One of the lovely things about being an Episcopalian is being part of a group that has traditions going back hundreds and hundreds of years. I’ve enjoyed the rites performed at our services and take great comfort is knowing that what I’m doing is being done by others all over the world.
Christ commanded that we love one another and in remembrance of that commandment, we have the tradition of Maundy Thursday. Maundy is derived from the Latin term, Mandatum, which means “mandate”. A friend and I went to the service at Calvary Episcopal downtown this year. They had an agape meal, a foot washing, the Eucharistic service, and at the very end, they stripped the altar.
The Maundy Thursday service itself is in the Episcopal Book of Occasional Services as well as the Book of Common Prayer. Festal meals are discouraged until the Easter Communion, taken at the Easter service on Sunday morning. BUT, an agape meal can be taken on Maundy Thursday. In true tradition, it should be meatless, but we had a choice of lamb stew or lentil stew. Who can resist lamb stew? Also, in Maundy Thursday agape meal tradition, they brought out cheese, olives, dried fruit, bread, and wine. It was a simple meal, but it was heavenly. A blessing was said over the food, the bread, and the wine. We ate, we talked, and we enjoyed chatting with each other. It wasn’t a festal meal, but it kind of felt like one which makes me think that it’s not what is consumed at a meal that makes it festal – it’s the company.
It’s always amusing to see people’s reactions over the foot washing. A common tongue-in-cheek saying over this is, “All may, some should, none must”. I’ve heard some say Holy Week is the busiest week of the year because who wants to have their feet washed without their toes being pretty? All kidding aside, foot washing isn’t a necessary tradition, but it’s a symbolic one. It’s awkward and feels somewhat silly. Some people seem to know exactly what to do, rinsing the recipient’s feet and drying them in an efficient and professional manner. Others (me) find themselves struggling over things like, Do I get between the toes? Do I scrub them? About the time I’m through mulling those questions over, another one pops in my head. How long do I wash? Usually by the time I get to that question, it’s usually past long enough and I’m awkwardly grabbing a towel and drying their feet that have been pondered over and cleaned probably better than they typically are in the shower. In the end, though, it truly is a humbling experience. I’ve done something that shows my love for my fellow human. I’ve humbled myself to do a service for them which is the whole point of Jesus performing the foot washing at The Last Supper. It’s a reminder that we should all serve each other even if it sometimes feels weird and awkward.
After the foot washing, we gathered in the nave for the Maundy Thursday Eucharist service. It’s similar to a regular Eucharist, but at the end, the altar is stripped. This is symbolic of Christ’s garments being stripped off him. The altar is symbolically washed in remembrance of the preparation of His burial altar. This part of the service was quiet, save for the choir chanting Psalm 22. I caught myself thinking of the emotions that would have been going through not just Christ, but those around him – the sorrow, the regret, and the fear. Death is never easy.
We all left in silence.