Everyone shows up for Easter. It's a joyous festival of rebirth and a classic part of the twin celebrations of the CandE crowd (as opposed to CofE, Church Of England - this being Christmas and Easter). Easter's a fun one to go to. Likewise, Christmas. These are the easy festivals to go to - about the good news and the triumph over death. Unto us a son is born, one who will triumph over death and the grave, and reconcile God and Man.
However, many people give a quiet respect to Good Friday. Holy Week is full of depictions of the Crucifixion, and given the importance in Catholic theology of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus (as well as the opportunity for certain evangelistic preachers to wax heavily on the torture for fire and brimstone purposes) it's well represented. Even lapsed Christians sometimes give meat a miss on such a day.
But services celebrating Maundy Thursday are food for a very quiet introspection. Though not as well represented, it's still heavily attended. It's one of the more meaningful days of the church calendar.
The events of Maundy Thursday in the Bible story include the Last Supper. Jesus, knowing his death was imminent, gathered together the twelve and instituted two directives. The first was to share in bread and wine together whenever they shall meet, in rememerance of Him. But the second, the directive for which this day was named, was to love each other. The "Maundy" in the phrase comes from the Middle English and French "mandé", which comes straight from the first word of the Latin version of Christ's commandment to his followers: "Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos". (A new commandment I give to you - love one another as I have loved you.)
He demonstrated this love by washing the feet of his followers, an inversion of the normal social protocol. It was customary to wash the feet of one's master, or of one's teacher - but Jesus had a two-fold plan.
The first was to start to psychologically prepare them for the events of Good Friday - that he would start - by humbling himself by washing their feet, to prepare them for what he was about to do in humbling himself by being completely humiliated and broken in body. The second was to ensure that in addition to carrying on his example of loving one's neighbour, that they should never take the awesome power that they'd been given and let the politics of the situation get to their heads, because after all, in addition to the message, He was entrusting them with the supernatural power to cast out demons, raise the dead and heal the sick.
He'd previously alluded to both his impending crucifixion and the requirements of discipleship in Matthew 20:
25But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.26“It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant,27and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave;28just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
So the service held on Maundy Thursday is quite sober and somber. It isn't the triumphant palm waving of Palm Sunday or the joyous rebirth of Easter, the two holy days that bracket Holy Week. This was the day in which Jesus gave his final instructions, and his most important ones - to his followers.
As a result, in the midst of the hymns that are sung, many traditions in Christianity have variants on a theme relating to loving one's neighbour and being that person's servant. In some congregations the bishop washes the feet of a selected group of parishioners. In seminaries, the Dean sometimes takes this particular day to perform a similar ritual for students. In others the congregation invites each other to wash their feet for them with basins and water provided at the front of the church.
But the overarching point is, the service includes a significant portion of its time to mirroring the selflessness of Christ on that night, whether expressed with alms or foot-washing. The Kingdom of God would not be sought by self-aggrandizement or moving up through the ranks, but by slowly stripping away the layers of ego and the need to be rich or powerful. Sadly, the drama of the Passion (and its theological importance) often
overshadows the example that Christ gave, and the important message of
being your neighbour's servant - which is why this service, (and this
service) can seem much more meaningful.
It's a fairly long service, with meditations on Jesus' last words. A variant of John 14:27 is repeated: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the
world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid."
The communion takes on a more special meaning on that day. Blessing the bread and saying a prayer over the wine predates Christianity - in fact, during the Last Supper, it's notable that his remarks ("take, eat, for this is my Body...") follow on an expected sequence and prayer in the meal. And many Christian denominations repeat that ceremony weekly as the highlight of their Mass. But this was the day that the memorial meal was instituted, and it's all the more poignant for its timing in the Holy Week story. Within a few hours Jesus is to be arrested, tried and killed. Do this, inremembrance of me.
In other traditions, this is when the Chrism mass takes place. All the anointing oils, the oils that will be used to heal the sick, to anoint in Baptism, will be blessed and consecrated now.
It's also a time to shift gears from the normal state of affairs to an attitude of somberness given the nature of the Good Friday observances. At the end of the service, the altar is stripped bare and washed. The somber, ox-blood red stoles are removed, leaving the clergy in nondescript clothing. The lights are dimmed and the candles shine brighter in the darkness.
The singing stops, the hymns are silent.
We close with the words of Psalm 22, spoken in unison by the entire congregation, as the church gets even darker. With the decorations removed, the singing finished, and the clergy dressed in the barest of vestments, somehow the words manage to take on more weight.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.
as the Psalm closes with the words
They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!
there are a few minutes of deep, resonant, dark, sober, and terrible silence.
And then, in contrast to the usual protocol, there is no procession out. No processional hymn, no filing out of the church in ranks, preceded by the clergy and acolyte procession. No choral flourish, no thundering organ pipes.
As one's conscience deems fit, one simply stands up and leaves the now emptier and darker church in silence. The darkness and the horror of Good Friday is about to happen, and there will be no light or joy until the triumphant bonfire at dawn on Easter Sunday.