Keeping Watch with the Disciples: Resources for Maundy Thursday Vigil

It’s almost too much for the senses … the whisper of the veil falling from the cross high above the altar, the rasp of bundled palms scouring the stripped altar colliding with the burning tang of vinegar in my nostrils, the catch in my throat as parishioners ranging in age from 5 to 85 carry cushions, candles, books, and more from the altar area to the sacristy hallway.

It’s Maundy Thursday…

We’ve just washed each other’s feet, been given the Great Commandment, shared the bread and the wine, and now the reserve sacrament is being carried back to the narthex where we will begin our watch. We will keep vigil, taking turns staying awake from the end of the Maundy Thursday service until the noon service on Good Friday. (Some churches maintain the watch until the Saturday Easter Vigil service.) Some of us will sit in solitude, others will keep watch in teams.

The Materials

There are materials to choose from to pass the time, to shape our prayer, and to stimulate our souls to stay awake:

Those who find it hard to sit still can walk the canvas labyrinth laid out in the parish hall adjacent to the narthex or walk the stations of the cross in the nave.

The Book of Common Prayer lies open to the service for Compline. “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ: give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake” (BCP, 134). What a privilege it is to join God – the one we usually enjoin for these entreaties – in turning our love toward the dying, the weary, the suffering, and the afflicted.

Our congregation’s current list of prayers for concern sits among the gathered materials for the watch.

Digital & Hybrid Adaptations

In 2020, our planned in-person vigil became a virtual vigil as we were all sheltering in place by the time Holy Week arrived. Participants were emailed prayers, our prayer list, coloring mandalas, and suggested readings to use during their prayer time. Many folks created their own home altars. Phone numbers were exchanged so that folks could text the next person at the end of their watch, passing the prayer stick, so to speak. Photos and prayers from individual watches were shared to the church Facebook page so all could feel a part of the vigil. In 2021, we will have a hybrid vigil, with some people praying from home while others (vaccinated!) will sit in our narthex at our altar of repose. 

Watch & Pray

There’s a both then-and-now quality to the night. We are back then, right there in the garden at Gethsemane.  Will we too fall asleep on the watch?   And here and now, Maundy Thursday night passing into Friday morning, Jesus is right here, in the bread and the wine on the altar of repose. We have the chance to stay awake, to not go to sleep, on the suffering of our Lord, as well as the suffering of our loved ones and neighbors this day, this very night.

The lyrics of Stay With Me resound in my head: “Stay with me, Remain here with me, Watch and pray, Watch and pray.” They are good words for the entirety of the Lenten journey. This broken world needs us to watch (and really see) the broken places and people and to then pray, pray, and pray.

Wherever you will be on Maundy Thursday, whether there is an organized vigil or not, won’t you watch and pray?

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