During the years when they did not have their own pastor, the people of St. Timothy’s became ingenious at finding ways to celebrate church holidays. On Maundy Thursday the congregation held what it called an “agape feast.” Loosely based on the Jewish Seder meal, the worship service was a church supper that included readings from Scripture by members of the congregation. Toward the end of the meal, a neighboring pastor would arrive, after leading worship at his or her own church, so that the congregation could have Holy Communion. On my first Maundy Thursday in the parish, I recall that the major question when planning the service was whether to serve corn dogs or pot roast (we decided on pot roast) and that we had to interrupt the Scripture readings for a brief intermission to refrigerate the mayonnaise dishes. I went away from the service genuinely amazed; it truly was a love feast.
The second year, as we prepared for Easter, people wondered if the Maundy Thursday service could be a bit more worshipful, without losing the agape feast, and asked if I had any ideas. I explained that the name Maundy comes from the Latin word for “commandment” and refers to the new commandment Jesus gave to his followers, to love one another as Jesus loved them (John 13:34). I said that some congregations wash feet on Maundy Thursday as a way of both remembering how Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and sharing in Jesus’s humble, loving service. “You want us to take off our shoes and socks in church and have our feet washed?” someone asked. “Actually,” I said, smiling, “I’d like us to take off our shoes and socks in the fellowship hall and have our feet washed before supper.” “Can you help me to understand what this is?” Kelly, the council president, asked. “I don’t think I can,” I said. “I think we have to try it, and then talk about what God’s up to.”
We decided to try it. Carol Ann, who headed up the altar guild, brought an antique pitcher and basin and lots of towels. We read the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. I explained this would be a symbolic washing rather than a real scrubbing. We decided that those who did not want their feet washed could have their hands washed. People came forward, sat in a chair, and put their feet in the basin. I poured water over their feet, wiped them with my hands, and dried them with the towel. After a while, Barry, a member of the congregation, tapped me on the shoulder and asked if he could take over. Before long people were taking turns.
Over supper we talked about what it felt like to have our feet washed and to wash other people’s feet, and we discussed what Jesus might have been trying to show us and teach us. Everyone agreed that they preferred to wash other people’s feet. Many did not like having their feet washed because it made them uncomfortable. Taking off their shoes made most people feel vulnerable–one person said naked. They said that having their feet washed and washing feet was an intimate act; we found it hard to think of Jesus touching us that intimately. We identified with Peter, who said, “You will never wash my feet” (John 13:8). “But Jesus did it for the disciples,” one person said, “and Jesus touched us that way in baptism.” Another person observed that loving one another as Jesus loves us means we are to be that vulnerable and intimate with each other. That made everyone feel uncomfortable. Finally, someone said, “If washing feet makes us that uncomfortable and generates this much conversation, something important is going on, so we better do it again next year.” So we washed feet the next Maundy Thursday, and the Maundy Thursday after that, and the Maundy Thursday after that. During the year, something happened that I did not expect.
Carol Ann started bringing her pitcher and basin to church on the Sundays when we had a baptism, and we used them rather than the finger bowl in the wooden stand that was our baptismal font. Then she brought them on Sundays when we wanted to remember baptism, like Easter and All Saints, and we invited people to dip their fingers in the water and perhaps make the sign of the cross.
In my doctoral work, I was studying Ambrose, the fourth-century bishop of Milan, and I was struck by a connection he made. Augustine was concerned not to attach an exaggerated value to foot washing and so described it as a pattern of humility–the meaning the church preserved. Ambrose, on the other hand, recognized the value of washing feet as a lesson in humble service but added a baptismal connection. For Ambrose, in foot washing, Christ symbolically gave an extra measure of grace and holiness to help baptized Christians resist the tendency to sin. Interpreting the phrase “and you will strike his heel” in Genesis 3:15 to mean that evil will attack the baptized in the same way the serpent would attack Adam, Ambrose asserted that the feet are washed to protect the baptized from the attack of evil and the poison of sin spreading throughout the body.
Though the congregation and I were not as articulate as Ambrose, foot washing became an important reminder of baptism for us. When I left St. Tim’s, the people presented me with my own antique pitcher and basin to remind me of washing feet and celebrating baptism.
On our fifth Maundy Thursday, our last together since the church was preparing to close, our minds were on giving up our church and its furnishings, ending our ministry, and going our separate ways. I suggested that we have communion in church after dinner and then strip the altar in remembrance of Christ being stripped for us. “I know, I know,” Kelly responded. “We have to do it to understand it.” Carol Ann and I planned the service. We arranged that after communion a member of the congregation would read Psalm 22 aloud from the back of the church. My wife Cathy, daughter Chelsey, and Carol Ann were to come forward in turn; I was to hand them the things on the altar, which they would take out of the church through the side door and then come back for something else. When everything was removed from the altar, the women would remove the paraments (cloth coverings) from the pulpit and altar. On Maundy Thursday, when we finished dessert, we made our way from the fellowship hall into the church for communion and the stripping of the altar. “What do we do?” someone asked. “We have everything covered,” I said. “Just participate.”
When everyone had received communion and the room was quiet, the reader began the psalm, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” (Psalm 22:1). Cathy came to the altar and I handed her the communion cup. Chelsey came next and I handed her the bread plate. Carol Ann came to the altar and I gave her the leftover bread and wine. The stripping of the altar was deliberately and reverently under way, just as we had planned. One by one, the three women returned to the altar, received something from my hands, and removed it from the worship space.
“All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads” (Psalm 22:7), the reader continued. I was lost in what we were doing. But when I went to hand off the altar book, I snapped out of my meditation. The hands waiting to receive the altar book were not Cathy’s, Chelsey’s, or Carol Ann’s. The hands belonged to–a man! After staring at those hands for what seemed an eternity but was probably only a few seconds, I placed the altar book in them and picked up the stand on which it sat. Looking up from the altar, I saw the members of the congregation spontaneously getting up from their places and lining up down the center aisle.
They were coming to the altar in turn, receiving something, taking it out of the church, then returning to their places to kneel.
I felt tears well up in my eyes and run down my face. Then it occurred to me that I had to have something for everyone who came forward to remove from the altar. So I scrambled to think of things–candlesticks, offering plate, Bible on the pulpit, and eventually my stole and my hymnal. When nothing was left, Carol Ann removed and folded the pulpit and altar cloths. Then she gave them to others, who carried them out of church.
We returned to the fellowship hall in hushed voices. I was among the last to join the group. “We’re sorry we ruined the service,” someone said to me. “What makes you think you ruined the service?” I asked. “You were crying,” someone else answered. I explained that I wasn’t upset; I was moved by what the congregation had done. “It’s your fault,” someone else responded. “You told us to participate.”
In our years of ministry together, the people of St. Timothy’s and I had grown from needing to understand worship in order to participate in it to needing to participate in worship in order to understand it. The congregation also determined that participation means being actively involved. We learned this together: God taught us when we entered into Christian worship as a mystery and gave God the first word.
Adapted from When God Speaks through Worship: Stories Congregations Live By by Craig A. Satterlee copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
When God Speaks through Worship:
Stories Congregations Live By
by Craig A. Satterlee
When God Speaks through Worship: Stories Congregations Live By is a collection of stories of congregational worship in which God’s ongoing presence, speech, and activity are apparent. These stories of proclaiming the gospel, teaching the faith, praying, singing, baptizing, blessing, and sharing bread and wine in Jesus’s name demonstrate the purpose of these activities in worship, yet still challenge the reader to explore the motives behind them.
In Dying We are Born:
The Challenge and the Hope for Congregations
by Peter Bush
Deeply ingrained in Western culture, and in the minds of most church leaders, is the belief that there is a solution to every problem. Peter Bush offers a powerful challenge to this approach, arguing that for new life, energy, and passion to arise in congregations, they must die—die to one way of being the church in order that a new way may rise. All congregations, even ones that see themselves as healthy, need to be prepared to die, to take up their cross, so God can make them alive.
How We Shape and Interpret Our Experience of God
by Deborah J. Kapp
In worship we encounter God’s gracious presence and come face to face with the frailty, goodness, and potential of our humanity. We are comforted, corrected, forgiven, healed, challenged, and sometimes even disturbed by the Divine and one another. The mysterious and uncontrollable work of the Spirit is at the heart of all genuine worship. Yet worshipers and leaders work hard to worship. In Worship Frames, Deborah Kapp explores how the sociological concept of frames can help us better understand the social and human dynamics of worship. By understanding our frames, she contends, we can learn how to reframe worship to give fuller and richer expression to our faith.
From Nomads to Pilgrims:
Stories from Practicing Congregations
by Diana Butler Bass and Joseph Stewart-Sicking
From Nomads to Pilgrims tells the stories of a dozen congregations that have been on a pilgrimage to vitality-retrieving and reworking Christian practice, tradition, and narrative. The book reads as a series of first-hand dispatches from pastors of congregations on the road to an emerging style of congregational vitality, one centered on the creative and intentional reappropriation of traditional Christian practices.
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