Maundy Thursday begins the Three Days (or Triduum), remembering the new commandment that Christ gave us in word and deed as he taught us how to love one another, washing our feet as a servant. We also celebrate the Lord’s Supper, remembering the meal Christ shared with his disciples before his death.
Historically, this was the traditional day in which those who had undergone a period of public penance under church discipline would be restored to full communion.
A new commandment
An excerpt from the Companion to the Book of Common Worship (Geneva Press, 2003, 113-116, 131-132)
The name is taken from the first words sung at the ceremony of the washing of the feet, “I give you a new commandment” (John 13:34); also from the commandment of Christ that we should imitate his loving humility in the washing of the feet (John 13:14-17). The term mandatum (maundy), therefore, was applied to the rite of the footwashing on this day.
The opening service of the Triduum is not inherently mournful. The penitential acts of Maundy Thursday have celebratory aspects as well: restoration through the bold declaration of pardon; the act of footwashing connoting humility and intimacy; the celebration of the Lord’s Supper embodying the mystery of Christ’s enduring redemptive presence. Maundy Thursday’s acts provide the paradox of a celebratively somber and solemnly celebrative service.
Footwashing. A powerful symbolic response to the Word, representing the way of humility and servanthood to which we are called by Christ, is the act of footwashing, practiced within the church since at least the fifth century. The practice of footwashing in first-century Palestine may have been as common as when today a host helps guests take off their coats, a waiter seats diners, or a driver holds the taxi door open for passengers. Hospitality underlies all such welcoming gestures. …
What is startling if not jolting about the footwashing story in John is not the act of footwashing, but the identity of the servant who washed others’ feet — Jesus, God-with-us, the least likely person. Following the footwashing, Jesus took on himself the humiliation of the cross, the ultimate symbol of his selfless love for others. …
In the priesthood of all believers (not hierarchies of power), all members of the body of Christ can “kneel” before each other and wash one another’s feet as did our Lord and Savior himself — neighbor to neighbor, perhaps even stranger to stranger. More important, as the priesthood of all believers, our corporate kneeling before others for the earthly task of footwashing symbolizes our servanthood within and beyond the body of Christ.
The Lord’s Supper. Though on this night we remember and celebrate the final supper Jesus shared with his disciples in the context of Passover, we are neither celebrating a Seder (“order of service”), nor reenacting the Last Supper, but sharing with our risen Lord a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. …
The term “last supper” suggests that it was only one of many meals shared by Jesus and his disciples, and not the meal. The Eucharist is rooted not only in the Last Supper but also in Jesus’ eating with sinners, and in his feeding the crowd with the loaves and fishes, and it foreshadows the meals after his resurrection. All together they constitute the multiple meanings of the Lord’s Supper. To reduce the Lord’s Supper to the Last Supper is to cut off the Sacrament from its eschatological significance (that is, as it relates to the unfolding of God’s purpose and in the ultimate destiny of humankind and the world).
Stripping of the Church. The final act of this service is the evocative stripping of the worship space. This is most effectively done in absolute silence, and in an unhurried, orderly fashion. Designate several people to extinguish the candles, strip the Lord’s table of all cloths and vessels, and remove all textile hangings, candles and candelabra, flowers, and so forth, carrying all the items out of the room. The stark, bare, unadorned church now reflects Jesus’ abandonment during the night in Gethsemane. The visual aspect of the transformed worship space gives people a dramatic depiction of Christ’s desolation. The church remains bare until the Easter Vigil when the process is reversed and the worship space is “dressed” again.
Ordinarily, neither a blessing is given nor a postlude played on this night, as the services for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday (the Great Vigil of Easter) are actually one unified ritual. … The church remains in semidarkness, and all depart in silence, thus making the transition from the eucharistic celebration to Jesus’ crucifixion and death. Symbolically, Christ, stripped of his power and glory, is now in the hands of his captors.
From http://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/worship/maundy-thursday/ website