The entire experience of Lent moves the worshipper toward Holy Week. While the Palm Sunday of Christ’s Passion and the beginning days of Holy Week hold great significance, Chittister says of Thursday, “Of all the days in the liturgical year, Holy Thursday may be the most impacting” (141). This major holy day observes several important events in Christ’s life as we move toward his crucifixion, death, and resurrection.
How did Holy Thursday develop? At sundown Thursday, Lent ends and the Triduum begins. I covered the development of the Triduum in greater detail in my previous article by that title. In summary, Holy Thursday developed into its own celebration in the fourth century Jerusalem Church. Pilgrims would attend celebrations at the actual sites of the events on the day of the week when it occurred (White 50-53).
What does Holy Thursday celebrate? Holy Thursday celebrates several of the most significant events of Jesus life. During the Passover meal with his disciples (John 13:1), Jesus washes his disciples’ feet (John 13:2-17), and then, gives them the new commandment to love one another (John 13:34). Additionally, Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:17-29). According to the Revised Common Lectionary, the Scripture readings remain the same each year for Holy Thursday (Revised Common Lectionary).
There are several ways in which churches commemorate these events. Some begin the evening with a simple agape feast which is reminiscent of the Passover meal (Webber 126). Chittister describes this meal as a joyous time of socializing (143). Toward the end of this feast, Psalm 69:1-23 moves the worshipper toward the somber events of the evening (Webber 126).
Following the meal, some churches keep a footwashing ritual. During this time, the pastor will wash the feet of a representative group from the congregation or the entire congregation will wash one another’s feet (Webber 127-128). In his explanation of this, Jesus gives them the new command to love one another. Another name for Holy Thursday is Maundy Thursday. “Maundy” may sound strange to you. The Book of Worship says, “Maundy is the English form of the Latin word meaning commandment” (191). This new command provides the focal point of Holy Thursday as evidenced by its being called Maundy Thursday.
Often on Maundy Thursday, churches celebrate the Lord’s Supper. In commenting on Christ’s institution of it, Robert Webber says, “In this simple action he took the central Jewish festival that marked Jewish spirituality and transformed it into a major source of Christian spirituality” (128). In it, we acknowledge our sin and need of forgiveness, which the Messiah offers and accomplishes.
After communion, the stripping of the altar and Tenebrae may follow. Once again, the Book of Worship says, “Tenebrae is the Latin term for shadows” (207). Scripture readings of Christ’s betrayal, rejection, suffering, and death accompanied by extinguishing a candle occur after each reading. Christ, the Light of the World, is slowly extinguished and the darkness grows… it is a somber mood.
Why celebrate Holy Thursday? As Robert Webber comments, “Because worship is not simply a record of the past but a means through which the past is made present, we are truly there” (Webber 129). We celebrate Holy Thursday to enter into the events of this night in two ways. First, we enter into life with Christ as the betrayed, deserted, and crucified Christ. As the events replay before us in Scripture and action, we experience a little of what Jesus must have experienced, but second, we enter into the moment as the betrayer, deserter, and murderer of Christ. We identify with Christ, but we also identify with those who fled from and rejected him.
What happens after Holy Thursday? These events lead us to Good Friday and Holy Saturday.
Book of Worship: United Church of Christ (New York: United Church of Christ Office for Church Life and Leadership, 1986).
Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year: the Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009).
Revised Common Lectionary: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/lections.php?year=A&season=Holy%20Week
Webber, Robert. Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004).
White, James F. Introduction to Christian Worship (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980).