Maundy Thursday Musings

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…


13 thoughts on “Maundy Thursday Musings

  1. Bob Chapman

    As a denomination, no, we do not have Corpus Christi. I’m not saying it isn’t celebrated. I’m saying that it isn’t on the calendar. (Yes, I know there are de facto lessons for Corpus Christi.)

    I once was at a parish that _one time_ treated Maundy Thursday as a day in white, short of alleluias and the Gloria (an impressive Trisagion was used, to move it away from the Kyrie for that night). The response from the rector on down was, it was nice…but…………

    The next year Maundy Thursday was in Holy Week colors and toned back a bit. Everyone felt better about it.

    Maybe the full-on celebration that you correctly says as being needed is a celebration that places the institution of the Eucharist in Holy Week? When we do it all up in white with the Gloria and a procession about we miss something important about the Gift.

    The highest form of honor and adoration for the sacrament isn’t falling on our knees in wonder. It is receiving the sacrament from Jesus in a personal setting. It is “take, eat,” not “gaze, adore.”

  2. Barbara (bls)

    Maybe it will cheer to you know that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a MT service that wasn’t the “both-and” version you talk about here.

    At the convent, it’s the most beautiful service of the year. The chapel is all in white, with gauzey shrouds over the crosses and the statuary. The altar is decked out in white, too – hangings and flowers, etc. It’s gorgeous. They sing the Gloria for the first time since Ash Wednesday, and bells ring throughout. They sing Prayer D to a Mozarabic melody. And the footwashing is beautiful, too; everybody moves into the corridor to sit in chairs and the basin passed to everybody to wash the feet of their neighbor.

    At the end of the service, the Sacrament is processed to the altar of repose, and all the vestments turn to black, including the shrouds for the crosses and statuary. (I guess the priest must remove her chasuble and wear only a cassock, but I’ve never really noticed that.) Psalm 22 is sung or said during the stripping of the altar – and that’s the end of the service.

    It’s fantastic. But everybody around here does a version of this; maybe it’s the influence of the convent, in fact. In my old parish, the last thing that happens, after the singing of Psalm 22, is that a priest in black cassock slams shut the iron doors of the sanctuary.

    It’s a great night. I actually like to go to the noon service, too, though, so I can hear the Exodus passage; that’s the day I break my fast, so the whole roast lamb thing is most appropriate! ;-)

  3. Barbara (bls)

    (I would suggest people listen to the webcast of the St. Thomas service on Maundy Thursday, too. They use the crotalus at the consecration – a very shivery, scary sound – and they scrub the altar with palm branches, which you can hear on the broadcast.

    Maundy Thursday is one of the best services of the year, I think.

    BTW, tune in to the St. Thomas service of Tenebrae on Wednesday too. They also sing a short mass at noon every day during Holy Week at which I believe they also sing from Lamentations in plainchant.)

  4. Bob Chapman

    Additional thought.

    The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday is the time where we do a radical “stripping of the gears” shift in mood in a service. It serves a purpose to contrast the cheering crowds to the soon call to crucify.

    Is there really that much of a radical difference between washing feet and receiving Jesus? That you do to the least of these, and all that.

  5. Fr. Aaron Orear

    To me, the celebration of the institution of the Eucharist is entirely compatible with the solemn setting of Holy Week. It is, after all, a sacrament of sacrifice. It is glorious, but rooted in shame; healing, but rooted in pain; life giving only through death. So I’d say celebrate the Eucharist AS the last meal. Leave out the Gloria and use the oxblood/violet vestments. Celebration needn’t always be joyous.

  6. markadm

    I prefer the view of it in a penitential, nay almost dolorous manner, as the inception of the Triduum. Yes, we celebrate the Institution of the the Eucharist that first time in the Cenacle, but that should be celebrated most fully at Corpus Christi. We were taught in Seminary that Corpus Christi and The Sacred Heart are the external, and joyous, extra-Triduum celebrations of Maundy Thursday and a Good Friday.

    I’ve never seen the white vestment variant, but my experience of Anglicanism is only scottish.

  7. Barbara

    I’m not sure the white is actually meant to signify “celebration as a Eucharistic festival.” What I take away from it is that it’s a bright moment of beauty, perhaps the brightest moment of all – which, as you say, descends immediately into deep darkness. It’s also simply the celebration of Christ’s last night living as a man on earth. And of course, it’s the night of the Mandatum – the new commandment. So white seems awfully appropriate.

    This way of celebrating it is a kind of tableau of the story itself and how it rolls, IOW: how it really does situate itself in the mind and heart. At least that’s how it seems to me….

  8. C. WIngate

    I really think along the same lines as Fr. Aaron above: Maundy Thursday is the most solemn, the most intense Eucharist of the year, but not celebratory in the way Easter is. Red vestments, please.

  9. Derek Olsen

    I tend to move in nose-bleed high circles where this kind of thing is more common (and where Corpus Christi is a given). I know it’s not like that across the church.

    In the old system there was Maundy Thursday and Corpus Christi and the Feast of the Precious Blood (July 1) in addition to the votive mass of the Holy Eucharist. I think a multiplicity of occasions allows us to recognize and home in on the host of different things that are all legitimately taking place together in the Eucharist.

    I know we have a conflicted history of gazing on the sacrament. And yet, while that devotion’s never been a huge on for me, encountering the Eucharist in a variety of modes does help us gain a keener sense of it when we receive it in the fullness of its Sunday and festal celebration. For instance, there’s something very meaningful to me when I do intercessory prayer before the Blessed Sacrament in reservation. When I do that, I comprehend more fully the multiplicity of Bodies of Christ around me: that I pray with the Body, for the Body, in the presence of the Body, as part of the Body, to the One whom I encounter in the Body. It goes back again to the sense of the fullness of the Body I wrote about in this post.

  10. Derek Olsen

    Yes, I agree; the conflation of Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday contains the inherent stripping of the gears.

    Is there a radical difference, no. Is there a substantive difference, yes. Footwashing and Eucharist are both about the love Christ bears us and the love we must show one another. But they’re different and complementary facets of it—just as the crucifixion is alongside the definition of love as giving up one’s life for one’s friends.

  11. Brandon Filbert

    The parish I serve has a long history of treating the MT liturgy as part-and-parcel of the Triduum: Sung Psalm for the Introit, Penitential Order at the start, Kyrie eleison, Passiontide vestments, &c. The Last Supper and the foot-washing ceremony are deeply expressive in character, forming (along with the translation of the Holy Sacrament to the Altar of Repose and the Stripping of the Altar) a deeply solemn encounter with the first part of the Paschal Mystery.

    Our main Easter Liturgy is the Great Vigil (sometimes with over 200 people present in a congregation with an average Sunday attendance of about 130 or so much of the year). That liturgy is extremely full (and includes some unusual–though not unrubrical–additions, mostly from the Eastern Christian tradition). In that context, the appearance of the Gloria in excelsis at the Vigil is one of the most powerful moments in the Liturgical Year for us. The drama of our movement from Palm Sunday to the Great Vigil would not be aided by making the MT liturgy a festive occasion, replete with the Gloria in excelsis.

    I think one of the gifts of the renewal of the Holy Week liturgies in the 1979 BCP the (along with the BOS) is the provision for experiencing the Paschal Mystery in a unitive sense. The flow from the start of the Liturgy of the Palms, through Tenebrae on Holy Wednesday, to the Triduum, and concluding with the sung dismissal at the Great Vigil (and afterwards our parish’s Agape Feast and dance gathering that lasts until about 4 AM, drawing multiple generations of Episcopalians back home and to worship at Easter far more than Christmas does) forms participants in a profound way. Each part of that unitive Mystery is essential, and manages to contribute to a wholeness with a deep inner “logic.” That, together with a longstanding commitment to the Catechumenate and immersion baptism in our parish’s font, makes our experience of Holy Week hold together theologically and sacramentally in a truly powerful manner.

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