“For us He prayed, for us He taught; for us His daily works He wrought. By words and signs and actions thus, still seeking not Himself but us.” (LSB 544, v. 4)
By Rev. Dr. Theodore J. Hopkins
Associate Professor of Theology, Concordia University Ann Arbor
Program Director: Pre-Seminary and Family Life Ministry
“For us,” rings out the exquisite Thomas à Kempis hymn. For us Jesus blessed bread and cup and gave them to his disciples to eat and drink, delivering his own body and blood for the forgiveness of sin. For us Christ laid aside his robe and his place as master and washed his disciples’ feet. For us Jesus sweated blood in agony and tears in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying for the Father’s will to be done. For us Jesus trod the lonely road to Golgotha, each pace marking another step for our salvation. We will only grasp the truth and beauty of Maundy Thursday if we begin to see that it was all for us.
Maundy Thursday ushers in the holiest period of the holiest of weeks for Christians. Traditionally, it is the first day of the Triduum, three days of connected services including Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. What I love about Maundy Thursday—and the Triduum more generally—is the sense of being incorporated into the holy history of Jesus and his passion, his suffering for our salvation. The traditional Maundy Thursday service refuses to let us remain distant from the first-century events, as if we could place the historical events of Christ into a museum. Instead, the service makes us participants in Christ and the apostolic church as we partake of the same meal that the Lord instituted the first Holy Thursday, and we receive Jesus’ own body and blood under bread and wine for our forgiveness.
Then, before the end of the service, our hearts and eyes are directed toward Good Friday, as we watch the altar stripped, piece by piece, slowly, painfully, agonizingly, gazing, as each item on the altar is deliberately taken away, folded up, carefully placed away, as we are also hearing the agony of our Lord in the words of David in Psalm 22 or contemplating our Savior’s wounds with a solemn Lenten hymn. During this somber and serious service, we do not forget that Jesus has already won the victory over sin, death, and the devil by his crucifixion and resurrection, but it is right to be somber and solemn because our sinfulness—yes, ours!—exacted such a heavy price from our Savior which he gladly suffered for us. Hence, Maundy Thursday services are often left in silence, to contemplate what Christ accomplished and suffered on Good Friday, and wait in anticipation for the joy of Easter.
Two central events take place on Holy Thursday: the institution of the Lord’s Supper as described in the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—and the washing of the apostles’ feet expounded upon in John’s Gospel. Both of these reveal Jesus seeking not himself but us.
On the night in which Jesus was betrayed, the Lord Christ instituted the Supper, celebrating the Passover meal with his apostles but also making a new covenant and meal, the gift of forgiveness through his body and blood to be received by faith. As Israel was saved from slavery in Egypt and constituted as God’s own people through the blood of the unblemished lamb spread on the doorpost (Ex. 12:1-27) and the blood of the sacrifices thrown upon the people (Ex.24:6-8), Jesus proclaims his own body and blood as the new covenant for God’s people. Through his suffering, death, and resurrection for us, and the reception of his body and blood under bread and wine, Jesus redeems sinners from slavery to death and hell and constitutes them as not just the people but the family of God.
This is what we celebrate on Maundy Thursday. The Son of God who gave himself to death on a cross pledges us his own body and blood for us. Having him by faith and mouth, through his signs and actions thus, we have the certainty of forgiveness of sins and know ourselves as sons and daughters of God, part of the family.
The second major event of Holy Thursday is what gives the day its most common name. Maundy Thursday is so called—Maundy is derived from the Latin mandatum—because of the new mandate that Jesus gave to his apostles on that night. Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34). What is new in Jesus’ word is not the command to love. In fact, in Leviticus, God commanded his people, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18). What is new in John 13 is the reference to Jesus: as I have loved you so you are to love one another.
This commandment is particularly striking in light of Jesus having just washed his apostles’ feet. Jesus gave up his place as master and stooped to the floor, washing their dirty, stinking toes. And he calls his church to follow after him in this way, not seeking our own power or good, but seeking instead to serve our neighbors. Seeking not himself but us: This is the way of our Lord on Maundy Thursday, and it is also the life to which we are called as Christians (See Phil. 2:4–11).
As you worship this holy week, I pray God will open your eyes to see how you are being brought into his holy history, and will lead you to an ever-greater sense of just what Jesus as accomplished for you, for us, and for them, culminating in the cross and the empty tomb. “For us by wickedness betrayed, for us, in crown of thorns arrayed, He bore the shameful cross and death; for us He gave His dying breath” (LSB 544, v. 5).
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