It’s my favorite service of the year, insofar as “favorite” isn’t synonymous with “most pleasurable.” Maundy Thursday allows us to encounter Christ in specific emotions that rarely get room to breathe in the life of the church the rest of the year: the awkward and embarrassing intimacy of having your bare feet touched by a stranger; the growing dread of remembering that, at this point in the gospel stories, things have already been put into motion in a way that makes Good Friday all but inevitable; and what is, for me, the most distinctly human and, frankly, humiliating moment in Jesus’ recorded life, when (as Matthew records it) he meekly asks three of the disciples: “Stay here and keep watch with me.”
My first Maundy Thursday service happened in graduate school at Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, if memory serves. My recollections of services there bleed together, but I have a distinct memory of a sensation Esau McCaulley recalls from his first Maundy Thursday service:
I closed my eyes to pray, and when I opened them the building was largely empty. I didn’t know what to do. When does the service end? How does it end? I realized then that it doesn’t. We had entered the holiest part of the Christianity calendar.
Because I didn’t grow up in a tradition that follows the liturgical calendar, as an adult I’m still figuring a lot of it out: the details of things like which passages are read when, but more crucially, questions about posture, like: How am I supposed to feel on Maundy Thursday—remorseful, grateful, lonely? What’s the proper greeting to another Christian on Good Friday? On Holy Saturday, should I actively try and pretend I don’t know that Jesus is about to be resurrected? Most years I try and read one of the gospel passion narratives in real-time over the weekend: the Last Supper on Thursday night, the crucifixion on Friday, the resurrection early Sunday morning, etc. Punctuated by Triduum services, it brings the narrative to life.
It’s our second pandemic Holy Week, so tonight we took advantage of the geographic flattening to stream the liturgy from Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green and hear my friend Becca deliver this moving sermon. Two reflections from the day: First, every year there’s something so powerful to me about seeing someone scrub the altar. The service ends with clergy and others “stripping the altar,” removing all the decorative and liturgical elements from the stage, leaving only the permanent furniture, and then placing a crown of thorns on the altar. But in between, the altar is scrubbed, whether with a brush or rag. For all the ways typical church liturgies emphasize reading and speaking and praying and singing, this one moment of centering an act of physical, even domestic, labor reminds me of all the people whose tireless, typically thankless labor enables a ministry like the one Jesus had.
Second, there’s no getting around the ache of loneliness that ends the service. Over the years I’ve tried to make time for silence and prayer after the service, sometimes signing up for a late-night prayer vigil shift. The disciples fail, and of course we will, too, but still Jesus is humble enough to ask: Can you stay with me? Can you try? The awkwardness McCaulley describes above is a large part of what makes the service so riveting, especially when you first attend: Rather than concluding neatly, the service gradually dissolves with more and more liturgical elements (including the clergy) being removed. It’s up to each participant to decide how long to remain seated, whether to pray, when to resume talking. It’s as if the liturgy itself has brought you this far into the story—has posed Jesus’ most vulnerable, tender question to you—and then leaves you in a sacred, mysterious, liminal place: Things have been set in motion, and we don’t know what happens next. Can you stay with me? Can you try?