Thursday, April 1, 2010

Worship Notes for Maundy Thursday through Easter

Maundy Thursday/Holy Thursday
April 1, 2010

The Lord be with you

This is a very busy week in the Church. It started out with Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion and continues through to Easter Sunday. Some churches have a worship service every day. At Lamb of God Lutheran (LCMS) we have worship services on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. We also participate in a Easter Vigil service with the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Greenville on Holy Saturday. Because of this busy schedule these “worship notes” will not follow my standard format. Instead I will describe each of the special services in more general terms (not counting Palm Sunday).

Maundy Thursday/Holy Thursday
It was in the evening of Maundy Thursday that Jesus ate his last meal before his arrest. It was a Passover meal with his disciples. This service commemorates that meal. Matthew, Mark, and Luke give the bare bones of the meal, focusing on the chief part, the institution of the Lord’s Supper. John, who wrote his Gospel decades later, supplements the first three Gospels by providing much of what Jesus taught that evening that the first three Gospels glossed over. The very name “Maundy” comes from John’s Gospel. The word is from Latin and means “command.” In John 13:34 Jesus gives us a new “command,” to love one another. During the evening Jesus also washed the feet of the disciples (again recorded only in John’s Gospel), so churches often include a foot washing ceremony in a Maundy Thursday service. The service is a somber one, often not having preludes and postludes, the pastor not giving customary greetings, and the like. At the conclusion of many Maundy Thursday services the altar is “stripped.” This means that all the chancel appointments are removed. This ancient custom reminds us of the humiliation of Jesus at the hands of the soldiers, who stripped and beat him. Finally, Maundy Thursday services do not end with the customary benediction. That is because it is considered the beginning of a worship service that lasts until Easter Sunday. In the days of Saint Augustine the worship service actually continued from Maundy Thursday evening until Easter morning. People would leave to sleep or eat, but would return and rejoin the congregation. So from Maundy Thursday until Easter, whether or not you are in the church building, we are encouraged to think of ourselves as worshiping God. At Lamb of God we will receive the Lord’s Supper and the altar will be stripped. There will be no benediction and the congregation will leave in silence. Our evening service begins at 7:00 PM.

Good Friday
Good Friday encompasses everything after Jesus left the upper room where he celebrated the Passover through his burial. That includes his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, his arrest, the falling away of his disciples and the explicate denial of Peter, the abuse of Jesus, the mock trial and conviction of our Lord, the death of Judas, the crucifixion, our Lord’s last words from the cross, his death and burial in a borrowed tomb. Quite obviously there is a lot to choose from when crafting a worship service. Because the Jews considered the new day as starting at sundown, from a Jewish point-of-view, Jesus also established Communion on Friday. You can see why the church in Augustine’s time was able to conduct a continuous service from Thursday evening to Easter Sunday morning! Churches today must pick and choose from the many themes. At Lamb of God our service will begin with a large wooden cross being brought in. Later in the service the congregation will be encouraged to write some sin on a piece of paper and nail it to the cross. This same cross will be used Easter Sunday, with the sins stripped off and destroyed, just as the cross of Christ destroys the penalty we deserve for our sins. Our worship will end with a Tenebrae service (Service of Darkness). Each of the final words of Christ is read, there will be a short meditation on each word, and then a candle in the “hearse” will be extinguished. The lights in the nave are also dimmed as the candles are put out so eventually the sanctuary is in near darkness. The waning light symbolizes the increasing isolation of Jesus throughout the Passion story, until even the Father himself turned his face from our Lord. The very last symbolic act is when the Christ Candle (which is still lit) is removed from the darkened sanctuary, representing the burial of Jesus. A loud noise is made, representing the closing of the tomb. Then the candle is returned, representing the promise that Jesus will rise on Easter Sunday. Again there is no final blessing and the congregation leaves in silence. The service begins at 7:00 PM. Lamb of God will also have a Prayer Vigil from noon to three o’clock, the hours of darkness when Jesus was on the cross.

Holy Saturday/The Great Easter Vigil
Our Easter Vigil service lasts about an hour and a half, and that is with over half of the traditional service cut out! We begin with the lighting of “new” fire, outside. From this all other candles will be lit. The fire represents the Holy Spirit (who came with fire on Pentecost), the love of God that burns in us, and the passionate yearning for Easter. Everyone processes into the sanctuary where various readings from the Old Testament, all pointing to Christ in some way, are read. The scripture lessons conclude at the end of the service with the resurrection account as found in the Gospel of Mark. We often also have baptisms. There is a lot of singing, chanting, and praying. Rev. Steve Saxe, who designs this service each year, also burns some incense in the sanctuary prior to the arrival of the worshipers, so there is a special aroma that goes with the service (this is the only time in the year he does that). This is a powerful service that focuses us on the continuity of God’s grace throughout time and culminating in our Lord Jesus Christ. The service begins at 8:00 PM.

Easter Sunday
This is the day the entire Church Year is centered on. Christ’s victory is made manifest. Churches around the world will be pulling out all the stops. All-time favorite hymns will be sung with enthusiasm, choirs will be doing their very best, special musicians will assist, and who knows what else. If all days of the year became a dull, lifeless, grey, drudgery, Easter would stand as a brick wall against the trend and remain a day of joy and celebration. Many churches, like Lamb of God, will celebrate the Lord’s Supper. The word “alleluia,” that has been absent from our worship services during Lent, returns. One of the traditions we observe at Lamb of God is a “Resurrection Cross” or “Easter Cross.” The cross we nailed our “sins” to on Good Friday is returned and placed in the nave of the church building. People bring fresh cut flowers and decorate the cross. This represents the new life we have because of the completed work of Jesus on the cross. Now I’m not one to easily cancel Bible study, but on Easter we have breakfast, cooked and serviced by the men of the congregation, instead of the Bible study. (Actually, it is a nice “break” in all the preparation work I do.) We also have an Easter Egg hunt for the children. The Easter Egg is a symbol of the resurrection. As a new life comes from the “tomb” of the egg, so Christ came to life and left his tomb. We too will rise from our tombs on the Last Day, and those who have had faith in Christ will join him in Glory for eternity. Breakfast begins at 9:00 AM, the Easter Egg hunt at 9:30 (or so) and our worship service at 10:30.

Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert

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