The Maundy Thursday liturgy is sombre and moving precursor to Good Friday. But why do we do this and what does it mean? The stripping of the altars is an ancient Maundy Thursday custom which symbolises the humiliation of Jesus at the hands of the soldiers.
After the Last Supper, less than 24 hours remained before the crucifixion and many things happened in a short space of time: Jesus last hour of anguished prayer in Gethsemane, his betrayal by Judas and arrest and beating by the temple guard, his trials by the priests, Pilate and Herod, and then the final journey up to Golgotha and execution.
As Jesus earthly life was stripped from him, piece by piece, so we strip the church of signs of life to symbolize his suffering and death for us. The flowers have already been removed for Lent. Now candles are snuffed out, as the crucifixion snuffed out the human life of Jesus, the light of the world.
The altar reminds us of the table used at the Last Supper where Jesus told us to eat bread and drink wine in remembrance of him. The coverings, made of fine materials are appropriate for such a kingly feast. But as Jesus is taken from us and his body stripped bare, so we strip away the finery of the altar and expose the bare wood.