There is nothing I would rather do in church than serve as a musician. As a member of a church orchestra, I have the privilege of performing for the Lord using the talent He has given me, and I am blessed to do so as member of an amazing body of like-minded believers.
That being said, it is sometimes terribly difficult to worship myself when I am leading others in the act of it. While the congregation sits and listens to the sounds we produce as a group, we’re worried about key signatures, tricky rhythms, being in tune, and watching the conductor for any slight changes in tempo. I still feel close to the Lord when I play, but it’s more of an immediate connection, a rush of adrenaline, than it is a deep moment of contemplation.
That’s why Wayne and I decided to attend a service on Maundy Thursday at North Avenue Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. This service, observed by some Protestant denominations as well as the Catholic church, commemorates the Last Supper and the commandment given to the disciples by Jesus Christ—to love one another as He loved us. The word mandatum means “covenant,” and it is where the “Maundy” in Maundy Thursday comes from.
I’ve taken part in this service before, but I had never had the privilege of experiencing Tenebrae until last night. This is an ancient service that dates back to the eighth century and involves three things—reading passages from Scripture, extinguishing candles, and choral and congregational singing.
We began by singing “Ah, Holy Jesus.”
Ah, holy Jesus, how hast Thou offended,
That man to judge Thee hath in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by Thine own rejected,
O most afflicted.
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon Thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone Thee.
’Twas I, Lord, Jesus, I it was denied Thee!
I crucified Thee.
Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered;
The slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered;
For man’s atonement, while he nothing heedeth,
For me, kind Jesus, was Thy incarnation,
Thy mortal sorrow, and Thy life’s oblation;
Thy death of anguish and Thy bitter passion,
For my salvation.
Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay Thee,
I do adore Thee, and will ever pray Thee,
Think on Thy pity and Thy love unswerving,
Not my deserving.
It is a wonderful hymn I’ve never had the chance to sing before, and having the time to study the text as we sang each verse allowed me the time to contemplate what its meaning. Nothing Jesus did brought the suffering of the cross down upon Him. Instead, He willingly laid down His life for my salvation. Nothing I did earned it, and there is nothing I can do to earn it. That’s why I praise Him!
After the hymn, a member of the church read Matthew 26:57-75, which chronicle Christ’s mistreatment in the Sanhedrin and the three denials of Peter, and then we sang one of my favorite hymns, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.”
O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown;
How pale Thou art with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish, which once was bright as morn!
What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered, was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ’Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor, vouchsafe to me Thy grace.
What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever, and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.
The next few portions of the service were very moving for me, as they alternated between the reading of Scripture and musical recitations of what was said. Each time a person read a passage, he or she extinguished a candle on either side of the pulpit, and the lights in the room were dimmed slightly. It represented the progression of Jesus through the trials of the cross, the world growing dimmer until darkness covered the earth.
Matthew 27:11-26, the trial before Pontius Pilate, was read and followed by “He is Death Guilty,” the first movement of Thomas Dubois’ The Seven Last Words of Jesus Christ.
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. And the people clamored: He is death-guilty; take Him, take Him! Let us crucify Him! Be His blood on us and on our children! Then they did crucify Jesus, and the two thieves, one at His right hand and the other at His left hand.
The Scripture took on a musical form, the chaos of the moment represented in the multiple moving lines and gradually increasing tempo and dynamic level. We only heard it presented with choir and organ, but the effect was dramatic all the same.
After that, Matthew 27:27-31, the scourging and mocking of Jesus, was recited and “He Was Wounded for Our Transgressions”” by Carl Heinrich Graun was sung.
He was wounded for our transgressions and for our iniquities. He was bruised for our inquities. The chastisement that brought us peace was on Him. And with His stripes we are healed.
I’ve read the accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion hundreds of times, but for some reason, hearing it read and then paired with this song brought tears to my eyes. I could see the crown of thorns on His head and hear the mocking He endured at the hands of the Roman soldiers. It pained me, as did the thought of the reed in His right hand being used to strike my Savior, driving the thorns into His brow. The depth of His love for us is truly indescribable.
Matthew 27:33-50, the crucifixion of Jesus, was followed by “Thou Wouldst Feign Destroy the Temple” and “Christ, We Do All Adore Thee,” both from The Seven Last Words of Christ.
And the Jews then passing by Him, all did rail upon Him, and wagging their heads at Him, they said unto Him: Ah! Thou wouldst fain destroy the temple; if thou be Jesus, Son of the Father, now fro the cross descend thou, that we behold it, and believe on thee when we behold it. If thou are king over Israel, save thyself then!
(Fast forward to about 2:35 in to hear the correct portion.)
Christ, we do all adore Thee, and we do praise Theeforever, for on the holy cross has thou the world from sin redeemed.
After that, the room was utterly dimmed and the Christ candle, alone in the center of the room, just above the table where the Lord’s Supper elements had been served, was extinguished.
We finished with an acapella rendition of “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”, an African American spiritual that I adore.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when the crucified my Lord? Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree? Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree? Oh, sometimes it causes me tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?
Finally, the service ended with the tolling of three bells in the balcony and a silent dispersion of the congregation. No one said a word leaving the church or walking to our cars. Wayne and I passed by the cross out front of the church, and we stood there for a moment when we noticed that the purple cloth that had been draped around it had been changed to black. It was truly a solemn moment of reflection. However, my heart was not overly burdened because there is the joy of expectation. After all, the tomb where they laid Him is not the end of the story, is it?
Today is Good Friday, the day many churches observe the same events chronicled in the Maundy Thursday service we attended, and because of the quiet solemnity of that service, I am recharged and ready to lead people tonight, to allow them the time to contemplate the events that mark the end of Holy Week.
Take a listen to this presentation, titled “It’s Friday….but Sunday’s Coming” and, for a moment, think about the awe inspiring power of God and the love that set you free. May this Easter be one of renewal for you as it was for us; may you truly recognize the sheer magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice for mankind and once again commit yourselves to serve the risen Lord!