May 15, 2019

Beyond Anything We Could Ask or Imagine

The array of worship services during the Holy Week is meant to be, as described by some Millennials, an “embodied practice of faith—a liturgy that shapes our stance toward heaven more than our intellect about heaven.”

Holy Week has always been very significant for me; the music of the Passion—the organ chorales and the anthems and motets of late Lent, the dramatic possibilities, the texts. In the first three congregations I served, we celebrated the Week to its fullest. Beginning with the Triumphal Entry, we worshiped every day—night services on Palm Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday (noon and night), Easter Vigil, Easter morning, and finally a Eucharist built around the meal at Emmaus on Easter evening. While that was a lot for Midwestern Presbyterians to take in (might even have choked some ambivalent Anglicans), take it in they did. My first congregation not only celebrated the Easter Vigil, we broadcast it live over regional radio (much to the astonishment of the local RC’s). People said to me, “Now THIS is Easter. We’re so glad to come and worship tonight so that we’re ready to welcome the ‘tourists’ tomorrow morning!”

Every context is different. I wouldn’t dream of attempting to introduce such a complex observance to my current congregation, even though they are the most spiritually eager bunch I’ve ever served. They simply don’t have that much space in their frenetic, urban existence to devote to that much devotion. We have brought Maundy Thursday back for a congregation that had abandoned it years ago, and therein lies the meat of this post. Why? What have they found so meaningful? As I’ve mentioned here before, we have exceptionally good attendance on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Wasn’t it a gamble to mess with success? Yes—and no.

Every liturgy has its own vibe. Palm Sunday and Easter are festive—each in their own way; Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are inescapably penitential. Maundy Thursday is a uniquely tactile experience. Posture, silence, and lots of acapella singing are paired with the uncommon experience of foot washing and the reality that on this night, “. . . different from any other night,” we are remembering the Last Supper, as opposed to the Resurrection meal we celebrate every other time the bread is broken and the wine is poured.

Since we were reintroducing Maundy Thursday after a prolonged period of liturgical abstinence, we had a distinct lack of local “traditions” haunting us. We designed a service that begins in the Sanctuary and then, after the sermon, moves the congregation (while singing a hymn) 40 feet down the an interior corridor to the Social Hall where we are seated on three sides of an enlarged Table. Communion is received (as in many traditions) by passing the bread and the cup around seatings of 12 while more hymns are sung. Most radical for many in our congregation was the introduction of foot washing at stations in the corners.

In the three short years we have offered a Maundy Thursday liturgy, it has become one of the treasured experiences for many people. Why? While there may be many reasons, one is that this liturgy, more than most, is what one of our Millennials recently described as an “embodied practice of faith—a liturgy that shapes our stance toward heaven more than our intellect about heaven.” It is an opportunity for words to sit back and allow the experience of taste, touch, sound, and community to communicate inestimable Love in a way that is far beyond anything we could ask or imagine.

Rev. Dr. Paul Detterman is an author, composer, and conference speaker who is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of River Forest, Illinois, and a blogger at He is a former associate for worship on the national staff of the Presbyterian Church (USA).