Maundy Thursday, Year C
I've often heard people say that it's through Jesus' death that we find new life through forgiveness for sin. I believe that's true, but it's only part of the truth; too often, we neglect to consider how Jesus' LIFE helps us to find forgiveness and life. Our readings for Maundy Thursday are a helpful corrective.
They are, of course, more than that. I'd call them solemn and even frightening. Passover is my favorite holiday in any tradition. Like many holidays, it is a feast with friends and family, but I particularly appreciate the intentionality of Passover as an occasion for storytelling, for remembrance, and particularly for remembrance of God's liberation of God's people. But one can't go through the stories of Passover without encountering a great deal of blood. Waters turned to blood. The loss of life in plagues of flood and famine. Worst yet, the story of every firstborn son of Egypt dying. A household anointing doorposts with lamb's blood on that night would do so with an awe tinged with dread at God's power to protect and the horror of what would befall others.
I have no glib, feel-good explanation to take away that horror. I feel the same temptation to come up with one that many people I know feel, but I pray to resist it. Celebration of Passover calls on God's people not just to celebrate liberation from slavery, but the horrors of slavery, of the desire to enslave, and to remember not only God's graciousness in delivering the Hebrews, in giving the Torah, in forming a people to be a light to all nations, but also the terrible losses, the grief of those who loved a son touched by death's angel or swallowed in the Sea of Reeds. Indeed, some Passover haggadot present the bitter herbs dipped in salt water as a call to grieve on behalf of the Egyptians lost, a call to pray for oppressors and enemies.
And so it is no coincidence that on Maundy Thursday we remember the Passover in Egypt as well as Jesus' last night before he died. Christian tradition invests Jesus with prophetic insight, but it wouldn't have taken a miracle for Jesus to know that he would die soon. He had participated in a very public demonstration mocking the triumphal processions of Rome. He had caused a public disturbance in the midst of massive crowds of pilgrims at the Temple, and in full view of Roman troops stationed in nearby buildings in positions above the Temple's walls. Roman governors didn't tolerate that kind of rabble-rousing, and certainly not during the Passover, when the thronged pilgrims -- a crowd made all the more volatile as they celebrated deliverance from oppressors -- posed a constant threat to public order. Do what Jesus did the rest of the week, and unless you've got some serious guerilla forces to take you to the hills, you're likely to end up where Jesus most likely knew he was headed.
Because he wasn't heading for the hills. Nor was he assembling an army. On this night, the night of his betrayal, the last night before he was to die, he was heading only to supper, assembling those with whom he had traveled -- friends, followers, and one who was to hand him over, and none of whom (especially in John's portrayal) save perhaps for the 'beloved disciple' and Mary, who anointed his feet (to whom we shall return soon).
As someone well schooled in how different Jesus' culture, and hence, his outlook, was from mine, I try not to psychologize, but I sometimes think that his were in some ways the loneliest hours of Jesus' life. On what we call Good Friday, he hangs on the cross in great suffering -- public suffering. Deserted by nearly all who called themselves friends or followers, he was seen and known by a few, who also saw his suffering and grieved and suffered with him, as he grieves and suffers with the suffering among us now. But on Maundy Thursday, Jesus "knew his hour had come" when no one else on earth could quite understand. Did the chatter and laughter of his friends comfort or anger him, I wonder? And even if some of it comforted him, John tells us that Jesus knew one of his companions present would betray him.
What Jesus does, then, is astonishing. He takes off his robe, wraps himself as a towel like a slave, and washes the feet of his companions. A student sits at the teacher's feet, not the teacher at the student's. That's not the half of it, though. If you've watched Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail or Life of Brian lately, you've gotten a pretty decent and graphic picture of what ancient streets were like. Most people dumped their garbage -- any and all kinds of waste people generate -- in the streets. People walked through it. When they arrived for dinner, and especially with the custom of reclining to dine, rather than our sitting on chairs at covered tables -- all of that skubalon, to use Paul's word from Philippians 3, which we read a couple of weeks ago -- would be washed off by the lowliest person in the household. I'm going to put it crudely: Jesus isn't too good for our crap; he puts up with it and cleanses the lowliest, shittiest stuff that clings to us.
And more. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how, in Jesus' culture, hands and feet represented intentional action, how Mary's anointing Jesus' feet anointed Jesus' deeds. When Jesus washes his disciples' feet, he is also cleansing their actions in a very graphic, memorable, tactile demonstration of forgiveness. He even washes the feet of his betrayer, whom, we are told, he already know will betray him, and with whom he breaks bread in the bit of text the Revised Common Lectionary cuts out between verse 17 and verse 35. Washing feet and breaking bread: this is Jesus' behavior toward his betrayer, his clueless friends, and his stumbling followers on the last night before he died.
Do this in remembrance of him.
That's what we do.
Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, that's what we do. We gather in front of Jesus' table, and before our supper, we forgive and are forgiven; we exchange the peace (in a wonderful echo of Matthew 5:23-24 as well as the passage from John we read for Maundy Thursday). In other words, we meet Jesus. CEO or homeless beggar are the same to him, as he meets us where we are, and goes straight to where we've picked up the most shit from our journey there. We let him do that; we let it go. He cleanses us, and when we greet one another -- CEO or beggar, zealot or traitor, and all of us in between -- we recognize one another as human beings whom Jesus has cleansed. We go with clean feet, hands, and hearts to his table, to break bread with him and with one another.
As I was exploring the last time I was honored to proclaim Good News in a church on Maundy Thursday, when most of us think about what we'd do if we knew this was the last night before our death, we think about what is core to who we are -- the intersection of what gives us the deepest joy and what we think is most important. On the last night before he died, I think Jesus did that too. And what he did was what I've described above. It wasn't all that different from what he did throughout his ministry; that's one of the many reasons we say that Jesus was the perfect human being, Incarnating God and living his full humanity in God's image. Jesus lived out who he was fully. He lived this full and eternal life on every night -- including and especially this night we remember on Maundy Thursday. Was he angry? Was he terrified? Was he lonely? I have no way of knowing, of course; I've just got the same texts you've got, and the gospels are anything but modern biography concerned with interior states. What I do know is that when Jesus had every reason to feel all of those things, he stayed with the community -- including his betrayer -- and cleansed, and cared, and forgave, and broke bread.
What would our lives, our churches, our denominations, our nations, our world be like if we were to embrace and express our humanity in God's image as Jesus did? What would our lives in all of these dimensions be like if every time we broke bread, or every time we met someone and their shit from the journey, we lived as Jesus lived?
Do this. Do this and remember.
Thanks be to God!
Good Friday, Year A
I've long appreciated and admired The Witness, with its fabulous masthead proclaiming, "A Feisty and Opinionated Journal since 1917." God willing, I plan to have a long (and feisty!) career, and I'd be very pleased if at the end of it, my bio read even a little like their history from their 'About Us' page:
Since 1917, The Witness has been examining church and society in light of faith and conscience - advocating for those denied systemic power as well as celebrating those who, in theologian William Stringfellow's words, have found ways to "live humanly in the midst of death."
I encourage you to read The Witness regularly, and you'll find my reflection for Good Friday there. It's called "The Narrow Place." While you're there, check out the rest of the site. It recently got a new look, and I particularly appreciate the excellent and moving photography now featured on their welcome page.