Maundy Thursday

Bringing the people to the upper room

The school gym where I worship is normally bright and bustling before a service. On this Thursday night, however, it is dim and quiet, dozens of small candles providing the only light. In place of the usual rows of chairs there are rows of tables, snaking back and forth to form a single continuous line. At the head table a prominent array of thirteen candles symbolizes Christ and his disciples, whose last supper together this Maundy Thursday service will commemorate.

The service begins with readings and responses from Scripture, recalling our Lord's suffering for his people. One by one the candles representing the disciples are exdnquished, a reminder that those who break bread with Christ in the upper room will soon betray and abandon him.Between readings, as we sing successive stanzas of "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded," the words of this familiar Passion hymn come alive in the beautiful and moving gestures of the accompanying liturgical dance.

Standing at the head table, the pastor leads us in a brief meditation, after which a family from the congregation brings forward wine and unleavened bread, and everyone joins in the church's ancient prayer of thanksgiving: "Lift up your hearts… Let us give thanks to the Lord our God…" By now only one candle, the Christ candle, continues to burn; the liturgist slowly raises it above the table, a flickering image of Easter hope on the eve of Good Friday. Exchanging a sign of Christ's peace with one another, we share the bread and wine. We sing a final hymn, and then the dancers solemnly remove the communion ware and take away the Christ candle. Everyone departs silently, in darkness, remembering the suffering Servant who left the upper room for the darkness of Gethsemane and the agonies of the cross.

"Thursday of the Lord's Supper"

For many churches in the Reformed tradition, Maundy Thursday services, like the one described above, may be a fairly recent innovation. We've always celebrated Easter together. And most of our churches and communities have gathered to remember Christ's death on Good Friday. But Maundy Thursday is something new to most of us.

Not so in the wider Christian community. The celebration of Maundy Thursday goes back at least to the fourth century, when pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem are known to have marked the Last Supper and other events of passion week with special services at holy sites. As the idea of such passion week celebrations spread to other areas, various local rites and customs were incorporated into the Maundy Thursday celebration. Doubtless the best-known of these customs is footwashing, an old monastic exercise inspired by Christ's example in the upper room and associated with the "new commandment" of love recorded in John 14(hence the familiar name Maundy Thursday, "maundy" being an English corruption, via French, of the Latin mandatum: "commandment").

Various traditions know the day by different names: Holy Thursday, Great Thursday, Green Thursday. In the Middle Ages Christians officially called the day the "Thursday of the Lord's Supper," and this ancient designation is still the most descriptive. The central focus of Maundy Thursday worship has always been the upper room, where Jesus on the night of his arrest, sat at the table with his disciples and instituted a solemn memorial of his new covenant through the broken bread and shared cup of his supper.

Focus on Passover?

Maundy Thursday, therefore, ranks among the richest and most complex of the Christian celebrations. As the climax of the old Passover tradition, the Last Supper recalls the exodus and other past signs of God's covenant faithfulness. As a prelude to the Easter drama, the service not only anticipates Geth-semane and Golgotha but also looks beyond them in expectation to the empty tomb and the great heavenly banquet of the Lamb (cf. Matt. 26:29). The church's challenge on Maundy Thursday is to give adequate liturgical expression to this extraordinary richness of biblical content.

An obvious point of departure is the connection between Passover and the Lord's Supper. Although scholars (and the gospels themselves) disagree over whether the meal in the upper room was a formal Passover celebration, no one would deny that the Last Supper, with all its emphasis on covenant, deliverance, and Christ as the new Paschal Lamb, can only be understood in terms of the Passover. Hence, some churches favor observing Maundy Thursday by means of a "Christian" seder.

Such a service raises a number of pastoral and theological problems, however, not least of which is the possibility of giving offense to our Jewish neighbors (see, for example, "Should Christians Eat the Seder Meal?" in RW 6). But although we may not want to adopt the seder meal as our own, there is no reason why we should refrain from reflecting something of the spirit of the Passover in our commemoration of the Last Supper.

The seder is a table liturgy, and the experiences of table fellowship ought to permeate Maundy Thursday worship. Where facilities permit, the service can actually be held at tables, with or without an accompanying "love feast." Even where the service is held in a sanctuary, worshipers should be given some sense of gathering around a table: for example, the communion table could be centrally located, and the entire service— preaching included—conducted from it.

In the spirit of Passover, accounts of God's redemptive acts should figure prominently in Maundy Thursday worship. However solemn the service may be, the note of blessing and thanksgiving so typical of Jewish table prayers should also be present, especially during communion. This service is not a time for lengthy, didactic forms; better to use one of the newer communion liturgies, most of which draw on ancient Christian (and hence Jewish) models.

Symbols of Celebration

A table celebration can often be enriched by judicious use of traditional symbols or rituals. Here much will depend on local circumstances—such as whether a congregation observes Maundy Thursday instead of, or in addition to, Good Friday.

Footwashing. In many churches footwashing continues to be a Maundy Thursday institution. As an expressive response to the Word and to Christ's call for mutual charity, this ceremony has both historical precedent and the enthusiasm of some liturgical experts to commend it. Worship planners should not, however, consider this ritual a necessity. To the uninitiated the symbolism of footwashing might seem obscure and the actual experience more awkward than inspiring.

Other symbolic actions would surely do as well—and might be preferable to any self-conscious attempt to "modernize" footwashing itself (by shining shoes, for example). A simple but effective alternative would be a congregational offertory procession, possibly featuring gifts of food for a local relief ministry. Such a procession could also include the communion elements, thereby underscoring the connection between our giving and Christ's self-giving, memorialized in the sacrament.

Tenebrae. Another ancient and increasingly popular tradition is the service of tenebrae— especially effective as a Maundy Thursday service in those churches that hold no separate Good Friday service. The service usually involves Scripture reading, song, and the gradual extinguishing of candles. As the candles go out, we are reminded that those who break bread with Christ in the upper room will soon abandon him in the hour of his greatest suffering. (The extinguishing of the candles and the resulting darkness can also refer to other shadows of Christ's passion. See "Tenebrae," RW 2.)

Tenebrae normally ends with the extinguishing of the final candle, symbolizing Christ's death. When the service is held on Maundy Thursday, however, the Christ candle might continue to burn; it might even be elevated briefly at an appropriate point in the service. This small sign of hope in the darkness, an anticipation of the resurrection, can have considerable symbolic force. It is also theologically important, coming as it does in the context of the Lord's Supper, which never commemorates Christ's death apart from his triumph over death.

Stripping the Altar. The intrinsic unity of the whole Easter period can be underscored by a variant of the old practice known as "stripping the altar." At the end of the service, before worshipers leave, members silently collect and remove all communion utensils, banners, table coverings, and other decorations (including the Christ candle, if used), leaving the worship area totally bare as a token of Christ's abandonment and humiliation. On Sunday the process is reversed; the first Easter service begins with an unfurling of banners and the dressing of the table with festive coverings, flowers, and other symbols of the resurrection.

Whatever the specific means employed in celebrating the Maundy Thursday service, the watchword should be simplicity— a simplicity of celebration that respects, and so enhances, the intrinsic power and richness of the great event we are privileged to commemorate.


The entire service should be conducted around the communion table, either by placing the table in a center aisle or by arranging chairs in a semi-circle around the table.

*Everyone who is able, please stand.

Prelude: "Ah, Dearest Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended"
H. Walcha


In the past God spoke through the prophets at
many times and in various ways,
but in the last days he has spoken to us by his
Son, whom he appointed heir of all things,
and through whom he made the universe.

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise-— the fruit of lips that confess his name.
Praise the Lord!

*Hymn: "Praise God, Ye Servants of the Lord"
Psalm 113


First Reading: Exodus 12:1-14, 29-42

*Hymn: "When Israel Fled from Egypt Land"
Psalm 114

Second Reading: Exodus 19:1-6, 24:3-8

God's Will for His People: Deuteronomy 5:1-21,32-33

*Hymn: "Not Unto Us, O Lord of Heaven"
Psalm 115

Third Reading: John 13:1-17
Matthew 26:26-30

Anthem: "Go to Dark Gethsemene" Noble

Fourth Reading: Mark 15:22-32
Luke 23:39-24:32



*Hymn: "Give Thanks to God for All His Goodness"
Psalm 118


Brothers and sisters in Christ, the gospels tell us that before he suffered, Jesus sat at table with his disciples and established a new covenant in his blood. After he suffered, on the day he rose from the dead, he appeared to some of the disciples and was made known to them in the breaking of the bread. Come, then, to the supper of our Lord. Let us prepare the table with the offerings of our lives and labor.

Offertory: "The Last Supper" Weinberg

Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, you who have brought forth bread from the earth.
Blessed be God, now and forever!
Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, you who created the fruit of the vine.
Blessed be God, now and forever!
As the grain once scattered in the fields and the grapes once dispersed on the hillsides are now reunited on this table in bread and wine, so, Lord, may your whole church soon be gathered together from the corners of the earth into your kingdom.
Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

The Thanksgiving
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right for us to give thanks. It is our joy and our peace at all times and in all places to give thanks to you, Holy Father, Almighty, Everlasting God, through Christ our Lord.
It is indeed right and good to glorify you, at all times and in all places, and to offer you our thanksgiving, O Lord. Through your living Word you created all things and pronounced them good. You made human beings in your own image, to share your life and reflect your glory. In the fullness of time you gave Christ to us as the way, the truth, and the life. In the upper room Christ gave us this supper, that we should celebrate the memorial of the cross and resurrection, by which he became the source of salvation for all who put their trust in him. Therefore with the whole company of saints in heaven and on earth, with all creation in all time, we sing a hymn to your glory:

Hymn: "Holy, Holy, Holy"

The Institution
We give thanks to God the Father that our Savior, Jesus Christ, before he suffered, gave us this memorial of his sacrifice, until his coming again. For the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

The Memorial
We shall do as our Lord commands. We proclaim that our Lord Jesus was sent hy the Father into the world, that he took upon himself our flesh and blood, and bore the wrath of God against our sin. We confess that he was condemned to die that we might be pardoned, and suffered death that we might live. We proclaim that he is risen to make us right with God, and that he shall come again in glory to his new creation. We do this now, and until he comes'again.

Prayer of Consecration<
O Father, send down your Spirit upon us, your people, and upon this bread and wine, that to us they may be Christ's body and blood, and that in partaking we may be one single body and one single spirit in Christ, a living sacrifice to the praise of your glory.

Preparation of the Elements
The bread which we break
is a sharing in the body of Christ.
We who are many are one body,
for we all share the same loaf.

The cup for which we give thanks
is a sharing in the blood of Christ.
The cup which we drink
is our participation in the blood of Christ.

Hymn: "O Christ, the Lamb of God"

Women: O Christ, the Lamb of God,who takes away the sin of the world,have mercy upon us.
Men: O Christ, the Lamb of God,who takes away the sin of the world,have mercy upon us.
All: O Christ, the Lamb of God,who takes away the sin of the world,grant us your peace. Amen.

Invitation and Dedication
Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.
Therefore let us keep the feast.
Hosanna in the highest!

The gifts of God for the people of God.

The Communion
(While the bread is passed, sing "Eat this Bread.") Take, eat, remember and believe that the body of our Lord Jesus Christ was given for a complete remission of all our sins.
(While the cup is passed, sing "Jesus, Remember Me.")
Take, drink, remember and believe that the precious blood of our Lord Jesus Christ was shed for a complete remission of all our sins.

Our Lord suffered, died, and was buried.
But on the third day he arose again.
Behold, O God, your family: your son Jesus did not hesitate for its sake to give himself into the hands of wicked people and to suffer agony on the cross—your Son who now lives and reigns with you, in unity with the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Meditative singing: "My Peace" (see p. 4)

Depart in silence.

All psalms and hymns except "My Peace" are taken from the 1987 edition of the Psalter Hymnal.

David J. Diephouse teaches history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 10 © December 1988, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.