Monday and Tuesday of Holy Week
Monday and Tuesday of Holy Week are kept with our usual round of public liturgies (morning prayer, evening prayer, and the daily celebration of the Eucharist in the chapel). The Lectionary (cycle of readings) appoints for these days Gospels that focus on the last days before the Crucifixion. In a deliberate echo of the Good Friday Liturgy, the ancient Trisagion (Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy upon us) is used at the Eucharist on these days.
Spy Wednesday and Tenebrae
Wednesday of Holy Week has historically had the curious name Spy Wednesday. The day’s name is taken from the Gospel account of Judas’ plan to betray Jesus to his enemies. In the evening the choir will sing Tenebrae at 7:00pm. This often overlooked service is one of simple beauty sung by the choir with the congregation joining for some of the psalms and responsaries or settings of the Lamentations. It is the sort of thing that few parishes are able to offer with the simple beauty with which we are able to do it here at Saint Philip’s.
The service is based on the ancient forms of Morning and Evening Prayer. It begins with a series of Psalms, followed by readings from the Lamentations of Jeremiah with a series of responsaries that tell the story of Christ’s arrest and trial.
The Liturgy goes on to another series of Psalms and readings from the writings of Augustine of Hippo. A final set of Psalms leads to readings from Hebrews. The office ends with closing psalms and a canticle and final prayer. As the service progresses, candles are extinguished and the lights lowered, so that it ends in darkness. Just before the final moments, one candle is left burning and is taken and hidden. After a period of silence, a loud crashing sound is heard and then the candle is returned. The sound represents the earthquake at the moment of the Resurrection, and the single candle points to the Paschal Candle that will mark the beginning of Easter and will be blessed and processed as part of the Easter Vigil.
Here at Saint Philip’s we will gather for a dinner before Tenebrae to mark the beginning of our Holy Week celebrations together – we will gather as Christians have done for millennia as we break bread and prepare for the Triduum: The Three Great Days.
The evening of Maundy Thursday begins the central moment of the Christian Year. Its Liturgy begins one great act of worship and proclamation extending from the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday through the Liturgy of Good Friday to the celebration of the Great Vigil and the First Mass of Easter. This sense of these liturgies as one act mirrors the pattern we find in John’s Gospel where the suffering, death, burial, Resurrection, and Ascension are seen as one movement.
Maundy Thursday carries a richer array of themes than almost any other of the year. It takes its name from the Latin word, Mandatuum – commandment. At the Last Supper, Jesus gives the new commandment, “love one another as I have loved you.” The Foot-Washing (which we observe here at Saint Philip’s) reminds us of how mundance and specific love is. It also pushes against our resistance.
Like Peter, people are often very hesitant to have their feet washed – sometimes it is far easier to serve that to let others serve us. This is one of those moments (like at the Altar when the Priest says, “This is my Body”) when the Priest’s role is not as Rector, Assistant, or the like – the Priest’s role becomes one of standing in the person of Christ that we Christians may know the same sense of holy confusion and discomfort the disciples must have felt when Jesus offered his own Body and when he offered to wash their feet. The Foot-Washing follows the sermon and is concluded with a period of silence and a collect.
The Liturgy is marked through with a sense of joy and celebration that has been muted since Ash Wednesday. In this dark night, the Church receives the gift of the Eucharist from Our Lord and even in the shadows of what is to come there is thanksgiving. The Liturgy is celebrated in festal white vestments and we sing the Gloria in Excelsis (which we have not sung since the last Sunday after the Epiphany) to the pealing of bells. This is the point at which the bells have historically fallen silent and children were told that the bells had “flown to Rome” though we might prefer to say that they have “flown to Canterbury” – the bells were said to return with the Easter eggs.
After Communion, the Sacrament needed for the next day is taken in procession to the Chapel with some degree of reverence. There a watch is kept through the night (echoing the disciples’ own time in the Garden with Jesus) as we respond to Jesus’ own invitation to watch with him as he prays and awaits his betrayer. There will be a sign-up sheet for those who would like to mark some portion of the evening through the dawn in prayer and a set of devotions and other prayers will be available for those who would like to. I know many people for whom this is one of the most significant religious experiences of their year.
The Altar is stripped of all adornments by the Altar Guild as we hear Psalm 22 – the great psalm of the Passion. The Liturgy doesn’t really end – we hear the Last Gospel, the story of the betrayal from the Gospel of Mark, which ends, “All of them deserted him and fled.” This marks the close of this chapter of the Great Three Days which continues with the overnight Vigil in the chapel and resumes with the Noonday Liturgy of Good Friday.
Looking at the main components of this Liturgy one can see the range of emotion, theology, practice, and depth that is being given to us. The festal celebration of the gift of the Eucharist, the modeling of living into that Eucharistic community through the Foot-Washing, the realization that this joyous event presaged the betrayal and abandonment by that same community he had just forged by Body, Blood, and service. Each of us may find some part or another of this Liturgy reaching us – for some the Foot-Washing will be powerfully meaningful while others may be deeply moved by the gift of Christ’s own Real Presence offered in that Last Supper that forms and sustains us to this day. Others may weep at the betrayal while others find themselves left numb in the “Garden” of our chapel during the watch.
This is an essential quality of Holy Week – the whole of the Christian faith unfolds for us and we are enfolded into its living reality. Maundy Thursday opens the way into the Three Great Days – may we all find ourselves drawn more deeply into the mysteries of faith in that Holy Week.