Though we often think of Maundy Thursday as the day we remember the institution of the Lord’s Supper, the “maundy” of this day comes from the Latin mandatum, or mandate. Historically, the mandate from which Maundy Thursday gets its name is not about Holy Communion but about foot washing. Or, more accurately, Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ confusion and alarm after he washed their feet. And before you start talking to the screen to remind me of all of the logistical and hygienic challenges that go into washing peoples’ feet during worship—I know. Trust me, I know. Honestly, one of my best experiences of foot washing was an impromptu affair of everyone rinsing off one another’s bare feet with a garden hose following an evening of water games at youth group. We weren’t following a liturgy or praying as we did it. But I remember feeling the holiness within this mundane act of helping one another clean our feet after a time of fun and fellowship together.
I think this is the point of Maundy Thursday: to be able to recognize when we are loving as Christ loves us because we’ve encountered and practiced that love together in worship. So, if you’re used to doing a foot washing service—do it! If you want to try something new and your worship team has a lot of enthusiasm and energy about hosting a foot washing in the midst of worship—do it! And if you don’t have the means or the energy to do a foot washing, that’s ok too. The question, ultimately, is how will you make the commandment—or mandate—to love as Christ loves us real and present and active among your people? You might want to try a handwashing ritual before coming forward for Holy Communion. Or you might gather around tables and serve one another as you hear the story of Jesus and the disciples gathering around a table for their last meal together. (I mean, wouldn’t a potluck be a great setting for Maundy Thursday worship?!)
If you choose to hold Maundy Thursday in your usual worship space, you might consider emphasizing prayer as a way we love and serve one another. Take the time to hear one another’s concerns and struggles. Go to the Garden of Gethsemane with Jesus and one another. Renew your commitment to watch and pray together as you witness the suffering in one another’s lives and in the world. If you are celebrating Holy Communion, revel in the experience of passing the peace as forgiven and reconciled people. And if this seems to lack the solemnity you expect during Holy Week, consider that Maundy Thursday is a rehearsal for how we practice Christ-like love with and for one another even (and especially) when the world is falling apart around us.
Finally, I encourage you, if you do not do it already, to end worship with a stripping of the altar. This is a long-held tradition in the Christian church that entails removing all ornaments, candles, linens, and paraments from the altar and the area around the altar, leaving it as bare as possible in anticipation of Good Friday. So, the space is to remain through the Good Friday service, a reminder and remembrance of the stark and sobering events of Good Friday leading up to, during, and after the crucifixion. This can be done while soft music is playing in the background or during an appropriate choral anthem, but it is also quite effective when done in silence. Pacing for the stripping of the altar is also incredibly important. You want to have enough volunteers to do this in a timely manner, but you also do not want to rush it. This is a meditative ritual, so encourage volunteers to move with purpose and without haste. Plan ahead of time for who is responsible for what items, no matter how many trips in and out of the space it may take. Whether you choose to strip the altar or not, close the service with a ritual or a prayer that prepares those gathered to encounter all that Good Friday entails once again.
Dr. Lisa Hancock, Director of Worship Arts Ministries, served as an organist and music minister in United Methodist congregations in the Northwest Texas and North Texas Annual Conferences, as well as the New Day Amani/Upendo house churches in Dallas. After receiving her Master of Sacred Music and Master of Theological Studies from Perkins School of Theology, Lisa earned her PhD in Religious Studies from Southern Methodist University wherein she researched and wrote on the doctrine of Christ, disability, and atonement.