I have a sense of my first Maundy Thursday service, but I can’t quite place where it falls in my history. I was not a child, but not yet fully grown. Perhaps it was high school, or maybe somewhere in my college years. I have a sense of a fellowship area, a place not just for worship, but for eating and laughing as well. Classmates and adult leaders alike are present as we strip off our socks, giggle about stinky feet and toe lint, and form a line to wash one another’s feet.
When I began serving in a congregation and had the opportunity to craft the service for my people, that sense of communal life was an important sense memory to hold on to. So we gathered around tables in our fellowship hall and worshiped with food on the table, candles lit, everything set as it might be for honored guests. There were dates and figs and olives, bread and apples, glasses of grape juice and almonds. It wasn’t meant to be authentic. Or a seder meal. It was meant to nourish your soul and invite you in to an experience of the table. We worshipped with prayer and singing, celebrated the great thanksgiving, washed one another’s hands, and feasted with laughter and stories and finger food.
There is immense joy and comfort in the Maundy Thursday celebration. As Jesus ate and drank with the disciples, he knew what was coming, but perhaps that only made the stories longer and the fellowship more sweet. It was a time to teach them, to be with them, to love them just as they were…. knowing fully that in mere hours they would fall away one by one. He knew they would fail, and yet he washed their feet. He knelt before them. He showed utter devotion and compassion. He left them with words and memories that may have seemed normal in the space of that moment, but would become so much more in the reality of their betrayal and his death and resurrection.
We cannot be bystanders to that kind of experience. We must dive into it. We must sit at table with friends and family and strangers and break bread. We must feel the cool water rush over our skin and the warmth of another human body as we slowly and deliberately and carefully take the time to wipe and dry away their fingers or toes. If we are going to sing “let us break bread together,” then we must take the bread and feel the crust and one by one tear off a section and give it to our neighbor.
Okay, maybe “must” isn’t the right word. But when we do, when we let ourselves be transported in worship and word and action and song from our day to day hustle and bustle of life to another physical/spiritual/emotion place… then we do encounter the holy.
This year, in a new church, I dug through my files and found the service that had sustained me all those years. With some flexible space at the front of our sanctuary (due to a few rows of pews being replaced by chairs) we made room for tables and gathered in that holy ground for some fellowship.
I watched as one or two couples reluctantly took their places at the round tables. They were longing for the comfort of the pew. The experience of sitting back at watching from a far. The distance. We don’t realize it is there at first, but it is when we are ten rows back with all of those wooden seats between us and the front.
But they sat down. And participated. And the moment took over.
As we pulled ourselves back together as a large group from table conversation and we were about to pray our prayer of thanksgiving following the meal, one of those women raised her hand.
“We should do it like this every time,” she said.
Not every Maundy Thursday… she meant every time we break bread together and celebrate the Lord’s supper.
“We might have to get rid of the rest of the pews,” I gently responded with a smile.
I’m not sure what is next or what the path forward might be, but experiencing one another and God and the divine mystery in that holy space opened up a world of possibilities about what it could mean for us to worship that has little to do with pews or hymn books or standard orders of worship.
I have been blessed to be a part of amazing worshipping experiences that grew organically from a community of faithful people. Some were traditional and some were emergent. But each was an outside of the box opportunity to personally and communally encounter God with sight and sound and smell and touch and taste. Each gave me the space to be fully present in mind, body, and spirit. What better way to worship the one who created us, inside and out?