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Vigil of the Final Hours: A Service for Maundy Thursday

Our worship planning team wanted to create a Maundy Thursday worship service that would provide historical and cultural context to Christ’s final hours before his crucifixion and offer an opportunity for the congregation to experience the symbols in a fresh way. I was challenged by our team to develop a vigil with a celebration of the Lord’s Supper as the centerpiece. In preparation, I immersed myself in the Passion narratives, commentaries, and historical accounts.

The vigil is divided into six time segments designated by the chiming of handbells. Each is commemorated with readings, music, and dramatic readings. As the service progressed to Christ’s death, we dimmed the lights to observe the darkness before the dawn of Easter.

Thursday 3 p.m. (Ninth Hour):

Call to Worhip

Declaration of the Hour

[Handbells ring three; shofar sounds.]

Reader 1: People of the Lord, in the name of him who rests in the great and holy house, listen! The time for slaughtering the paschal lamb has arrived. [traditional Passover proclamation]

Anthem: “Blessed Are You”

[Prelude to “Praise Adonai” underscores brief narration.]

Narrator: The shofar sounded from the temple, inviting the people to enter and offer their Passover lambs. They assembled with joy as they commemorated their redemption from Egyptian slavery. It was a festival of freedom; the context for rekindled hopes for a Messiah that would free them again. While the throngs of worshipers filled the temple courts, the Levites sang the Hallel (Psalms 113-118). The people chanted refrains in praise of the one true God.

Responsive Reading from Hallel (Psalm 113:1-6, 9b)

Choir: Hallelujah! Servants of the Lord, give praise! Give praise to the name of Adonai!

Reader 1: Blessed be the name of the Lord from this moment on and forever!

Congregation: From sunrise until sunset, praise his name!

Reader 2: Who is like the Lord our God, the One who sits enthroned on high, who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth?

Congregation: The Lord is exalted over all the nations, his glory above the heavens.

All: Praise the Lord!

Choir and Congregation: “Praise Adonai”

Narrator: Our vigil begins at the temple where God’s people worshiped in song and sacrifice—the day Jesus dispatched his disciples to make preparations for their last Passover together. As they prepared the symbolic meal, Jesus prepared to institute a new meal celebrating a greater redemption foretold by the prophets.

Thursday Sundown (First Watch of the Night): Passover Feast

Declaration of the Hour

[Handbells ring seven.]

Reader 2: When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them,

Jesus: I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.

[Music underscores narration.]

Narrator: At sundown, Jesus and his disciples settled down to enjoy the Passover Feast. On the table before them were the ritual foods: the roast lamb, bitter herbs, unleavened bread, and wine. The foods were consumed at appointed times throughout the evening ceremony, which incorporated Scriptures and prayers, readings and songs. The symbols of this supper were handed down from the time of Moses as a tool to teach children about the Lord and as a means to “eat history,” as the Jews say, remembering their redemption with all of their senses.

Within this context our Lord instituted a new freedom feast. A feast to celebrate our spiritual redemption purchased with his life—freedom from the bonds of sin and death. Jesus used this occasion, these symbols, to impart important teachings about his mission and to help us understand the depths of God’s love for us.

Anthem: “Hashivenu” (“Return Us, O Lord, to You”)

Lord’s Supper

Narrator: Imagine how the disciples felt as they prepared to celebrate the familiar Passover rituals with their rabbi. This was a joyful celebration. Jerusalem was buzzing with excitement. Jesus had just recently raised Lazarus from the dead and processed into the city like a king. Surely the time for his kingdom reign was near! Imagine the disciples’ confusion as their Master and Lord took off his outer cloak, wrapped a towel around his waist, and began washing their filthy feet.

Reader 1: Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love. (John 13:1b)

Reader 2: When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. (John 13:12a)

Jesus: Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me “Teacher” and “Lord,” and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. (John 13:12b-14, 34)

Narrator: Ritualistic purity and ceremonial washing played an important role in temple worship and feast observance. But instead of dipping into a finger bowl, the Master stooped down to scrub his friends’ feet. Jesus powerfully depicted the kind of kingdom leaders he wanted his followers to be. His act of humility also demonstrated what kind of Savior he came to be.

Song: “Man of Sorrows/Hallelujah! What a Savior” (st. 1-2) PsH 482, TH 246, TWC 226

Narrator: Imagine what Jesus might have been thinking that night. This was his last meal with his disciples. Even though he had warned them about this trip to Jerusalem, they were blinded by their own understanding of what the Messiah should be—how that Messiah would free them from their oppressors.

Imagine Jesus fingering a loaf of unleavened bread. The bread of affliction, which the Hebrews ate as slaves in Egypt, would come to symbolize his own affliction. These leaven-free loaves represented a sin-free life, and would come to symbolize his own purity. Modern matzoh is an even more potent reminder of Christ’s body. Its stripes and piercing remind us of Isaiah 53.

Reader 2: He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his stripes we are healed. (Isa. 53:5)

Narrator: Following Passover tradition, Jesus blessed the bread and broke it into olive-sized pieces. But then, departing from tradition, he offered it to his disciples as a symbol of his broken body, the bread of life.

Reader 1: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took the bread and gave thanks. (1 Cor. 11)

Jesus: Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth. Take and eat; this is my body.

Song: “Man of Sorrows” (st. 3-4)

Reader 2: Then he took the cup, gave thanks, and offered it to them.

Jesus: Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who makes the fruit of the vine. Drink from this cup, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

Narrator: Scholars believe Jesus raised the third cup of the Passover feast, the cup of redemption, and offered it as a symbol of his blood. The third cup corresponds to the third promise God made to the Israelites in Exodus 6:

Reader 1: I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. (Ex. 6:6b)

Narrator: Jesus fulfilled this promise for all time by redeeming us to God through his outstretched arms on the cross. Through his sacrifice as the perfect Lamb of God Jesus covered our sin with his blood. Substituted his life for ours. Absorbed the sin of the world in one amazing act of love. Cut a new covenant in his own flesh, with his own blood, to bridge the barrier between God and his people.

Jesus offered these symbols of bread and wine as a new covenant meal—a feast that fulfills God’s promise of redemption and points to the wedding supper of the Lamb that we will one day celebrate in God’s very presence!

Song: “Man of Sorrows” (st. 5)

Narrator: Let us now remember our redemption as Jesus instructed his disciples at the Last Supper. Jesus invites us to his table tonight to remember the reconciliation he purchased for us with his own body and blood. Come, eat, drink, and live.

[As congregants file forward, an elder dips a towel in water and wipes hands of congregants, representing ceremonial washing. The elder recites Isaiah 1:18b: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” Congregants then form two groups, each officiated by a pair of elders who serve unleavened bread (matzoh) and cup, saying, “The body of Christ broken for you,” and, “The blood of Christ shed for you.”]

Thursday 9 p.m. (Second Watch of the Night): The Garden

Declaration of the Hour

[Handbells ring nine.]

Reader 1: Then Jesus said to those who had come for him,

Jesus: Am I leading a rebellion that you have come with swords and clubs? Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour—when darkness reigns. (Luke 22:52-53)

[Music underscores narration.]

Narrator: The Passover meal concluded late in the evening, but many feasters returned to the streets of Jerusalem to continue celebrating. Others went to the temple mount where they waited for the gates to reopen at midnight so that they might spend the rest of the night in worship and prayer. But Jesus led his disciples outside the city to the Mount of Olives—a place he frequented during his ministry. He found a quiet spot where he could pray before his appointed time.

Jesus: Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began. (John 17:1-5)

Narrator: Jesus interceded for himself, his disciples, and all believers. He asked Peter, James, and John to keep watch and pray. But they were drowsy from the meal they had just enjoyed. The burden of the coming trial weighed upon Jesus, pressing drops of sweat and blood from his pores. As Jesus entreated his disciples a third time to watch and pray, an armed crowd approached to arrest him.

Jesus: Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer! (Mark 14:41-42)

Anthem: “Surely He Has Borne Our Grief”

Song: “Ah, Holy Jesus” PsH 386, PH 93, RL 285, TH 248, TWC 231

Friday 9 a.m. (Third Hour):

The Crucifixion

Declaration of the Hour

[Handbells ring nine.]

Reader 2: It was the third hour when they crucified him.

Anthem: “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”

Narrator: Through the night, Jesus endured betrayal, abandonment, trials, and torture. He endured the most cruel and humiliating death—a punishment reserved for the most despicable criminals. He accepted that there was no other way to complete his purpose. And in his agony, he called out to God:

Jesus: Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34)

Friday Noon (Sixth Hour): Darkness

Declaration of the Hour

[Handbells ring twelve.]

Reader 1: It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land. (Luke 23:44)

[Music underscores reading.]

Reader 2: Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads. (Matt 27:39)

Reader 1: The rulers even sneered at him: “Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe him. Let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.” (Matt 27:42; Luke 23:35)

Jesus: I thirst.

Reader 1: The soldiers came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” (Luke 23:36-37)

Reader 2: They divided up his clothes by casting lots. (Matt 27:35)

Jesus: Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani.

Song: “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” PsH 383, PH 98, RL 300, TH 247, TWC 221

Jesus: [Psalm 22:1, 7-9, 11, 14-19, 22-25, 27-28, 30-31 read as a dramatic monologue.]

Friday 3 p.m. (Ninth Hour): Death

Declaration of the Hour

[Handbells ring three.]

Reader 1: At the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice.

Narrator: Around the ninth hour, 3 p.m., Jesus called out in a loud voice—committing his spirit into the Father’s hands before breathing his last. He did not slip away on the cross, but filled his lungs with air and declared his mission completed.

It was no coincidence that at 3:00 on Friday, worshipers had one last chance to offer a sin offering at the temple before Sabbath. At the ninth hour, the shofar blew and the Lamb of God died.

 

Excerpt
Music Sources
  • “Blessed Are You” by Donna Milgaten, from Jerusalem Arise Songbook, Integrity’s Hosanna! Music
  • “Praise Adonai,” Jerusalem Arise Songbook
  • “Hashivenu” by Sally Albrecht, choral octavo, Alfred Publishing #19303
  • “Surely He Has Borne Our Griefs” by Lloyd Larson, choral ocatavo, Beckenhorst Press #BP1519
  • “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us,” arr. by Rob Howard, choral octavo, Word Music #0 80689 27079 6.