Maundy Thursday in the year of the pandemic
In our sacred story, we move from the crowds of Palm Sunday to the intimacy of family and friends at table, a table that for many of us this year, will have empty places. The miracle of the internet reminds us that the communion of the saints is not dependent on geography, on proximity, or even on which side of death we are inhabiting. We do not even have to be acquainted with each other or know the names of our ancestors, to know that we are one: connected by a tensile, unbreakable cord of love and faith.
We remember the actions Jesus left for usnot only as a memorial, but also as a practice. One story we tell is of the woman who anointed Jesus, who understood the nobility and power of sacrifice that is chosen but not sought, that is offered… but with sorrow and doubt. The woman “sees” Jesus and the inevitability of his choices in a way that is too frightening for many. The enormous cost of love in action still troubles us and we would like to think that we can fix things without being willing to sacrifice ourselves. It is not the frivolity of her act that alarms the others, but the way it makes them look mean and cheap. For us this year, we reflect on our brothers and sisters doing essential work that both endangers and isolates them and their families. We want to share in that work, each in our own ways, even if the most we can do is to isolate ourselves in prayer for each other and the world. We know that we are not alone, ever; nor will the holy one ever release the bonds of love.
Another story that we read tells of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, an action done to their great discomfort and embarrassment. It continues to provoke discomfort in modern re-enactments, partly because it is culturally disconnected and partly because we still have to learn about mutual service. Henri Nouwen writes about how loving action necessarily leads to repentance. Nobody likes to receive a gift unless they have a means of reciprocating. Nobody wants to be healed by someone who has no idea of what it feels like to be wounded. We cannot earn grace; we can only receive it. We can, however, share the experience of being healed, the experience of being surprised by love, the discovery of our worth, when we thought we had wandered too far. Before we perform service in the world, service untainted by our own ego’s agendas, we have to say, “Wash me of my delusions; wash away my fear of being known for who I am.” In this so terrifying a year, we beg for God to wash our world, but I hope not just of a virus, but also of greed, of economic injustice, of the assumptions that form barriers between us.
The third story is the supper of community in which Jesus binds his family and friends to him and to his mission. He tells them that just like bread, many grains have to be gathered together to make a changing, flexible, nutritious community — food for the world. Like wine, grapes are crushed together, their skins broken so that juice can be released. Jesus says that these humble foods are like his life: differences held together, lives broken open and changed. The word Eucharist means thanksgiving. And thanksgiving it is, for others to share the journey, for stories of bread that keep us going from generation to generation, for sacrifice so that all may have hope and all may taste being loved just as they are. Every time we remember Jesus in this way we give thanks that he is present with us, absorbing our pain into his suffering, and blessing our joy with his vision for us. And as this has been done for us, so we must do it for others, by recommitting to the work of peace and justice for everyone: the ones we like, the ones we have feared, the ones we have despised. At the table of the world, in the garden of our round earth, may we be blinded by the tears of grace that make all people one family, one tribe of life.
Finally, we remember the story of the garden in which the disciples, sleepy from food and wine, miss the point and miss the moment. Jesus alone in the garden struggles as every human must with the need for survival balanced against witness to the power of love. Jesus lived with uncertainty, with doubt about his own capacity for courage, with disappointment in his friends and followers. So must we accept these emotions, these reactions, this living reality. As we move to the future this year, our holy places will be empty, waiting to be filled with new life, new vision. What else can a person really offer accept our own lives, our questions, our fear, our sorrow, our hopes and dreams?
The story of Good Friday is the story of two competing drives in human nature. These drives are expressed by the need to dominate and the need to liberate. The trial and crucifixion of Jesus differs only in the power of Jesus’ love to leave a mark on human history that no domestication by institutions can ever fully erase. The cry from the cross continues to reverberate throughout the corridors of power, no matter how much insulation is employed to drown it out. And that cry is mirrored in every faith group, every humanist group, every atheist group.
On Palm Sunday we remembered how the forces of domination began to swarm around Jesus, trying to drown out the cries of the poor, even the cries of the very stones in the earth: “Save us, save us.” We have heard this week how Jesus’ friends could not hold the course, how impatient they became, how easily they turned to the brokers of power, or were intimidated by them.
Today, we remember the answer. The answer is found in the refusal to retaliate and the refusal to submit. It is the hard and long road. Resolution does not come quickly or efficiently. It costs. It requires sacrifice, holy work. It requires everything we have because it is not only about acting in compassion but also about not acting with violence of any sort. That includes the violence and hate and rage we have seen on the internet, in grocery stores, in borders that refuse entry, in better care for the affluent than the poor. We must learn compassion if we would save our world as it could be, and let the world as it has been wither away. The more we each have, the more will be expected and the greater sacrifice that we should want to offer. The revolution that we need is of the human heart. We need to re-learn compassion as a life skill that is as important as survival. We need to learn resistance to complicity with the lies of domination.
Liberation from fear allows us a freedom to experience how precious we are to the Holy One who did not count Jesus’ death on the cross as a failure. Rather Jesus’ death led his disciples up to this present day to have a vision of the peaceful kingdom, a dream of realized life, the truth that we are all part of the transformational life of matter and spirit. Liberation from fear teaches us how to embrace the deep laughter of the one who is making all things new and leading us more fully into awareness of the light within and around us.
In the dark, a candle is lit and a voice rises in the night calling us from death to life. Jesus says that our God is the god of the living so — leave death for the dead. We affirm that death is a means of passage, but life is the nature of existence.
Death is the absence of transformation, a mausoleum of the imagination. It is through our imaginations that scientific discoveries are achieved, facts become mutable, a life of spirit is possible. Our response to our paschal celebrations is to throw off the intellectual shackles that tell us we are separate, finite, limited. We are invited to understand our minds as fuelled by endless possibility for change, growth, renewable life. We yield the security of naive faith, for the mature faith that recognizes the Holy Spirit in science, in study, in the transformation of old metaphors for the explosive light of new insight.
We give thanks for the body of Jesus that reminds us that we, with all the created order, are precious and unique expressions of the divine. In our relationships, we remember that Jesus taught us that the linking of vulnerability leads to resilience and power not over, but with.
With our souls, we engage in the awareness that we know so much less than the wealth of our experience can name. The life of the spirit is always beckoning us on, to new knowledge, to a deeper sense of connection.
One day, we will heal the planet. One day we will heal ourselves.
One day we will be at peace.
One day we will know the joy of abiding within the goodness and love of the divine.
One day we will cast away the torn shroud of uncertainty for the baptismal gown of hope.
One day, we will all be anointed by and for love in the household and tribe of love.