For children, Maundy Thursday is all about celebrating Holy Communion on the night Jesus invented it. Just as the Nativity stories have special power on Christmas Eve, the Eucharist has added power on Maundy Thursday. Just to be there participating in the sacrament on this night says that I am one of God’s people. Because I eat at this table, I belong.
Unfortunately, many congregations do not encourage children to attend this service. The fact that it is on a school night makes it easy to decide that children will not be able to come and therefore to neither plan for their presence nor encourage them and their families to come. After a few years of such expectations it takes more than one or two “children are welcome” notes to reverse the trend. A clear invitation to families to join all God’s people to hear the stories of the most important days of the year and to celebrate the sacrament that was introduced on that night is needed. It also helps to include children in some way in leadership. Consider
-asking a church school class to prepare the elements for
- including children among the readers during the Tenebrae,
- asking children’s choirs to sing, and
- calling on families with children to serve as greeters and ushers.
Stories are important on this night. The key story is the bread and cup of the Last supper. But the story of washing the disciples feet, the failure of the church in Corinth to gather as a loving community to celebrate communion, and the Passover story are also part of the night. And, though the Passion story belongs to Good Friday, all the stories told on Maundy Thursday look to the Good Friday stories. In any given service only one or maybe two of the supporting stories can be involved.
The Last Supper is at the heart of the day. Children imagine themselves in the room with the disciples eating with Jesus. The Revised Common Lectionary sets John's gospel (with no bread or cup) as the gospel reading for the night. For the sake of the children, you may want to read or tell one of the synoptic accounts in addition. This year read Matthew 26:17-20, 26-30. Sitting around tables rather than in rows (whether you share a meal or not) also brings the story to life. Using a loaf or matzo rather than wafer brings worshipers closer to the food of that first night.
Jesus Washes the Disciple’s Feet. You can almost see all the disciples looking at their feet, knowing that someone needs to do the washing, thinking that if they don’t make eye contact with anyone maybe it won’t be them. Then Jesus does it. He washes the feet of the people who will desert him. He even washes the feet of Judas who will turn him in and tell his enemies where to find him. I think a case could be made that Jesus did this as either practice for what was coming on Friday, as a demonstration of what it means to love, or maybe both. Like everyone else in the room, he knew everyone’s feet needed to be washed. Maybe he thought to himself, “OK, if I can wash their feet - even wash Judas’ feet - tonight, maybe I can believe that I can do what is coming tomorrow.” This makes sense to most children. When washing feet is compared to yucky jobs that must be done every day – taking out the garbage, cleaning the cat’s litter, turning the compost pile, cleaning the bathrooms, dealing with a diaper pail – it calls them to join Jesus in practicing love. The first challenge is to do these jobs for people we love and who love us back. As we do we imagine doing them for someone who mistreats us and we remember that Jesus washed Judas’ feet.
While surfing for pictures of foot washing, I came across photos of weddings at which the groom washes the bride’s feet during the ceremony. I’m guessing (hoping!) the groom gets his feet washed too. This is a new idea to me and I’m not espousing it. But it is an interesting wedding ritual that points out the very non-romantic ways husbands and wives (and all family members!) are to love each other.
After washing their feet Jesus gives the disciples and us a new rule, “Love one another as I have loved you.” How do we love one another? We wash their feet and do whatever else is needed (even the yucky jobs) to take care of them.
After washing the feet and sending Judas away to do his deed, Jesus announced, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.” Or, “if you want to see the glory of God, watch me wash feet. If you want to share in the glory of God, wash feet like I do.” God’s glory is not seen in people walking on red carpets or standing on championship stands. God’s glory is seen in people taking care of those around them – even washing their feet when needed. This definition of God’s glory is a hard sell with children and worshippers of all ages.
SIDE-BAR: Peter was offended by Jesus’ offer to wash his feet. Youth and adults today understand his feelings. But, children are used to being tended in many personal ways. So, Peter’s issue isn’t their issue - yet.
Display a towel and a basin prominently throughout the service.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26 if taken in its context is the opposite of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. The wealthier members of the church at Corinth came early with all their food to the church suppers. They did not wait to eat until the poorer members got off their jobs and could come. So, there was often nothing left for the poorer members when they arrived. Paul calls them on their lack of loving care of people in need.
The Passover Older children, especially those who have Jewish friends, are fascinated by the connection between Passover and the Last Supper. But, before they can understand it, they have to hear the story of the Passover, know some of the details of the Seder, and know the details of Holy Communion. Maundy Thursday worship is not the place to start into all three from scratch. What you can do…
Invite the children forward for the reading of Exodus 12:14,11-14. Then point out that God saved the Jews from slavery in Egypt. Jesus and his disciples were remembering this story on the night of the last supper. The very next day, Jesus died on the cross to save us from sin and death. Note the similarity. God saves us over and over again.
Before Holy Week, invite a Jewish family to walk families of your congregation through a Seder. They could just tell about it or present pictures of themselves celebrating it (maybe in a Powerpoint?) Or, with their direction you could prepare a Seder meal to eat together with them leading the whole group through it. Then, on Maundy Thursday seat worshipers around tables in the fellowship hall with communion elements on each table. Read the Passover story and the story of the Last Supper before celebrating communion.
Exploring the Passover connection tends to lead adults to speak of Jesus as the Lamb of God. Remember if you do that children think literally and are easily confused by metaphorical language. For them the easiest way to understand Lamb of God is as a nickname for Jesus. Actually, I’d save this term for other worship settings.
There are so many vivid stories vying for their attention in worship this night, that most children will miss Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19 entirely. That may be just fine. Unpacking it enough for them to understand requires more than it is probably worth on Maundy Thursday. So include it in the liturgy for the adults.
Tenebrae was originally celebrated on Good Friday, but many congregations, especially those who do not worship together on Good Friday, include it in Maundy Thursday worship following communion. It is a candle lighting service in reverse. Seven or eight candles are lighted in the beginning with each one snuffed out as a part of the Passion is read. A deep toned hand bell may be sounded as each candle is snuffed. Then after a moment of darkness, a single candle is relit to remind us of the coming resurrection and the congregation departs in silence. Children deeply appreciate this ritual IF…
- It is explained to them in advance
- The readings are not too long and focus on storytelling. (This is not the place for John’s long soliloquies.)
- Readers of all ages, including at least one older child, are involved. (A child can often read the story of Jesus’ burial.)
Some congregations end this rite with a minute of silence followed by a single crash of a gong. Even when you know it is coming, the gong makes you jump. Be sure the children know it is coming. A note among the printed announcements is not enough warning! Actually briefly explaining the Tenebrae and noting the crashing gong at the end makes good publicity drawing families to this service.
Songs for the evening: “Let Us Break Bread Together” and “For the Bread Which You Have Broken” (especially verse 1, 2, and 4) are probably the simplest communion hymn for this night for children. The Ghanian hymn “Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us With Your Love,” while it may not be as familiar to adults as it is to children, is a good choice for congregational singing or for a children’s choir to sing.
Sharing the Easter Faith with Children includes
- a plan for a Maundy Thursday service rehearsing the Last Supper story and celebrating communion around tables,
- a child-friendly script for a Tenebrae and
- a plan for a children’s Tenebrae with props as well as candles that could be a special service for families on either Maundy Thursday or Good Friday.