The Celebration of Maundy Thursday

It’s always hard to figure out the tone of the Maundy Thursday liturgy. We come in knowing that we’ll be remembering Jesus’ last supper with his friends, reenacting Jesus washing their feet, and watching as Judas separates himself from the others. We also know that Jesus will give us the framework for the Eucharist—that Great Thanksgiving—when he takes bread and wine and blesses them and shares them with his disciples and then instructs them to continue doing this in his memory. Finally, we know that at the conclusion of the service, the altar will be stripped bare to prepare us for all that will come tomorrow. And yet the liturgical color is a resplendent white, usually reserved for the celebratory seasons of Christmas and Easter, instead of red or even black.

A Maundy Thursday Sermon on Psalm 116.

Each Lent, we’re reminded that Sundays don’t count when calculating the 40 days of this season. The six Sundays of Lent are feast days strung throughout our sojourn in the wilderness to remind us of God’s goodness and presence in our lives, and especially during our most difficult times. Our psalm this evening reminds of this as well. The psalmist declares, “I love the Lord because he has heard the voice of my supplication, because he has inclined his ear to me whenever I called on him.” On this night Jesus gathers with friends to recall the deliverance of the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt, and, even though there’s a foreboding shadow, we join with them to give our thanks and express our love for God, because God answers our prayers. God delivers us. And we know that God will incline an ear to Jesus as he prays, and that God will in fact deliver him.

In other words, we know what will happen this weekend. As professor Jason Byassee puts it, “[On Maundy Thursday,] right at the start of the three-day Easter Triduum, we get a glimpse at the last chapter first: the ‘prayer’ of Jesus’ death will be answered with Easter Sunday’s resurrection. The symphony’s final movement is here hinted at, sounded in advance, before it will be blasted with trumpets in three days’ time.” While we cannot skip over what is to come, we can still hear hints of what will be the resounding song, and that is worth giving our thanks, and perhaps even celebrating tonight.

Yet that is usually not the tenor of Maundy Thursday. Theologian David Wood explains it like this: “All too often Holy Thursday night is remembered in such a way that does not call forth testimonies of thanksgiving. The mood is often somber if not depressive. Attention is drawn away from the occasions for rejoicing in the signs of grace in our own lives…. [Yet] at the center of [Psalm 116] is the rededication of one’s life to God and a reawakening of one’s love for God in the wake of deliverance.” The Psalmist sings, “O Lord, I am  your servant; I am your servant and the child of your handmaid; you have freed me from my bonds. I will offer you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call upon the Name of the Lord.” The Psalmist gives thanks to God for deliverance, for healing, and for grace. And there is much rejoicing.

All of this was in the air at a different dinner that Jesus took part in just a few days before this last one. Jesus had made his way to Bethany, to the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, and they were hosting a dinner for him. But not just any dinner, mind you, but the one after Lazarus had been raised from the dead. In fact our gospeler John goes out of his way to point out that Lazarus was at the table with Jesus. Mary and Martha wanted to honor and thank Jesus for what he had done, and I can assure you this was no somber event. I suspect that there was much laughter and giving thanks, and that Mary and Martha took turns pinching themselves to see if it was all really real, if their brother was in fact there at home eating with them. And in the midst of all that, Mary is overcome in her desire to give thanks, and she takes an expensive jar of ointment and washes Jesus’ feet with it. This gets some pushback about extravagant gifts, but Jesus simply tells those ones to let her be. To let Mary show her deep love because of what God did for her.

And so should we. Tonight we should echo the words we read together, saying, “I love the Lord, because he has heard the voice of my supplication, because he inclined his ear to me—he leaned in to listen to me!—when I called on him.” And that thanksgiving is shown when we wash each other’s feet. When we care for others just as God has cared for us. In this way we continue to bless the Lord and each other, knowing that we are loved and that God has become known to us when we were in need. God is faithful and will continue to bring deliverance.

This celebration will end, of course. But only for a while. The ending of deliverance has already been hinted at, the musical theme alluded to. That symphony will be fully realized and heard. We’ve got a few very dark movements to make our way through, of course, but they will only make the finale all the more sweet. So before we leave this evening, take a moment to offer your thanks to the God who delivers us—and Jesus. Sing of your love for God, for we will bless the Lord from this time forth for evermore.


Image by Josemar Lucas from Pixabay

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