This service comprises three videos. You can find the text of the spoken portions below the third video.
Candle Lighting, Greeting, Prayer of Preparation, Last Supper
You may want to have a piece of bread and a cup of something to drink to partake in the Last Supper as you watch this video.
The Maundy Thursday Tenebrae service often includes fourteen readings from scripture done at a long table like a tableau of da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper. The initial reading in the set of fourteen is from Exodus, describing that first Passover when God delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt and the journey began through the wilderness to the Promised Land. The other thirteen readings take place a thousand years later at Passover. They lead us through Jesus’ last supper to his crucifixion.
The table is set with thirteen lit candles representing the twelve disciples and Jesus. The candles are the only light in the sanctuary. Each reader blows out a candle after reading and leaves the table until the last reader is alone, representing Christ. After that reading, the reader snuffs the last candle and the congregation enters darkness until the Christ candle is relit.
The following readings are interpretations and elaborations inspired by the scripture passages traditionally read. They are designed to give the story more context, a more continuous flow and a form more fitting the Tenebrae’s dramatic presentation of the Passion. They are written as a crown of English sonnets. The last line of each becomes the first line of the next, and the last line of the entire sequence returns to the very beginning. It makes a circle of the fourteen readings, interwoven like a crown of thorns.
The Text of Part One and Part Two:
Blessing and Lighting of Candles
At the lighting of candles, Jews of Jesus day said a blessing, as Jews still do today. The night of the Last Supper Jesus probably said a seder candle blessing like this:
Barukh attah Adonai eloheinu melekh ha-olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav ve-tsivanu lehadlik ner shel yom tov. “Blessed are you, Holy God, Ruler of the universe, who sanctify us with Your commandments, and command us to kindle the light of the holy day.”
Not many years later in the early Christian church they were singing a special hymn at the lighting of the candles for their evening services. It was called the Phos Hilaron in Greek. Its words went like this: O gracious light, pure brightness of the eternal creator in heaven, O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed! Now as we come to the setting of the sun, and our eyes behold your vesper light, we sing your praises, Holy God, One in Trinity. You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices, O Christ of God, O giver of life, and to be glorified through all the worlds. Amen.
Welcome to the United Church of Strafford Maundy Thursday service, commemorating the last eighteen hours of Jesus’ life including the last supper of Jesus with his disciples and the events that led from there to the crucifixion. It was a time when darkness triumphed on earth, a time when fear and greed and lust for power silenced goodness and truth, thinking that they were having the last word.
This service is full of ancient rituals and symbolic actions that people have done to keep the memory alive for almost two thousand years. It can give it a deeper meaning if you know certain things about it in advance, so here is a brief orientation. First, two definitions: the word Maundy comes from the Latin phrase, mandatum novum, meaning new commandment. Traditionally the first words of the Maundy Thursday foot-washing ritual came from John 13:34, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” We are not reenacting the foot washing, but we should remember that Maundy Thursday is all about the love Jesus has for us, a love so great that he washes our feet, and dies on the cross. He calls us to have no less love for one another, even for the stranger or the wrong-doer or our enemy.
The other word to define is tenebrae. The traditional Tenebrae candle ritual is part of our service. Tenebrae means darkness, gloom, and the shadow of death. That is where we will end tonight, in holy gloom.
Remember that Jesus and all his disciples were faithful Jews and had no desire to be anything else. So we begin as Jesus and his disciples began their seder that night during the Passover festival with scripture and prayer, then share the bread and cup and sing a hymn, as they did. Then we will go into the light of flames, and then into darkness, as Jesus and the disciples did in the Garden of Gethsemane.
During the ritual of Tenebrae the candles represent the twelve disciples and Jesus. We have a dramatic reading of a series of poems based on the traditional Maundy Thursday scripture passages and snuff the candles one by one, representing the disciples deserting Jesus. Finally we extinguish the Christ candle and end in darkness. The last symbolic act this evening is lingering in darkness and silence, in reflection and prayer. Let us open our hearts and enter fully into the experience of Jesus and his disciples…
Prayer of Preparation
The ritual of the Last Supper has been handed down to us in unbroken line from Jesus himself. It reminds us that new life is always possible. It offers the hope that we might empty ourselves of all that separates us from God and one another and our true self, that we might let our old self go and be filled anew with the Holy Spirit. That same Spirit lives in all God’s creation, making us one, bringing us into true communion. A traditional Maundy Thursday reading expresses this beautifully. It is from the 51st Psalm. I invite you to make this your prayer or your intention for the time this evening.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And put in me a new and right spirit.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
And do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
And sustain in me a willing spirit…Amen
As we reenact the Last Supper let us recall the setting. It was a secret safe-house. It had to be because Jesus and his followers knew that the authorities were looking for an out-of-the-way opportunity to stop them. Time and again that week Jesus had engaged in tense confrontations with the temple priests, while the ever-present Roman soldiers watched. Now Jesus and his disciples were in an upstairs room off the street, lit by oil lamps, with shadows deepening outside their small circle of light.
It was the Passover Seder according to three of the gospel accounts, so they would have been retelling the story of the first Passover—how God told Moses that all the people should slaughter a lamb and put its blood on their doorposts as a sign. That very night God was going to go through the land of Egypt killing all the first-born so that Pharoah would finally let the people of Israel go, but God would pass over the houses marked by the blood of the lamb. God told them to eat hurriedly and pack only unleavened dough, silver and gold and clothes for the journey across the wilderness to the promised land. God would deliver them, and forever after they were to remember and celebrate the Passover as a festival.
Now it was over a thousand years since Moses had led the people out of Egypt that first Passover, and Jesus and the disciples were keeping the Jewish tradition, retelling the story and eating the ritual meal. As was customary, the leader blessed God for the bread and wine. All the friends who were gathered there expected the familiar words that began every blessing, “Barukh atta Adonai, elehenu melech ha’olam…” Blessed are you Holy God, ruler of the universe…
How many Sabbaths, how many festive meals like this one had they listened to Jesus’ loving voice as he spoke those blessings? But this night was different from all other nights, and it added to their growing feeling of mystery and unease when Jesus said, picking up the bread, “This is my body which is broken for you.”
The friends looked at one another and wondered what he meant. You and I come here on this somber night knowing what they did not know. We know Jesus will be betrayed and deserted. We know tomorrow he will be crucified. We know all that will happen, but it is all still full of mystery. We still ask in our hearts, “What does it mean?”
And that is as it should be, because that questioning opens us for the Spirit’s power within the ritual to do its hidden work. We invite you now to open your hearts to the mystery, and accept the gifts that Jesus offered to his disciples.
For this part of the drama, we are all the actors. We are the circle of Christ’s beloved disciples gathered with him at that poignant table where one sat who would betray him. To be in character we need to try to feel the tension, but even more feel the presence of the man Jesus with us as real and loving as his disciples felt it at the Last Supper. In this drama we are not Christians, we are Jewish followers of a Jewish teacher at a Passover table.
I invite you to pause now and have a bite of bread and sip of something if you want to experience this with all your senses. If so, practice mindfulness as you do it, being as fully present as possible to every sensation, knowing that Jesus and the disciples experienced the same that night. If it feels awkward or lonely, you can imagine that they felt that way strangely, too….
Jesus and the disciples sang a hymn at the end of the seder before going out to the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. Imagine how Jesus felt, knowing what was coming. Faith tells us that we are never alone, that God is always with us. Our presence together as a congregation also tells us that we are not alone. We are surrounded by a loving community that pledges to walk with us wherever our paths may lead. But experience tells us that there are journeys we each must make and trials we each must face that no one can do for us. We must do them by ourselves. We can feel lonely at such times even when we know that we are not alone. That seems to be how Jesus was feeling that night.
I invite you to listen now to Becky Bailey’s beautiful rendition of “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley.”
Tenebrae Crown of Thorns: Maundy Thursday Poems by Thomas Cary Kinder
I. Exodus 12:1-14 (33-36)
Some people love the darkness more than light,
and that is fitting when enslaved by day
but free for God and family at night.
In Egypt, Israel’s twelve tribes would pray
and tell and retell tribal tales of old
and love light through the dark.
God saw and said,
“Prepare to leave. Pack clothes, pure dough and gold.
Soon I will strike all Egypt’s first-born dead.
To be spared, take blood from a slaughtered lamb
and mark your doorjamb scarlet as a sign.
“This night each year recall the great I AM
and all I had to do to make you mine.
Passover you shall tell where this day led,
the day of sacrifice and unleavened bread.”
II. Luke 22:7-14
The day of sacrifice and unleavened bread,
a thousand Passovers since Israel’s first:
watch now the plot to strike God’s first-born dead,
how greed and lust for power will do their worst.
The sacrificial lamb, the scattered flock,
the threat to progress toward the Promised Land—
we see it coming, hear the plotters’ talk.
What way will God make now across the sand?
Jesus sent John and Peter to prepare:
“Look for a man who bears a water jar.
Follow him to his house and up the stair.”
The Way leads through that room, both hard and far.
It asks we suffer wilderness and cross.
That blood-marked room leads all to gain through loss.
III. John 13:1-8
That blood-marked room leads all to gain through loss.
Christ, having loved us, loves beyond death’s end.
We pass through Jordan’s pain, but once across
we reach the Promised Land where all wounds mend.
This room prepares us, makes us fed and clean
and one with God and Christ and one another
before we face the death that it will mean.
Here Jesus felt the grief of parting brother.
Loving those he would leave, he washed their feet.
He stripped down, tied a towel around his waist,
kneeled like a slave, scrubbed toes grimed by the street.
Peter said, “No, Lord, you will be disgraced,”
but had a change of heart when Jesus said,
“We can’t be one till you are cleansed and fed.”
IV. John 13:8-17
“We can’t be one till you are cleansed and fed—
not one with God, each other or creation.”
So Peter begged, “Then wash my hands and head,
not just my feet,” full of a wild elation,
as if he’d found the door to paradise,
pearl of great price, the treasure in the field,
forgetting all Christ taught of sacrifice,
as if one bath would leave him saved and healed,
as if this were the end of all he sought.
But grace bestowed by Christ is where we start.
“If I, your Teacher, wash your feet, you ought
to wash each other’s. Make my heart your heart,
and do what I have done: kneel like a slave.
What God will glorify is what you gave.”
V. John (12:35-36) 13:31-35
What God will glorify is what we gave
and how we served. In giving we receive,
and in receiving grace with power to save
we find a way beyond the graves we grieve.
Jesus, about to leave and go that way,
said, “Children, I am with you not much longer.
You’ll look for me, but here you have to stay.
I give you now these words to make you stronger,
this new commandment, that you love each other.
You’ll find me when you love as I love you,
welcoming, giving, serving one another,
and all will know The Way by what you do.”
He spoke of light, love, glory, yet his doom—
that coming night—now shadowed all with gloom.
VI. Matthew 26:20-25
The coming night now shadowed all with gloom—
a holy gloom, part aching love, part grief.
They knew tomorrow tensions would resume,
but here at first they felt a safe relief.
Jesus had challenged priests with his bold preaching
and shut the temple down by demonstration.
Could he be king, or was he overreaching?
The crowds were for him. Why the hesitation?
His mood that night was casting hope away,
and then all safety fell with one swift blade
as Jesus spoke the cleaving word, “betray,”
and, “Woe to him by whom God’s love’s betrayed,”
and worst—it would be one there sharing bread!
“Surely not I! Not I, Lord!” they all said.
VII. Matthew 26:31-35
“Surely not I! Not I, Lord,” they all said—
Judas, their trusted friend, among the rest—
all filling with confusion, shame and dread,
uncertain of themselves to face this test.
And who would not react with their dismay?
Look in your heart and see the weakness there.
Look at the small betrayals made each day,
trading Christ for some price. See and despair.
Then Jesus said, “All will desert tonight.”
Peter said, “No, not I!”
And Christ replied:
“Before the cock crows at this morning’s light,
three times you’ll have denied, denied, denied.”
“Though I must die with you, I won’t deny you!”
Compare what they did to what you and I do.
VIII. Mark 14:32-41
Compare what they did to what you and I do.
They left that sanctuary cleansed and fed,
made one by love of Christ,
then broke in two,
and came unraveled as each feared and fled.
First Judas fell to his love-killing task.
Then, in the Garden of Gethsemane,
Jesus took three aside and said, “I ask
only you stay awake. Keep watch for me.
Pray that you do not fail when you are tried.”
He went apart a while and then returned
and found them sleeping. “Could you not?” he cried.
And can we not, for all that we have learned?
Scattered like sheep, we lose the way we seek.
The spirit’s willing but the flesh is weak.
IX. Luke 22:39-44
The spirit’s willing but the flesh is weak,
and Jesus, too, was made of flesh and spirit.
He walked to where they would not hear him speak
of death to God, and would not see him fear it.
Then dropping to his knees in soft spring ground—
sweet smell of pomegranate blossom air,
breeze swaying full moon garden shadows round—
he sweat great drops like blood in his despair.
“Abba, remove this cup from me,” he prayed.
“I do not want to drink it. I’m your son!
I love this life.
Where are you?
Yet not my will, but yours be done.”
At that, an angel suddenly appeared.
God sent him strength to face pain he still feared.
X. John 17
God sent him strength to face pain he still feared.
Surrender’s peace surpasses understanding.
The swaying shadows calmed, confusion cleared.
He turned to meet what God’s love was demanding.
He prayed for those he loved this parting prayer:
“Abba, the hour has come. May all I do
glorify you and show your sacred way,
so those who follow me will come to you
and knowing me, know you. Here they must stay,
to serve this world as I have. Make them one—
a sign of love to help the world believe
the way to you leads through your faithful Son.
May they find joy who for your sake will grieve—
your love and you and I found in their heart.
But now the hour’s at hand. All falls apart.”
XI. from Matthew 26, Luke 22 and John 18
And now the hour’s at hand. All falls apart.
Jesus comes back to rouse his sleeping friends,
“Get up. Your trials are about to start.
See, my betrayer is at hand.” He ends
and turns as Judas and the priests’ armed crowd
steal up, surrounding them, and with a kiss
Judas marks Jesus. Silence. Then with loud
clamor of swords men rush to bind his wrists,
and someone cuts off an attacker’s ear,
but Jesus yells, “No more! Who takes the sword
dies by the sword.” He calls the hurt man near
and one last time lifts hands, though bound by cord,
to touch with love and heal. All feel his power,
but he says, “Now the darkness has its hour.”
XII. Matthew 26:56b-27:26 & John 18:37
So now the force of darkness has its hour.
All the disciples scatter through the night.
The crowd leads Jesus under bough and flower
blackened by foul torch smoke, like killing blight.
Peter alone shadows them to the trial
where inside Jesus suffers lies and blows
and outside Peter swears his third denial
around the courtyard fire. The first cock crows.
At dawn the force of darkness does not give,
as Pilate draws from Christ his bold reply:
“To show the light of truth is why I live,”
which makes the darkness cry out, “Crucify!
Crucify! Crucify him!” Jesus stands,
willing to die for light at darkness’s hands.
XIII. Mark 15:16-20
Willing to die for light at darkness’s hands,
willing to walk The Way of Truth to death,
willing to do whatever love demands,
willing to sacrifice flesh, blood and breath—
a hero’s beauty halos him and shines
across the ages. Now we see and weep
as he walks down the soldier’s mocking lines,
staggering from his grief and lack of sleep.
They drape him with a heavy purple cloak
and crown him with fierce thorns to see him bleed.
Two hundred of them kneel down as a joke,
then spit on him and whip him with a reed.
They strip him, lead him to be crucified,
and think they’ve heard the end when he has died.
XIV. John 1:1-5, 10-14; 3:19
They think they’ve heard the end when he has died,
as if God’s Word lies silenced by the tomb,
the light that gave all life, snuffed out inside.
But birth, not death, comes through God’s blood-marked room.
The Word’s reborn each time we tell the story,
Christ’s candle relit by our loving hands.
His Way lives on—our serving is his glory.
What dark can’t comprehend, faith understands.
Yet resurrected love still struggles here.
A shadow line divides each heart, my heart,
your heart, and on the dark side lurk the fear
and greed and pride that tear our world apart.
And that is why grief haunts this room tonight.
Some people love the darkness more than light.