I arrived at church last night to find a very different scene than usual. Usually, we have our plastic chairs lined up in rows, and the musicians' instruments are set up on the stage. But last night, there were only three musicians instead of the normal seven or so, and their equipment was on the floor in front of the stage. The plastic chairs were gone. In their place were many small, low round tables with wooden bases and metal tops. On each table was a candle, a small bowl of herbs, two large pieces of unleavened bread, and several cups of grape juice--not the little communion cups, but real ones. Not long after we sat down, a plate of mouth-watering lamb was placed on the table as well. There were a few cushions on the ground on which the early arrivers could sit, but most people sat on the ground.
Jeff and I were joined at a table by Karan, the pastor's wife. We were surrounded by other small groups at other small tables. I looked at the bread and the "wine" and knew it was Communion night. But it turned out to be so much more.
During tonight's service, we walked through the original Lord's Supper. The service incorporated Scripture reading, songs, and explanations by our pastor.
We started with the washing of the disciples' feet by Jesus. We listened to one of the Scripture passages about the event. We sang a song, written by Graham Kendrick, about it. The chorus says "This is what I'm asking you to do, this is why I'm kneeling here beside you. This is what I want I want my church to be, this is what I want the world to see: who it is you follow. So love each other, one another, in the way that I have loved you. Walk together, and whatever comes, love each other in in the way that I have loved you." (I probably have a few words off, but that was the idea, anyway.)
Then we talked about what the disciples were celebrating at that Passover meal. So we went back to Exodus. The pastor talked about the sufferings of the Israelites right here in Egypt, probably in the same area where we are now. We sang about Moses going to Pharoah and telling him to "let my people go." We heard about the plagues that occurred when Pharoah refused. We heard the Scriptural account of the final plague, the deaths of the firstborn, and what the Israelites were told to do to avoid falling under this plague themselves. We heard a little about how Jews continue to celebrate Passover, or Seder, with a meal of unleavened bread, the Passover lamb, and bitter herbs to remind them of the Israelites' suffering. We broke off pieces of our unleavened bread, dipped it in the herbs at our tables, and ate it. We ate the lamb provided for us.
Then it was back to the New Testament. We learned how the bread of the Lord's Supper represents more than we commonly consider. We always hear how it represents the body of Christ, broken for us--that's right out of the Bible itself. But according to the Didache, one of the early Christian writings, there is a communal prayer that was said during Communion in the early church. This prayer shows another layer of symbolism. It became clear as we recited that part of the Didache together: "We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever." We also recited together the portions of the Didache that were said prior to the drinking of the cup and after the meal was over.
I have to say that I have never before been to a Maundy Thursday service. I've never been part of a tradition that places much emphasis on it. But I'm so glad that I was able to experience this. There was something indescribably special about sitting in Egypt, celebrating Passover, linking it to the oh-so-familiar practice of the Lord's Supper, especially as we sat at the low tables in a style that is much more similar to what Jesus actually experienced than what we usually experience in pews or rows of chairs. We were under the tent, but we were outdoors, feeling the cool breeze, hearing the sounds of Egypt all around us. I can't express how moving it was.
I don't think this post does justice to what I experienced at this service. Easter sort of snuck up on me this year, without the cultural and social cues that I'm so accustomed to back in the States. I was surprised last week to realize that we were celebrating Palm Sunday--or in our case, Palm Thursday--already. I regret not having celebrated and anticipated the season more. Good Friday and Easter are the most holy days in Christianity, when we remember the awesome sacrifice of the Crucifixion and the awe-inspiring miracle of the Resurrection that jointly prove God's love and provision for us. This service, though not explicitly dealing with either of those events, brought my mind and my heart into focus, with Jesus at the center. And isn't that what any church service is supposed to do?