The sun threw its first gloriously warm beams of the spring season upon the singing birds, busy trucks on the downtown street, a neighborhood band rehearsing somewhere out of view. Children scampered eagerly over the playground across the street as we gathered from our homes, schools, and places of employment.
We were coming together this night to eat, drink, and experience a story many of us had heard hundreds of times. Joining churches throughout history, our church would walk through “stations” representing the final days of the life of our Lord. This tradition started with pilgrims who visited Jerusalem only a few hundred years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, walked where Jesus walked, and listened to the stories of his life, death, and resurrection where they had taken place. Since then, this way of experiencing Jesus’ life and death has been practiced by Christians in various traditions and in many places around this world. In some traditions, it has grown into a set of fourteen “stations of the cross.”
But our experience would be a bit different. Small groups that gather regularly for Bible study had been invited to choose a station, study the story it represents, and create a “snapshot” that would help worshipers hear and see the story in a new light. These stations would share an event of Jesus’ final days, as Christians have done throughout history—but they would also tie our church’s individual gifts and experiences to that story.
As is common for our community, we gathered with enthusiasm. This is a community of people who love each other. Many entered with arms full of little children and enticing potluck dishes. Our pastor welcomed us and shared a bit about the journey ahead. She opened the evening with prayer and the poem “A Psalm for Maundy Thursday” by Joseph Bayly (see box below).
A Psalm for Maundy Thursday
Lord Jesus Christ
You sat at supper
with Your friends.
It was a simple meal
that final one
You went out to die.
How many other meals You shared
beside the lake
fried fish and toasted bread
at Simon’s banquet hall a feast
at Lazarus’ home in Bethany
the meal that Martha cooked
on mountain slope
where You fed hungry crowd
at close of tiring day.
Please sit with us tonight
at our small meal
of soup and rolls and tea.
Then go with us
to feast of bread and wine
that You provide
You went out to die.
—by Joseph Bayly in Psalms of My Life (Chariot Victor Publishing, 2000). Reprinted with permission.
We shared our lives and our casseroles, asked about upcoming spring break plans, and discussed children’s latest challenges and accomplishments. Toward the end of our meal, our pastor drew us together and reminded us that our Lord had also shared a simple meal with his friends; he took bread, gave thanks, and broke it. She read the account of the Last Supper from the gospel of Luke. After praying, we returned to our tables. With the words “The body of Christ given for you,” we broke bread together at our table. Then we passed the cup to each other, saying, “The blood of Christ shed for your sins.”
Together we moved to a corner of our worship space. Chairs had been arranged so that it looked like a coffee shop. A young woman sat at one of the tables with a mug while another stood off to the side. Together they read the story of Peter’s betrayal. One read the Scripture passage of Peter’s denial of Jesus (Matt. 26:69-75), pausing every few verses. The woman standing off to the side peppered the pauses in the Scripture account with her own story of betraying our Lord.
She told of having a discussion at a coffee shop with someone who was searching for God—and lying to that person. Her poignant story complemented Peter’s in such a way that each listener could see a moment in his or her life when he or she had been just like Peter. As the story concluded, a third person read Luci Shaw’s poem “Judas, Peter” (see box below) and we were invited to ask at the appropriate place, “Is it I?” After the poem closed with Jesus asking, “Do you love me?” we responded together with the words “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
because we are all
silver and eating
body and blood and asking
(guilty) is it I and hearing
him say yes
it would be simple for us all
to rush out
and hang ourselves
but if we find grace
to cry and wait
after the voice of morning
has crowed in our ears
to break our hearts
he will be there
to ask each again
do you love me?
—by Luci Shaw in A Widening Light: Poems of the Incarnation (Regent College Publishing, 1997). Reprinted with permission.
Jesus Is Condemned to Death
After a moment of silence, we progressed to the next station. We climbed a few stairs and stood in Pilate’s shoes. We looked down upon a figure clothed in a dirty purple rag and a sharp crown of thorns. We looked out at a crowd of angry but familiar faces. Screaming back at us was a mass of black-and-white photos of our friends, family, children, and ourselves with ugly and sometimes frightening looks on our faces. As Pastor Amy read John 19:1-16, we spoke Pilate’s lines—feeling his reluctance to send an innocent man to death, yet allowing it to happen. We felt the angry faces of the harsh crowd, and realized that our sin also called for the death of our Savior.
Jesus Takes up the Cross
Next we followed a dim path strewn with the remnants of palm leaves, a reminder of the glory of our Lord amid his pain and suffering. We approached and surrounded an enormous rough wooden cross. Hushed, we listened to the suffering of our Lord in a reading from Mark 15:16-32. After we stood in silence for a few moments, a voice quietly and poignantly spoke the words of Isaiah 53:4-5. After a moment of reflection, our pastor repeated a few key phrases from this passage. She invited us to approach the cross and to write phrases or draw images on it that reflected what Jesus’ death on the cross meant for us. For several minutes of silence, young and old knelt together alongside the cross.
All lights but the one on the cross were extinguished. We stood in the center of our worship space around this rough wooden cross and listened to the brief proclamation of the account of Jesus’ death from Mark 15:33-38. In the silence that followed, a third-grade boy from the congregation began to drum a mournful rhythm on a djembe. A few moments later, accompanied only by that djembe, one voice, shortly followed by all the rest, began to sing “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
As we finished singing, Pastor Amy spoke: “For you Jesus Christ came into the world: for you he lived and showed God’s love; for you he suffered the darkness of Calvary and cried at the last, ‘It is finished’; for you he triumphed over death and rose in newness of life; for you he ascended to reign at God’s right hand. All this he did for you before you knew anything of it. And so the Word of Scripture is fulfilled: ‘We love because God loved us first’” (The Worship Sourcebook, 18.104.22.168, adapted from a French Reformed Church liturgy). She challenged us to consider whether we believed that this was truly for us.
Following a silence that almost didn’t feel long enough, we moved to the corner nearest the door where a black sheet had been hung to create a separate room. As we huddled together in the semi-darkness, Pastor Amy read about Jesus’ burial from Luke 23:50-56. She asked us to remember a time when someone we loved dearly had passed away, and to relive the feeling of knowing we would never see them again in this life. She invited us to recognize the loneliness and emptiness of standing by the grave. She reminded us that those who loved Jesus had that feeling. They didn’t know the end of the story when they buried Jesus. This man they had loved had just been brutally killed and they wanted to do the best and only thing left that they could do. After a pause, she invited us to enter the space before us with a handful of potpourri and to sprinkle it upon the wrapped form lying on the ground. One by one we ducked into the small space and contemplated the death of our Savior.
After all had passed through the small space of the grave, Pastor Amy reminded us that, unlike the disciples, we know that this graveside moment isn’t the end of the story. We remember Jesus’ life and death in the knowledge and hope of his coming resurrection. So, together with other Christians across time and space, we confessed what we believe with the words of the Apostles’ Creed.
With the reminder that our Lord Jesus had died and risen for the forgiveness of our sins and in order to give us life everlasting, we were sent back into the world with this blessing: “May God the Father, who so loved our world that he gave his only Son; may Jesus Christ, whose love for us made him obedient to death, even death on a cross; and may the Holy Spirit, who enables us to love God and each other, comfort, encourage, and protect you.”
Quietly we left the dark space where we, like so many others throughout history, had journeyed to the cross. We had seen, heard, and experienced this story as our story. And with this reminder that because of his great love for us our Lord Jesus had lived and died that we might live abundantly, we returned to the warm and bright world of awakening spring.
Reflecting afterward on our Maundy Service walk through the stations, we were particularly grateful for these elements of the service:
- A new way to hear Scripture: Whether through juxtaposition with song, personal story, or more Scripture, we were able to hear this well-known story in a powerful way.
- Involvement of lots of people: Each station had a unique feel and represented clearly the personalities and gifts of those who had helped to prepare it. It emphasized the importance of community by enabling each person involved to participate in proclaiming God’s salvation to each other.
- Connection between past and present: At several points throughout the service, worshipers were reminded that we share the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection with other Christians throughout time and space. This helped us to experience the larger family of God.
- Modes of learning: This service had many different opportunities for active participation. Whether sharing a meal together, hearing Scripture proclaimed, singing together, contemplating quietly, smelling the potpourri, seeing the various stations, or writing on the cross, we were encouraged to engage all our senses and participate in whatever way our age and ability allowed.