Sermon for March 29, 2018: Maundy Thursday, Ritual (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Today is the first day of the Paschal Triduum – the three days of preparation for the greatest feast of the Christian church: Easter. Although most Christians – even those who do not set foot in a church at any other day of the year (except perhaps Christmas) -celebrate Easter, generally it is only the most faithful that join together for these three services. That’s a shame – because the liturgies of the Triduum – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Even – are some of the most beautiful of the entire church year. Unique and different from one another as well as from our common worship in both tone and practice, these three holy observances are religious ritual at its very best - which means that taking part in them is good for you.


According to a 2013 Scientific American article, “Research suggests that rituals [are good for you] – and may be more rational than they appear. Why? Because even simple rituals can be extremely effective. Rituals performed after experiencing losses – from loved ones to lotteries – do alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks – like singing in public – do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence.”[1] The reason for this? Belief. Rituals work because people find meaning in them – and the rituals we practice in the days leading up to Easter have tremendous meaning. Not only do they help us to remember why we believe what we believe, but also the importance of how we practice those beliefs in our daily lives.


Our scripture stories tonight take us back to the Jewish Exodus, when God called upon Moses and Aaron to lead the Israelites out of bondage in the land of Egypt. “The structure of this passage reveals the relationship between the ritual and story” – how the story is the basis for the ritual, and how the ritual is centered in a community of faith.[2] Notice that the Lord recognizes that people will probably have to join together to fulfill the terms of the ritual, noting that, “if a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor.” “In other words, those who face this perilous time together should remain together and work together to do what needs to be done. When we are sundered from community, hope fades and disappears. But in community, hope is found, strengthened and preserved.”[3]


This is undoubtedly true of Christian community, because the primary ritual – the primary remembrance – of our faith is always performed in community. Paul gave to the community of Corinth the story and ritual that was given to him – an account of Jesus’s last meal with his friends and how he asked them to remember him each time they shared it together. “The body and blood are given for each individual personally, but the Eucharist also has a communal dimension, such that the meaning of the Lord’s Supper does not become individualistic.”[4]


John’s gospel adds another element to the story – and the ritual – by sharing how Jesus washed his disciples’ feet on their last night together. Although we tend to focus on Jesus’s humility in performing this act, we are also meant to understand that accepting this gift is also an act of vulnerability that strengthens our connection with him. As part of tonight’s ritual, we humble ourselves in each other’s presence by putting aside our pride and need for control and gratefully accepting the gift of love that is offered to us in Christ’s name. Most importantly, on this first night of ritual commemoration we are asked to remember in community and, as we think of “how God has been present with [his people throughout time and with] us along our life’s journey, [to] trust that God is present with us now, and will be present as we go forward.”[5] AMEN.


[1]Francesca Gino and Michael I. Martin, (2013), “Why Rituals Work,” in Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-rituals-work/.

[2]Danny Matthews, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 261.

[3]Gregory Ledbetter, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 263.

[4]Philip D. Krey, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 274.

[5]Margaret Ann Fohl, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 274.