Today is Maundy Thursday, the beginning of the Triduum for liturgical churches–three days that begin tonight and go on to include the liturgies of Good Friday and the Easter Vigil. I’ve been back in the Seventh-day Adventist Church for three years, but the rhythm of life built up through 25 years in Lutheranism and Catholicism is still within the fiber of my being, and so this day dawns with my mind reflecting on the themes of the Triduum.

The three days are a single extended liturgy. Maundy Thursday recalls the Last Supper, when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, washed the feet of his disciples, and went to pray in the garden. Good Friday’s liturgy focuses on the reading of the Passion according to John. The Easter Vigil is the Christian passover, with images of fire and water, readings from salvation history, celebration of baptism and the Eucharist, and the proclamation, “Christ is Risen! Alleluia!”

Let’s look at each of the days.

There is debate among liturgical types about the washing of feet. For Seventh-day Adventists, and many in the Anabaptist tradition, foot-washing is as clearly a dominical command as is the breaking of bread, and the two always go together, with members pairing up to wash one another’s feet. Catholics, however, put the emphasis for the day on apostolic succession, and Jesus’ ordaining the 12 to be the foundation of a sacramental order. This is underscored in a celebration earlier in the day called the Chrism mass, in which the priests of the diocese gather with their bishop, renew their commitment, and receive from his hand the sacred oils (oil of the sick, oil of the catechumens, and sacred chrism) that they will use in their ministry in the coming year. This emphasis on the uniqueness and essential nature of the sacramental priesthood carries over into the evening liturgy in the insistence that the priest alone, acting in persona Christi, does the washing of feet–and only of viri selecti (“select men”). This has been expanded in many parishes in the United States to include women. In a couple of parishes, I saw this expanded to include the participation (as washers or washees) of anyone who wished (something not envisioned by the rubrics).

Some Protestants are uncomfortable with any talk of foot washing. Their imagination can rise no higher than the supposed practical nature of foot-washing in Jesus’ day–rebelling against what they consider “ritualism.” Some substitute washing of hands. Others suggest polishing shoes. But it seems to me that Jesus’ command is clear: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.” It isn’t about cleanliness at all (and that’s why Jesus didn’t do it before supper–read the text: he did it after they were already reclining, with their feet up on the cushions). It’s about our relationship with one another. It is a strike against clericalism and sacerdotalism and hierarchy of any kind–he humbled himself to wash our feet, and we must do the same. Getting on our knees before one another reminds us that Christian ministry is not about being ordained into a separate caste–it is about humble service, and all the baptized are called to it.

The Catholic liturgy, as I’ve noted, adds more to the service than an emphasis on the institution of the Lord’s Supper and the act of footwashing. It accentuates the Catholic theology of the priesthood and the episcopacy. The liturgy begins with the carrying in of the various oils blessed by the bishop. The service also underscores Catholic teaching on transubstantiation, and ends with a procession of the Eucharist (only the bread, and not the wine) to a chapel of repose, where it is exposed for the adoration of the faithful through the night. All of these actions, if done in their fullness, with elaborate processions and ritual music, make the service exceptionally long, and the key movements can be obscured. I think it more meaningful when restrained–when the emphasis is put on the actions Jesus emphasized: washing feet and breaking bread. I think the Lutheran Book of Worship does that well. Jesus ended his supper with a song, and retreat to the garden for prayer–and that can be an effective way to end the service.

The Synoptic gospels say the Last Supper was a Passover meal, and that has given rise in recent decades to some Christians doing a Christianized Seder, following the lead of “Jews for Jesus” (a proselytizing ministry founded by a Baptist minister). I’ve seen this done in Catholic, Lutheran, and evangelical churches–and I think it is wrong-headed. For one thing, it is anachronistic. First century Jews did not celebrate the Passover as Jews do today. The current Seder is a late medieval construct. To take it, and to try to fit into it Jesus’ sayings and actions as recorded in John and the Synoptics, and to suggest to people that this is how it really happened–is an example of either profound ignorance or deceit. And it is disrespectful of Jews. I think Christians can profit from participation in a Seder, but let it be an authentic Seder–arrange to participate with a local synagogue or Jewish family, or invite a rabbi to lead it for you.

Turning to Good Friday–the liturgy for this day is solemn, focused on the reading of John’s account of the passion, with a brief sermon, and intercessory prayers. Catholics will include distribution of communion (this is the one day mass is not celebrated) and a veneration of the crucifix; some Protestants will include a veneration of the bare cross. Some other Protestants will do a service of the “Seven Last Words of Christ” or a Tenebrae service (from a Catholic service earlier in Holy Week, with gradual extinguishing of candles). I personally find the austere reflection on the Passion itself the most meaningful.

The liturgy for the Easter Vigil is the most beautiful in the liturgical year, and contains a wealth of Biblical symbolism, weaving together the stories of salvation history: creation, the flood, the exodus, the return from exile, the promise of the Christ, and his great passover from death to life. It takes place at night, so there’s none of the silly sun worship that’s a part of Easter “sunrise services” (those things began in 1909 at Mount Rubidoux in Riverside, CA–they are modern civil religion, not Christian liturgy!). The symbols are not eggs and bunnies and baskets and hats but fire and water–the paschal candle reminds of the pillar of fire, the preparation of the water for baptism recalls the stories of creation, the flood, and the crossing of the Red Sea. It, too, can be overdone, with big bonfires lit by flint and steel, lengthy processions, choral performances, etc. It can also be rushed (the worst I saw was at Annunciation Catholic Church in Houston, with the entire liturgy compressed to an hour!). But when celebrated with simplicity, with an emphasis on the reading of the story, and the acts of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the power of the symbols and the texts speak for themselves.

My reflection on these themes this year will mainly be within the family; I will probably go to the performance of Bach’s St. John’s Passion at Christ the King Lutheran Church tomorrow afternoon. Saturday night I plan to be on a camping trip with some youth from my church. But I will still ponder all these things in my heart, and give thanks for the gift of salvation wrought by Christ these three days.