Friday, March 8, 2013

Merriman: Maundy Thursday

Reaffirming our Identity as a Eucharistic, Serving People: The Paschal Triduum Begins

Reflections on the symbols and ceremonies of Holy Week by Michael Merriman

The Paschal Triduum begins with sunset on Thursday, concluding with sunset on Sunday (pre-Vatican II the Triduum ran from Wednesday night and ended on Saturday night, producing confusion for Anglicans occasionally).  The evening Maundy Thursday Eucharist, then, marks the beginning of our anamnesis of the events of our redemption. 

This Eucharist was once celebrated with vestments, flowers, bells, etc. that gave the liturgy a festal character.  To many of us now, however, the emphasis is shifted to viewing this liturgy as the rite for the Eve of Good Friday.

It is suggested that the older practice of using the Gloria in Excelsis as the Song of Praise be replaced with another Song of Praise: “Holy God” or “Lord, have mercy” can be used. Another choice might be “O Gracious Light.”  This liturgy is our preparation for Good Friday, in most places, the final opportunity for celebrating Eucharist until the Great Vigil.

The washing of feet is a feature of Maundy Thursday that deserves some thought.  The older practice was to have the priest wash the feet of twelve people while the congregation looked on.  In the 1970’s it became common to offer the entire congregation the option of having their feet washed, and then at little later to invite them to share in washing, perhaps each person after having her or his feet washed then washing those of the next person.  When done for all, the arrangements of space and of vessels and towels should be such as to expedite the rite that it not take up an inordinate amount of time.

Other practices have included using the foot-washing in an Agape meal either before or after the Eucharist itself.  Even more intriguing is the practice of making the meal part of the Eucharist itself in which a form of Eucharist based on the prayers of the Didache is used with a thanksgiving and sharing of the bread being followed by the full meal and then the thanksgiving and sharing of the cup after the meal.  In that setting it would make sense to have the foot-washing in conjunction with the meal.  In that model the shared cup is the action that seals the sign of servant ministry.

The meaning of the Maundy Thursday Eucharist, then, is a reaffirmation of who we are as a eucharistic and servant people.  It then leads us into Friday’s commemoration of the passion when Jesus’ own eucharistic self-offering and his ultimate act of servanthood is celebrated.  Maundy Thursday is not then a separate rite apart from the other events of the Three Days but our entrance into that extended liturgy in which the whole of God’s redemptive act in Jesus is brought into our present time and we are led through the waters of baptism into the promised land of the Reign of God, here in our midst.

Michael Merriman, a member of APLM Council. He will be a featured presenter at Go, Make Disciples, a training institute offered by the North American Association for the Catechumenate, April 25-27, in Houston, Texas. For more info:


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