Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of Holy Week are called the “Triduum Sacrum,” or “Sacred Three Days.” The Triduum liturgies serve as one extended service that allows us to meditate in various ways on the final events of Jesus’ life and death in preparation for celebrating his resurrection. St. Philip’s staff clergy help unpack the meaning behind the rituals we observe during the three days of the Triduum. Here, the Rev. Greg Foraker explains why we do what we do on Maundy Thursday.
In the earliest Christian worship, there was no Eucharist celebrated in the week preceding the Great Vigil of Easter. By the end of the fourth century, C.E., Eucharist was celebrated on Maundy Thursday in preparation for the celebration of Easter. The first accounts of celebration on this day were by pilgrims who had made their way to Jerusalem, including Egeria (c. 381-384), who sought to prayerfully follow in the footsteps of Jesus in his last days. The prayers, hymns and antiphons of the day reflected their journey to the supposed site of the crucifixion and the tomb, and ended in the place where Jesus offered teachings to the disciples during the week in Jerusalem before his death.
The tradition of an evening celebration of the Eucharist on this day spread through the early church and incorporated Paul’s account of the institution of the Eucharist (I Corinthians 11:20-32). Maundy Thursday, the name given to the day, derives from the Latin “mandatum novum,” and comes from the new commandment proclaimed in the Gospel of the day, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another even as I have loved you” (John 13:34). Reenacting this gospel ceremonially in the washing of feet began by the seventh century. Other observances came to be associated with this sacred day, including the reconciliation of penitents in preparation for celebration of the Great Feast of Easter.
While Maundy Thursday has traditionally included a series of distinctive liturgical elements, there is a profound simplicity about the essentials, since they arise out of Scripture and the early church’s worship. The moving service for Maundy Thursday includes:
- The Foot Washing – This is the day we follow the actions of Jesus by humbly serving one another in symbolic footwashing, recalling that following supper with his disciples, Jesus washed their feet and said to them “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:14).
- The Consecration of the Eucharist – This day we also remember the institution of the Eucharist through Jesus sharing communion with the disciples at the Last Supper. At the Last Supper, Jesus broke bread and shared wine with the disciples. He taught them that these elements represented his body and blood and instructed “do this in remembrance of me.” The sacrament is consecrated on Maundy Thursday and any remaining consecrated sacrament is solemnly reserved at the Altar of Repose, to be administered at the services on Good Friday.
- The Stripping of the Altar – The liturgical action continues with the tradition of the stripping of the altar, during which all moveable objects, hangings, and ornaments are removed to the sacristy by the Altar Guild. This sacred action symbolizes to us the preparation and laying of Jesus in the tomb.
- Keeping Vigil through the Night – “Being still before the presence of God reminds us that we really do have nothing to say. We need to listen to the voice of God who will pray in us,” theologian Leonel Mitchell reminds. At St. Philip’s we keep vigil through the night with an All-Night Reading of Dante’s Inferno as an invitation to prayer and penitence. Dante Alighieri wrote Inferno with the intention that it be read in churches this night, believing that the human soul is never in more need of redemption than as dawn breaks on Good Friday.
The service of Maundy Thursday gathers the Christian community and invites each one present to remember the last days of Jesus’ journey toward the cross. This penitential, reflective service invites repentance, prayerfulness, and openness as we begin in our journey through the Great Three Days. (The Maundy Thursday service at St. Philip’s begins with a communal supper at 6 in the Galleries, hosted by the Vestry, and then continues at 7 p.m. in the Church. After the Stripping of the Altar, the congregation is invited to leave in silence or remain in vigil throughout the night, continuing until 10 a.m. on Good Friday.)
Sources: Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book, Leonel L. Mitchell, Praying Shapes Believing and Handbook of the Christian Year, Hoyt L. Hickman, Don E. Saliers, Laurence Hull Stookey and James F. White.