to the textures of the service, the vestments, the music, the tone of the event, you really do have to choose one or the other. Vestments are either crimson or white. In Rite II, you either use the Gloria or the Kyrie (or the Trisagion). The Opening Acclamation is either penitential or not.
The prayer book to which we look for guidance, gives us very little to go on. Indeed, it begins with the singularly unhelpful rubric, “The Eucharist begins in the usual manner, using the following Collect, Psalm, and Lessons.” Really? “Usual”? What’s that supposed to mean—usual Lent, usual Holy Week, or usual Feast of Our Lord/Institution of the Eucharist? The collect emphasizes the institution of the Eucharist as its central point, yet does not omit a reference to the night before Christ’s suffering.
As a liturgist who is also a biblical scholar whose work focuses on the gospels, I find this one of our toughest nuts to crack.
That is, if we celebrate Maundy Thursday as a Eucharistic festival, do we overshadow, obscure, or distract from our experience of Triduum and the gospels’ emphasize on the events around Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection? Recall the, I think accurate, summation of Mark’s Gospel as a Passion Narrative with an extended introduction. Recall that the evening of Maundy Thursday begins at John 13; almost a third of the John’s Gospel, from chapter 13 to the middle of chapter 20, occurs within the three-day span.
In one sense, this quandry can be constructed along classical lines of Christian argument as the age-old fight of sacrament vs. Scripture. But I think it’s deeper than that. Really wrestling with it engages some of the deep questions about the inter-relationship between the meal of Jesus in the upper room and the sacrament of the Church society, between our Lord’s command to repeat what he did in his memory and the forms in which we share this ceremony now. Rather complex questions of sign, intention, metaphor, and continuity vie with one another here.
My own preference is to let Maundy Thursday be the Triduum’s inauguration, where Jesus gathers with those whom he trusts and to whom he teaches his last lesson of love in two ways, both firmly rooted in ritual action. Then we watch a third way unfold as trust unravels, and he is betrayed into the hands of those who seek his life. I’m all for a blow-out celebration of the sacrament—and that’s why we have Corpus Christi, a day to revel in the gift of grace given to the Church. But to make Maundy Thursday that day, it seems to me, obscures a bit the uncomfortable yet necessary truth that the betrayer of trust is a disciple who loves Jesus. As we do…
The best of the celebration-style gatherings that I have seen use the contrast between the service’s glorious start and its stark ending in stripped sanctuary as a pivot. The contrast is an integral part of the liturgy’s experience. And I think that it can serve as an effective entry into the Three Great Days. But, on the whole, my preference is to experience it the other way.
For my part, of course, it’s not in my hands. I actually don’t know how my parish will celebrate it this year; I’ll find out next week. And I’ll be fine with whichever way we do it. However, I still see this day with its complex confluence of themes worth wrestling with…