The more memorable congregational moments in my tenure as a pastor often coincided with one of the supporting service types of worship experiences found alongside a high holy season. It wasn’t the Christmas Eve service, for example, so much as perhaps an Advent service leading up to Christmas. And it wasn’t Easter worship, for me, as much as the Maundy Thursday service a few days prior.
I’m thinking of this today on Maundy Thursday. It’s the beginning of the Triduum, the three days beginning with Thursday evening through Easter Sunday, that mark the Paschal celebration of Jesus’ last supper, Garden prayers, arrest, trial, death by crucifixion, burial and resurrection. Each of the events of these days are significant, and each worthy of our attention. But there is an intimacy and togetherness found in the Maundy Thursday observance that has always deeply moved me.
Maybe it was the scene of that upper room, prepared for Jesus and the Twelve to share the Passover. I can imagine these men coming together for their celebration. Already the week in Jerusalem had produced surprising outcomes. There had been the triumphal entry parade, the cleansing of the moneychangers from the Temple, and significant teaching moments by the Messiah. Sharing a Passover meal would be a welcome respite and time of reflection away from the crowds. Yet, this night began with such an unexpected, and to some extent unwelcome, overture from Jesus as he insisted on washing their feet!
Writing this last sentence brings to mind prior Maundy Thursday services where we had some version of foot washing. Truly this act of service is one that makes its recipient humbled. How like Jesus to provide such an object lesson for the Twelve. It must have set a tone for their time together. Through their mix of shame (why didn’t one of them do this?) and having been humbled, they must now have been ready to listen to the Teacher.
Yet, what followed was no less astonishing. Jesus repurposed the Passover to tell of his coming death, assigning new meaning to the bread and the cup, representations of His body and blood which was to be broken and shed for sin – all sin, their sin and ours. Then, as the evening was drawing to a close, John tells us (John 13:34) that He gave them a new commandment. Here is where we get the term “maundy” from the Latin word “mandatum” meaning mandate or command: “love one another, just as I have loved you”.
A good teacher will tell you that presenting a lesson through varied methods raises the likelihood of its being remembered. People retain information more, for example, when they not only hear words, but also put their other senses to the retention. If we “see” a picture retention increases. If we have a “hands on” discovery of learning retention grows even more pronounced. Jesus was a good teacher. He gave His disciples a well-rounded lesson this night that engaged them through multiple mediums of presentation. They heard his words, but they also saw his actions, and they felt his touch. This new commandment, to love one another as He had loved them, would stick because of all the ways His life had and would demonstrate love.
As I reflect back over some of the more meaningful Maundy Thursday worship experiences of years gone by, I think part of their meaning came from the multisensory connections they utilized – sight, sound, touch, taste, light, darkness, silence and more. Jesus did so much more than tell us to love one another, he showed us what love is. He lived love, touched our lives with it, gave us a way to remember it, celebrate it, and share it. Standing on the cusp of another Triduum I’m mindful of this. Maundy Thursday was the opening scene in what would prove to be a meaningful beyond description last act of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry. Just as it prepared His Disciples to become attuned to what was coming, so might it help us to grasp the meaning of these days once again. So might it help us in obedience to His command: “love one another, just as I have loved you”.