On this day, many Christian traditions will be commemorating Maundy Thursday, the beginning of what is called “the Three Days” (or Triduum, Latin for “three days”).
“Maundy” comes from the word mandatum, which means “commandment.” One of the prayers for today reminds us that “on the night of his betrayal, Jesus gave us a new commandment, to love one another as he loves us.”
At the worship service tonight, some congregations may follow Jesus’ example and members will wash one another’s feet. We’ll remember the Last Supper—the Passover meal that Jesus shared with his disciples before his crucifixion. In some places, the worship service will end with the stripping of the altar, the candles extinguished and worshippers leaving in silence–a reminder of the solemnity of this night.
In a congregation where I once belonged, this was one of the most somber, quiet nights of the church year. In that place we did an all-night vigil after the Maundy Thursday service and we took shifts of two or three hours, symbolically waiting with Jesus on the night before his death. In the darkened sanctuary smelling of candle smoke, a few of us would sit in silence. It was the stillest I would be all year and I considered it to be one of the great gifts of the liturgical calendar.
The second of the Three Days comes tomorrow, Good Friday, a time when we reflect on Christ crucified. The Passion story is read from the Gospel of John. One of the prayers for that day reads: “Merciful God, your Son was lifted up on the cross to draw all people to himself.”
Finally, the last of the Three Days is the Resurrection of our Lord, beginning at the Easter Vigil service. One of my all-time favorite prayers, the exultet, is chanted or read at this service. It begins: “Rejoice, now, all heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels! Exult, all creation around God’s throne!” The part I love best is the repetition of the phrase, “This is the night…” which recounts the story of salvation. The service begins in darkness and then the Paschal Candle is lit and the flame is passed to members of the congregation with the words “The light of Christ.” We answer, “Thanks be to God.” After the gospel, we get to proclaim, “Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia.” What begins in darkness and silence ends with joy and singing.
What about you? Will you be attending any of your church’s services during the Three Days? Do you find them especially moving? What do you find the most meaningful in the rituals that surround this solemn time in our life of faith?
Kate Elliott is editor of Gather magazine.