By Fr. Myles Hixson
Today we begin the journey through the Holy Triduum ("Three Days"), the most sacred time in the Christian year. In an effort to help us enter into the spirit of these days as best as possible, I want to offer a few short reflections over the next few days about the significance of these days and the meaning of the unique liturgies that take place.
Maundy Thursday commemorates two important pieces of the Gospel story. First, as the assigned reading from John 13 details, we remember our Lord's humble love towards his disciple, epitomized when he washed their feet. Love is a theme that pulsates through the Holy Triduum: it was for love that Christ came to earth; it was for love that Christ healed the sick and preached the truth; it was for love that Christ willingly died on the gruesome cross; and it was for love that he rose again for our salvation. Love also is the theme that is meant to characterize us as Jesus' followers. Just as he has "washed our feet," we too must care for those around us in humble service.
The second aspect of today is a commemoration of the Holy Eucharist. It was on Thursday evening in the first Holy Week that our Lord gave us the Blessed Sacrament of his Body and Blood, which has been unwaveringly celebrated ever since. In a radical act, Jesus transfigured the Jewish Passover and brought it to fulfillment: he is the true paschal lamb slain to avert the angel of death (Exod. 12). It is through feasting on his unblemished flesh that we "remember" (sacramentally participate in) his sacrifice for us.
The ancient and venerable liturgy for this day is unique and serves to draw us into the spirit of the day. The liturgical color is white, which is always used for feasts of the Lord and for high celebrations. We should expect nothing else on a day that celebrates the institution of the Eucharist. However, this day's celebration is not full. Because of what tomorrow brings, today is a muted and sober celebration.
To help facilitate the theme of sober celebration, a number of additions and subtractions are present in the liturgy. For the first time since Lent began (except on a few feast days) the Gloria in Excelsis is sung or spoken. Heaven rings with celebration as Christ gives us the Holy Sacrament. The Nicene Creed, the confession and absolution, the exchange of peace, and the final blessing are all omitted. When we say the Agnus Dei, we will repeat the refrain "Have mercy upon us" three times rather than say the usual "Grant us thy peace" to conclude. Bells, a sound of joy and celebration, are also eerily absent from the Eucharistic prayer. While on the whole the Mass is a celebration, it is one that stands under the shadow of tomorrow. How can we speak of peace, comfort, and joy on this day when we know the horrors that the next fews hours bring? Peace will return to the Eucharist when the tomb lies empty.
As soon as the Mass ends, a special rite occurs. Because the Eucharist will not be celebrated again until the Easter Vigil, the priest consecrates extra wafers during this evening's service. The extras are placed in a special container and processed from the high altar to what is called the altar of repose, which is a special side altar that represents the Garden of Gethsemane. Once he places the reserved sacrament upon the altar of repose, the priest will kneel and "keep watch." This recalls that after our Lord gave us the Eucharist, he went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray and asked his disciples to stay awake, watch, and pray with him. They failed. The priest and servers fulfill Jesus' request and pray with him as he reposes in Gethsemane.
Once the priest and servers return to the high altar, the final rite for the evening begins. As Psalm 22 is read, the decor from the sanctuary is removed. This "stripping of the altar" liturgically represents the arrest, stripping, and beating of Jesus that takes place after his night of fervent prayer in the garden. Once the altar is stripped, the sacred ministers leave in penitential silence. Whatever celebration Maundy Thursday brought into our Lenten observance has now disappeared. Friday, dear church, has begun.
Fr. Myles Hixson is Rector of Holy Cross Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN. You can watch a live stream of his Mandy Thursday liturgies on their Facebook Page at 6:00 PM this evening. Morning Prayer (9 AM) and Evening Prayer (4 PM) will also be live streamed.