Maundy Thursday
Margaret Atkins


It begins and ends in candlelight, and silence. In between, the liturgies of Maundy Thursday present a bewildering abundance of complex images. Yet they are variations on the single theme of love.

The early risers can begin with the morning prayer called Tenebrae, which means ‘darkness’. Few of us will be up in time to celebrate this before day-break. If we were, we would feel its full dramatic power, when as each psalm is slowly sung the fifteen candles that light the church are extinguished one by one. The light of Christ, which on Saturday night will be represented by the vast Easter candle, is reduced to one tiny flame, which is then symbolically hidden. The final words of Tenebrae remind us why: ‘he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.’ This is the love that will be at the heart of our Easter celebrations, the love of a man who gives up his life for his friends.

In the evening many more worshippers will arrive to explore the layers of one of the richest liturgies of the church’s year. The first reading, from the Book of Exodus, tells the story of the origins of the Jewish Passover. God is inflicting plagues on the Egyptians to force them to free the Israelites they have enslaved. The Israelites are instructed how to choose, kill and eat a sacrificial sheep or goat. Its blood, daubed on the door-frame, will be a sign to protect them from the plague. The instinct to sacrifice animals in order to appease God or the fates runs deep: our own holocausts of sheep and cattle in recent weeks have not been built simply on cool economic or biological reasoning. The Israelites were sacrificing at least to a God they could trust, who showed his love by liberating them from injustice and oppression. But even here, the sacrifices leave us a little uneasy.

The New Testament’s reinterpretation of the story of the Passover is breathtaking. In the second reading, we hear from St Paul how Jesus transformed the Passover meal which he was celebrating with his friends into a sign of a new covenant. Where we used to sacrifice animals to God, now God puts an end to all sacrifices: in Jesus, he takes human form and accepts death for himself. So often, we try to solve our problems by turning our anger onto one another or onto an innocent victim. Christ reveals God’s way to defuse violence, by accepting it himself, with humility and with forgiveness. Only then is the circle of brutality broken; only then can life begin anew.

The meal which Jesus then institutes is to remind us of this. When we gather as Christians we are to break bread and drink wine together, and remember God’s new way of dealing with his creatures, and our new way of dealing with one another, in forgiveness and in fellowship. But there is more: in this meal, Christ himself will be present among us. We do not have to struggle by ourselves to break the circle of brutality (in any case, we would fail). We simply have to accept the gift of his presence, to become channels of his love for the wider world.

The gospel reading is from St John’s account of the Last Supper. He does not describe the origin of the eucharist, as the other writers do. Instead, he tells how Jesus took a bowl of water and bathed the feet of his disciples, telling them to follow his example: ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.’ These are the words that gives the day its name: ‘Maundy’ comes from the Latin for commandment, mandatum. To wash one another’s feet: is love as simple as that? Yet most of us find such tasks demeaning, except for those we love most dearly. Hence the power throughout history of the royal ‘Maundies’, when kings and queens themselves have publicly washed the feet of beggars. Even today, we can recapture the drama of the gospel by re-enacting the scene, a striking reminder to the priest of his role in serving the people. The hymn that accompanies the ritual puts its concisely, Ubi caritas: ‘where there is charity and love, there is God.’

After the concentrated drama of the public liturgy, the day ends in stillness. These are moments of sheer and simple beauty. The main altar has been stripped, and covered with a plain white cloth. The consecrated bread has been taken in procession to a side-altar and displayed there, in a twilight brightened by candles and flowers. One year, I spent Easter in Rome and indulged in the local custom of wandering from church to church to admire the glorious displays, scented in my memory by a thousand lilies, spotlessly white. But this is not a flower show: the purpose is to keep watch in the presence of Christ. The mixed emotions of the day are distilled into an atmosphere of intense calm, a patience spiced with anticipation. The watchers pray in silence, each with their own thoughts, tip-toeing in and out of the church as they wish. Yet they are intimately bound and supported by their shared experience. It is never easier to pray than on this night, in this quiet and flickering chapel, pondering the meanings of this action-packed day. Here is charity and love; here, then, is God.

This article originally appeared in The Independent

© Margaret Atkins, 2003.