Lent: Maundy Thursday and Good Friday

The Greg Scheer Music Podcast
Lent: Maundy Thursday and Good Friday

SYNOPSIS: Greg talks about service elements and song suggestions for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services. 


  • 0:24 – Story: Bellefield Presbyterian and “Ah, Holy Jesus”
  • 3:40 – Maundy Thursday: Upper Room service
  • 12:47 – Maundy Thursday: Communion elements
  • 15:40 – Maundy Thursday: Tenebrae
  • 22:15 – Good Friday: focus on crucifixion



Hello, friends. This is Greg Scheer with the Greg Scheer Music Podcast, and in this episode we’re going to be focusing on Holy Week, more specifically, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. But first, a little story:


When I was a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, I attended a church called Bellefield Presbyterian Church. It was right there on the campus of Pitt. And at the time I didn’t do anything with worship, really. I wasn’t involved with worship; I was involved in composition, and I didn’t know anything about the church year or liturgical year or anything like that. But they had a service on the Thursday before Easter, and it was a Maundy Thursday service. And I wondered, “Why do they call it a Monday Thursday?” But then I realized it was actually Maundy Thursday. In any case, I went to this service, and it was a very moving service for me, and really kind of a pivotal thing in my walk of faith.

I don’t know what it was about that service, but it just really impressed upon me the weight of Christ’s work on the cross, and that this was done for me, and, yeah, it just, it was. .  . I don’t know exactly why, but I remember this: We sang the hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus,” which since then has become one of my favorites, and I was so smitten with that hymn that I went home with a bulletin in my hand, and I was gonna be playing an open mic night later that night with me on guitar and a violinist accompanying me. And I was so smitten with that hymn, that I actually went home and I transcribed some new chords for it and a violin line, and I showed it to the violinist as we got to the bar, and I was like, “We’re going to play this song!” And she was actually English and so she grew up with hymns like this and kind of knew it, and it was so great. 

We were, I mean, it was a bar, and I got up to play, I can’t remember, I played something that I had written and then I played that one. And I just remember people in the bar kind of looking at me like, “What? What is this about? He’s singing about Jesus, and Jesus suffering.” And I don’t know if they thought it was super cool or just completely out of place. But, in any case, that’s just to give you an idea of how powerful this time of the church year can be. And, if it was powerful in my life like that, you have to be thinking that there are people in your church that this can also be a really pivotal time for them. And so the things I’m just going to start off by just emphasizing, I think, the most important things about services like this.

Tell the story. You know, our impulse is to get all flowery and do all sorts of amazing things, and, you know, things that we can tell other worship directors about and they’ll think we’re super cool. But just, stick to the story. Let Scripture speak for itself. Use lots of Scripture. This, Scriptures that are used during this time of year are so powerful in and of themselves that you really don’t need to do a whole lot with them. So just really, really let the Scripture speak. Let the story speak, and let it inform people’s faith, the people that are in the pews. Let that just do its work.

All right, now on to our subject at hand. We’re talking about Thursday and Friday together because many churches don’t have, they either have one service or the other service. So in a very liturgical church, you will have a special service for each night of the week, or day of the week, I’m not sure, of Holy Week. But most Protestant churches if they are somewhat liturgical, they will usually have either a Maundy Thursday service or a Good Friday service. Now, some will have both Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and we’re going to help tease that out a little bit. But I’m talking about this in the same podcast because I think that many of the same themes, there’s a lot of overlap between the two days, and so many of the themes will be carried over, depending on which one you do.

So, without further ado, let’s look at Maundy Thursday. There are really two directions that you can take with a Maundy Thursday service. One is the upper room, so that’s actually where we get the word “Maundy” Thursday, is it’s from the Latin. I can’t remember right now exactly what it is, but it’s from the Latin where Jesus says, “A new commandment I give to you: to love one another.” So that’s where we get the word, and that’s the service of the upper room. It’s the kinds of things that happen at the Last Supper. And then the other direction you can take, is what’s called a Tenebrae service. And we’ll get to that one later. Let’s start with the upper room.

So the service of the upper room is really what I would call the Last Supper and the first Communion. So this is where the disciples gather together and Jesus has his last words with them. They eat for the last time, and it’s what institutes our modern Communion. So there are just lots of rich overtones going on in this story and in this service. So if you’re going to do a strictly speaking upper room type of service, there are lots of things that are very particular to that. Of course it’s going to culminate in Communion, but let’s get there later.

Let’s start with the gathering, the opening kinds of things. So I’m just going to give you a couple ideas about songs that would work for this, cause this is a service that is a very, very specific service, and so it’s a chance to use some very specific songs, rather than just straight-up Communion hymns. So, one that’s really quite nice is “Come, Risen Lord, and Deign to Be Our Guest.” It’s really quite a beautiful hymn tune, not often used, except on Maundy Thursday services. The tune is very easy to learn. It says, “Come, risen Lord, and deign to be our guest. Know we are your guest. . .” I can’t remember how all the words go. But it basically says, “We gather together, but you are really the host.” And it’s a great text.

Another one, if you want to get even further off the beaten path, is a Filipino song, and it’s called “When Twilight Comes,” and it’s just such a beautiful song. I love this song. Now, it’s quite a hard melody, so what I have done before is I have sung it as a solo just accompanied by the guitar, and it sets a really nice tone. And what it does is just, one service earlier, Jesus has looked over Jerusalem and said, “Oh, I’ve wept for you and I want to gather you like a chick to the mother hen.” And it continues that kind of image here, and it says, the lyrics say,

When twilight comes and the sun sets,
mother hen prepares for night’s rest.
As her brood shelters under her wings,
she gives the love of God to her nest.
Oh, what joy to feel her warm heartbeat
and be near her all night long!
So the young can find repose
and then renew tomorrow’s song.

And then it goes on to say, basically, “Gather around, friends. We’re gathering around Jesus for this last time, this evening meal.” And I think it’s a great song for a number of reasons. One, it’s just simply a beautiful song with very vivid imagery. Another, is it takes a biblical image for God that is very motherly. So there’s lots of conversations about language for God, and should we use gendered language for God, and all those kinds of things, but I think, in those conversations, the first step is to reclaim as much language as we have right there in the Bible. And in this particular case, we have images for God as a mother hen. So this is a great way to reclaim some of those more motherly types of images in our worship services.

So, once we go from the opening, there are all sorts of things you can do, but one of the things, because, at the Last Supper, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, a foot-washing is often part of that service. Now, this of course, at least in American culture, can be quite a problematic thing. People feel very squeamish about their feet, some people are very ticklish about their feet. So it’s, kind of, you have to figure out what you want to do with that. What I have done in that past, or what churches I have been in have done in the past, is often the pastor will wash the feet of someone, perhaps a child, perhaps a elder in the church, or something to that effect. Something that you’ve figured out ahead of time that this person would be okay with it, and it just shows this idea of the greatest among them is stooping to serve the others, just like Jesus did. So you can decide if you want to that, or if you want to do an actual foot-washing service, like some denominations do, where everybody washes everybody else’s feet. But regardless of how you do that, that, generally speaking, is part of the service.

And there are lots of kinds of, not specifically foot-washing, but servant type songs. So I’m thinking about Twila Paris’s “How Beautiful.” You know, it’s an oldie but it’s a goodie, and this is a time of year when you can actually use that song appropriately for the foot-washing. Another, some other ones that just talk really more about our servanthood to each other, one would be “The Servant Song,” which is “Brother, let me be your servant. . .” So this is, just basically, “Let me be your servant; you can be my servant, too.” And that we serve each other in the body of Christ.

Another one is from Africa, I can’t remember where in Africa, but “Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us with Your Love.” A little bit more upbeat than you might want for a service like this, but it could work. It happens to be my pastor’s least favorite song, so we really never do this at my church, but I kind of give him a pass on that. I feel like it’s giving every child a vegetable they don’t like. I think every pastor and every music director should have at least one song that they say, “No, I’m never going to sing that one.” Another one that works really well comes from the Taizé community: “Ubi Caritas,” which means “Live in Charity,” and there are texts in both Latin and in English, but it’s very easy to sing in Latin if you’ve never sung that. But it just says, “Live in charity and steadfast love.” It’s a really great song to sing. It’s very meditative and talks about our love for one another.

Another song that you could do. This is not so much in the foot-washing realm of things, but it’s a song called “Jesus, Greatest at the Table.” No, I’m sorry, it is a foot-washing song. It’s called “Jesus, Greatest at the Table,” and it talks about how he was the most important person at the table, and yet he still served others. That text is by Steven Starke, and it appears in some hymnals, not too many hymnals, but some. So you can look that up, for example, on hymnary.org and see if there is a tune that you like that would work for your congregation. I would also suggest that you would check out on my website, where I have a tune called TABLE GREATS, that’s the name of the tune, kind of play on “table greats,” but also “table grace”— you see what I did there? Oh, yes. So, anyways, that’s a nice tune that you could do. And once again, this is a special service, and so it seems to me fairly appropriate that you have a certain amount of solo music that is sung for the congregation, cause they’re only going to hear these things once a year. So, to do a song like that, I think is very appropriate.

All right, so what else happens at a service of the upper room? Well, of course, Communion needs to be part of this, because that’s what the, this was the Last Supper, this is what culminated for the disciples and Jesus, is this meal that they shared together. So it makes complete sense that you would have a Communion service, or Communion as part of this service. You might want to have overtones of the Seder meal, because that would have been what Jesus was celebrating with his disciples. You may what to sing the Hallel Psalms, Psalm 115 to 118, I believe, because that’s presumed to be what Jesus sang when it says, “After they sang a hymn, they went out.” It was presumed that it would have been one of those songs, because that’s the Psalms that they sang during this meal.

I have also, at a former church I did a service that I really liked a lot. It was the Liturgy of the Upper Room. So we would gather, actually, in the fellowship hall. And it was a nice service because it felt different, right? Instead of being in the kind of worship space that you’re used to, you’re in the eating space. Okay, so it already has this very built-in meal and fellowship-like character to it. And so what we would do, is we would have a service where we would sit around tables, just like you would at dinner, and we would have like six to eight people at a table. And there were a number of really interesting things about this. It was all based on Scripture, and you can download this at my website. Almost all based on Scripture, and one of the things that happened toward the end of the meal when we had Communion, is we had the echoes of the Seder where the child asks, “Why do we do this?” And then the adult answers, “Well, we do this because it means this.” 

And, so that dialogue back and forth, instead of giving that to a liturgist up front, it was done at the table. And so we had little placards on each table, and they would say that the, you know, look into the worship order because there’s going to be reading parts for the oldest person at the table and the youngest reader at the table. And so it was really quite sweet, you’d have this table, and you might have a 50-year-old, but you might have a 90-year-old, and they would be talking with someone who is, you know, young enough to be very young, but also old enough to read. And it’s just a very, very sweet thing, and you’d just hear the murmur all around as they go through this liturgy before the Communion. You hear this murmur all around the room of people reading these things back and forth. It was really a sweet service, and you can get that online and read more carefully about that.

So that’s, that’s some basic ideas, some ways to get you started on a Maundy Thursday service that focuses on the upper room. Now, let’s look at a Tenebrae service. A Tenebrae service, I don’t even know what “Tenebrae” means, to tell you the truth. But in a liturgical sense, a Tenebrae service is a service of the deepening of the shadows. So this is not the seven last words of Jesus, but these are kind of the seven last scenes of Jesus’ life. This is when he says, “Someone will betray me.” And then, then the disciples fall asleep while he’s praying. You know, it’s these scenes, and then slowly it goes to the judgment hall before Pilate, all of those kinds of things. So basically, what we see is Jesus, his life is unraveling, you know, before our eyes, we see. . . His life is not unraveling, because he’s Jesus, but what we see is that everything is just going south. His disciples are leaving him, he is being tried for things that he didn’t do, that he was innocent of, and Jesus knows the outcome of this, is that it’s going to be a crucifixion. We don’t know that yet in the story.

So, what the service of Tenebrae is about, is it’s a service of shadows and darkness. So many churches, what they will do, is they will start with the sanctuary really quite dark, as dark as you can make it and still have people able to read what they need to read. So, the sanctuary is quite dark and somber, typically there’s not a lot of music, people might enter in silence and leave in silence. Some churches will cover the Communion table in a black cloth. Others will drape the cross in a black cloth. And, the guts of the service are these seven readings that I talked about, the betrayal, desertion, and all those. And, usually what you have, you might have seven readers, but you might have just one reader. And typically you’ll have seven candles up front, and after each reading, one candle is snuffed out. After the next one, the next candle is snuffed out until all of the candles are snuffed out and the sanctuary is left in darkness. 

And, between these readings and the candles going out, silence is very appropriate, and it’s just amazing how this builds, it builds this tension throughout the service, where you hear this scene from Jesus’ final moments on earth, and then there’s just this dead silence. You hear the candle snuffer being picked up, and the candle going out, and the candle snuffer going down again. And it’s really quite dramatic. One thing I’ve done, and this is probably not in anybody’s wheelhouse, but I wrote a piece called “The Shadows,” and it’s for seven cellos. And so then, I had a musical meditation between each of the readings, and it’s a very dramatic, biting kind of piece with lots of really dissonant harmonies. And so that was really good, a good service with that. You can email me if you’re interested in that, but I doubt many people have seven cellos. I just happened to have those one year so I wrote something for them.

Sometimes the Tenebrae service is ended by people stripping the altar of all of the, you know, the cross, the Bible, all those kinds of things, so it’s completely barren. Other churches will do, maybe a bell tolling, some will do a hammer for the nails of the cross, or some kind of sound like that, like sealing the tomb or nailing the cross. So, once again, it’s a very dramatic kind of service, and one of the things that I like about the service beyond the fact that it’s so powerful, is, as a worship leader, it’s actually quite simple. Once again, you let the Scripture tell the story. You don’t have to make stuff up, you don’t really even need a sermon in that service, right? So instead of doing a lot of talking, a lot of singing, a lot of explaining, you just simply let people sit with the words of Scripture and with silence, and they can kind of feel those words of Scripture echoing in the silence.

Some possibilities for songs, cause you probably will sing some music. One of my all-time favorites is a hymn called “O Come and Mourn.” And I love to start a service like this, either a Maundy Thursday service, a Tenebrae service, or Good Friday service with “O Come and Mourn.” Because it’s, the hymn says, “O come and mourn with me awhile, O hasten to the Savior’s side.” And it’s basically just calling people to worship, but also to mourn as they see what Jesus suffers. Beautiful song.

Another one, which is just a little bit more common, is “Go to Dark Gethsemane,” and especially those opening two, maybe three services.

Go to dark Gethsemane,
those who feel the tempter’s power.
Wait with him, watch with him.

It kind of refers to the disciples leaving him during prayer. There’s lots of overtones of the Scriptures that would be read in that, “Go to Dark Gethsemane.”

A song that works well for the close of this, because we’ve heard the Scripture where Jesus says, “Stay with me. I’m going to be praying. Stay with me and pray with me.” And there’s a Taizé song called “Stay with Me,” which is just a wonderful, meditative song, and there’s a kind of a double meaning to it in a sense, when you use it liturgically. Because it’s the words of Jesus, saying “Stay with me and keep watch with me,” but it’s also saying, “Stay close to Jesus during these next few days, as Jesus suffers and as you go through the tomb and into the resurrection. Stay close to Jesus.”

So those are some ideas for Maundy Thursday. And now I’ll go to Good Friday and the kinds of materials you might want to use in Good Friday. So, Good Friday, properly speaking, is a focus on the resurrection. [Greg meant to say crucifixion.] And, once again, many people will essentially do a Good Friday service on Thursday, because it’s, whatever, it’s more convenient to do it at that time, and those kinds of things. And I think that’s fine; I wouldn’t call the liturgical police on you. But, the Good Friday service, is really focused specifically on the crucifixion. 

And I think one of the dangers, the temptations in a service like this, is to make this service, try to overdramaticize it, I’m not sure if that’s the right word. But basically, take this posture of “Jesus died, and YOU killed him. Think about that! Think about your sins and how you killed Jesus, and he was on the cross, looking at YOU, thinking about YOUR SINS!” Right? I don’t know that we need to do that much brow-beating in a service like this, for a number of reasons. One is, I think that we want to, in a worship service that is a corporate worship service, we want to think more corporately about things rather than individually. I’m not a huge fan of “Jesus was on the cross and he was just thinking of you.” That, to me, seems a little bit too personal. He was thinking about a lot of people, and he was thinking about the new creation, and all of those kinds of things, right? He was thinking about the big picture. I mean, I can’t tell you exactly what he was thinking about, but, in other words, I don’t think it was as narrow as “he was thinking about you.” 

So I think we don’t want to overemphasize that part of it. And I think really what we want to do instead is we simply want to tell the story. We don’t need to, you know, kind of point the finger at people, and try to get them whipped up to find themselves in the story. Because if you just let Scripture speak, they will find themselves in the story. They will feel the weight of their sin. They will feel the depth of Jesus’ love in a service like this. So, I encourage you just to simply tell the story. One of the ways that a lot of churches do that is with a service of the Seven Last Words. So these are the words like, “I thirst,” and there are seven phrases that Jesus says as he goes to his crucifixion, as he goes to his death. So, in a service like this, the opening could, once again, thinking of musical ideas, the opening could be “Go to Dark Gethsemane,” so that would be a good possibility. You could do another cross song, like “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” or the Getty/Townend “O to See the Dawn (The Power of the Cross.” So anything that’s cross-focused is really quite good, especially if it’s a cross-focused song that says, basically, “Come to the cross and kneel, and ponder the depth of Jesus’ love as he bears your sins on the cross.”

As I said, people often use Seven Last Words to shape the service, and in the same way as the Tenebrae service, it creates a simple format that is also very powerful. These Seven Last Words can also be very powerful. You might want to do the readings, and the contextual readings around those Seven Last Words. You may want to have the preacher do, just little tiny vignettes, break a sermon into seven parts, and just do two, three minutes of reflection on each one of those words. Or you might just want to read it and sing a song, read it and sing a song.

Some ones that work— Oh, and I should say this. A couple years ago, at my church, I, we had a series of Jesus’ Seven Last Words, that was the Lent series. Each week we would focus on one. And so I was writing a new song for each of those Last Words. And it was actually when Covid hit, and so suddenly, you know, all of us were scrambling, trying to figure out what to do, you know. And so we took the service online, and the pastor and I, he read those Scriptures and then I sang the song. And it was nice, ‘cause it was a recap of the whole series that we had done, and all seven songs that I had composed. It was also a recap of the content of those seven sermons that he had preached. And so it made a really good simple service, and because of Covid, just the two of us sat there on the stage. He would read the Scripture, do a short meditation, I would sing a song. And just back and forth like that. It was really nice. And I’ll post a link to that underneath the podcast description.

Some songs that work quite well for this service, one would be Taizé’s “Jesus, Remember Me.” I really like this one. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It’s the words of the thief on the cross, and so it’s, once again, the music here is taking Scripture, just letting the words of Scripture speak.

There’s a wonderful song called “Ah, Holy Jesus.” And this is the one I mentioned early in the podcast. And it just talks about, “You weren’t the guilty one. I was the guilty one, but you took the punishment for my sin.” I have an arrangement of that for piano to accompany congregational singing, and it just kind of puts a little bit more movement than the hymnal does. It’s kind of a nice arrangement, I think.

Another one would be “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” That’s a classic crucifixion song, talking about the suffering of Jesus, and just kind of pondering the suffering of Jesus. Once again I have some materials for that. I have some descants that work really well with that. And so, I have in the past, had the organ or the piano just play what’s in the hymnal, and then have, maybe a flute and a clarinet play those double descants that I wrote, and use that as a prelude. And then come back later and sing the song as a congregational song. So that’s also on my website. There’ll be a link to that.

For the end of the service, you know, this is a very desolate service. We end with Jesus in the tomb. Once again, we know what the end of this, we know what the outcome of this will be. We know that there is resurrection in this, but, in the drama of the story, no one knows that. So it’s really quite a dramatic moment where it’s just very desolate. And so, there are some songs that might be appropriate for that. “What Wondrous Love Is This” is a good one, because it’s pondering the love of Jesus. And it’s also ends on a note of praise, that song. I’ve got an arrangement of that, a Just Add People arrangement, and I’ve also got a string arrangement of that one, if you were to sing that one. “Were You There?” is another one, and this is a classic time to use that. I had a friend who played euphonium, and he told me, “I’ve always fantasized about ending a service, it ends in complete silence, and I’m in the balcony with my euphonium. And then out of the silence I begin playing ‘Were You There?’ and then people leave.” And it’s actually really a great idea, and that’s the kind of feel that you want in that Good Friday service.

People are mixed about whether they want to leave that service in complete desolation, or if they want to have some kind of resurrection hope. This usually comes to a point when they talk about the Christ candle. Do you let the Christ candle burn from Good Friday to Easter morning, or do you snuff it out at the end of the Maundy Thursday service or at the end of the Good Friday service to signify the light of Christ being extinguished. And of course that’s for you to decide. But for now I think you have enough to contemplate, and I hope that from the things that we’ve discussed in the podcast, from the resources that are listed in the podcast notes, I hope you find something here that kind of sparks your imagination and gives you the resources that you need to plan out these services well.

So, I wish you happy planning for those services. I welcome your feedback or your questions. I would be glad to have a conversation about any of these materials or any questions that you have about this.

This has been the Greg Scheer Music Podcast, with your host, Greg Scheer, and I hope to see you in future episodes.

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