Here again there is a choice to be made: Do you create a Maundy Thursday experience or a Holy Thursday service? This might seem to be an argument about nomenclature and not really essential, and “Holy Thursday” might communicate better these days than does an obscure term like “Maundy Thursday.” But, in fact, there is something behind the differentiation. There is a difference in orientation.
“Maundy” comes from the Latin mandatum, meaning command or order. It refers to the upper room event recorded in the Gospel of John. Chapter thirteen begins with a problem (well, two problems. Actually). The first problem is Judas and the devil in his heart. The second problem is that the normal rituals of hospitality were not performed. So, John says that Jesus rose from the table to perform the ritual washing of the feet (more on that in the preaching notes). But Jesus says he has performed the ritual as an example to show what love is in this relationship and in this faith. Then Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” The “maundy” in Maundy Thursday comes from this verse. The new commandment is the commandment to love and to love in acts of service and hospitality.
Now, it isn’t really as simple as determining whether to do a foot washing or to focus on the sacrament of Holy Communion. But you might determine what is the focus of the experience of the worship event. The other three gospels do not mention the foot washing or the statement about a new commandment; instead, they describe the meal that is shared. Where, in other words, is the “maundy” coming from? How can the call to live in love as a community of faith be experienced in this service?
Foot washing is a powerful and sometimes unsettling ritual in the life of many churches. It provides an experience of humility and service. But does it convey for us what it conveyed for Jesus’ disciples in the upper room? It was a neglected act of hospitality for them. What might be an equivalent ritual for us today? How do we welcome people? How do we help visitors feel like guests and guests feel like family? How do we include those who’ve been excluded?
Certainly, the thrust of the service is to experience what Christ has done for us. It is to partake of this gift with humility and gratitude. But the “maundy” in Maundy Thursday seems to lay an additional burden on our shoulders and on our hearts. Perhaps this Holy Week, the worship planners should take special care to be inclusive. How can the Communion meal be served in a way that welcomes all and enables everyone to feel a part of something larger and not put on the spot in an unfamiliar place?
The worship space is always an important consideration, but perhaps more so on Maundy Thursday. Consider meeting somewhere other than the sanctuary, if that space isn’t flexible enough. Sit around tables, as though dining together; host each table so that all those who come for the sacrament are ushered into the sacred space you’ve created. You’re creating community, a welcoming spirit that allows us all to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen and watch and lean in.
The Proclaimed Word, if there is one (see Preaching Notes) could come from the people, which either means the preacher is in the round with tables around him or her, or that the proclamation is shared by the whole community. Perhaps it is planned for different folks to share a reflection, or there is a leading question allowing some to respond in the moment. But on this night, the Word could be a word from underneath, or alongside, not from on high. This is a moment of intimacy.
Washing feet is personal, an act as intimate as you can imagine between a teacher and student, a leader and follower. Between a Lord and a disciple. It is difficult to capture in a ritual in most church settings. This is not to forbid or even recommend against foot washing during the service. You know what will have the most impact in your congregation. But consider the effect you wish to have. You do not want embarrassment, although there was embarrassment in the upper room. The discomfort there was about who was doing the foot washing, not that the foot washing was being done. How might you capture that mood, that humbled awe of what Christ is willing to do for you?
The setting is simple, more like a dining room than a sanctuary. The lighting is dim, so as not to distract from what is taking place within the circle. Let the focus be on the bread and the cup, the bowl and the basin. Let the focus be on grace and on sacrifice and service. Music can bring us into that place if it is reflective, plaintive, present. Whether performative or participatory, the music is to draw us closer together, into the moment where Christ resides and kneels at our feet and washes off the dust of our journeys, our sinfulness, our separation, our selfishness. Maundy Thursday isn’t really about convincing the attenders of the history of that day; it isn’t about a re-enactment of a long-ago moment. It is a now-moment, a grace moment, and a challenge moment to be the foot-washed disciples of Jesus Christ. Whether you call it Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday, it can be an invitation to enter into the embrace of the one who loves you enough to wash you clean.
Rev. Dr. Derek Weber, Director of Preaching Ministries, served churches in Indiana and Arkansas and the British Methodist Church. His PhD is from University of Edinburgh in preaching and media. He has taught preaching in seminary and conference settings for more than 20 years.