Posted by: AJtheIrishLass | April 15, 2014

A Lost Tradition?

Chrism oil being blessed on Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday – the Institution of the Eucharist (and Chrism Mass)

The parish I grew up in had a tradition of hosting a Eucharistic vigil on Maundy Thursday after the conclusion of the liturgy. Members of the parish could take an hour staying in the church all night, in memory of Jesus’ agony in the garden at Gethsemane. I’m not sure how widespread this practice has ever been in the Episcopal Church, but I’ve found the practice very meaningful.

Foot washing and/or the addition of an agape meal or Passover seder-style meal are very common. I’ve noticed that foot washing gets “mixed reviews” from many worshipers, especially those from legalistic traditions that mandate the practice at each Lord’s Supper. I think we need to legitimately listen to those from such backgrounds who have issues with this practice.

Some otherwise well-meaning parishioners and even clergy seem to treat peoples’ discomfort with taking part in footwashing as a spiritual issue on the part of the discomforted – in other words, if you opt not to wash or be washed, the problem is with you, not the interpretation. This, I think, is a serious mistake to avoid, for this reason:

This involves a face-value reading of the text that, I think, is not in keeping with “the Anglican Way.” We can get too focused on the individual action, but overlook the reasoning behind the action.

I think most of us are aware that footwashing was “a thing” in the ancient Middle East, and it stands to reason that most would have worn sandals or been barefoot. If you’ve ever lived in an arid or semi-arid area, you know how much of a mess dust can make on your floor!

Jesus’ willingness to undertake a task normally relegated to a servant says a lot about the example that he is giving us to follow here. We would benefit from focusing more on  what Jesus is calling us to do outside of settings where we have a basin, towel and willing (or not!) volunteers.

One very real problem also exists in allowing this practice to become a distraction from the institution of Holy Communion. After all, performing an act of humility may be good for us spiritually, but maybe we must ask ourselves whether it impacts how we treat people outside of Mass.

Does it really matter how many peoples’ feet you washed on Maundy Thursday if you’re acting non-servant-like the rest of the year? Just think about that one for a bit…

The addition of an agape meal or seder, on the other hand, can be a good way of keeping the institution of communion fresh in everyone’s minds. Sometimes, the best way to appreciate a part of the church’s liturgy is to experience where it came from. Meals are after all, one of the things that helps bind people together in fellowship.

Are parishes missing out by not offering a vigil on Maundy Thursday?


  1. We do it at the Church of the Divine Love (Episcopal Diocese of New York). In recent years we have not always managed to keep the “altar of repose” attended straight through the wee hours of the morning, but it remains a meaningful and poular devotion.
    At nine pm Thursday, following the Eucharist and the stripping of all vestments, hangings, and movable furnishings in the church, down to bare wood and stone, we sing the hymn “Go to Dark Gethsemane,” and commence the vigil.
    I was introduced to this devotion at the Church of St Matthew and St Timothy in New York City where it is still practiced.
    As far as footwashing goes, here is a small part of an article I wrote on the subject, if you are interested:
    “It was not until 1928, … that any edition of the Book of Common Prayer would contain an alternate lesson to remember the footwashing on the Thursday before Easter. In1979, that lesson became the prescribed lesson and a specific instruction permitting (though not requiring) footwashing was added. … [but] Christ did not say: “make a ceremony out of this,” he said that we were, in the same way as he served us, to serve one another, to love one another. Our worship of God must have as its focus the glory of God and his love for us in giving his son to the death of the cross. We come to communion not to celebrate our own goodness and offerings, but to mourn and turn from our sins, and endlessly praise him for his gracious, self-offering love. In fact, until 1979, the clear teaching of the Prayerbook was that baptized Christians are washed, by Christ himself, in the receiving of Holy Communion. The words, “that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood,” have now been removed from the prayer just before taking communion.”
    (full text at

  2. Excellent article! I enjoyed reading it and learning some interesting historical things about Maundy Thursday I wasn’t previously aware of. We can learn a lot from the early Anglican reformers in that respect.


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