Collect: Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may receive it thankfully in remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord, who in these holy mysteries gives us a pledge of eternal life; and who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
Maundy Thursday. Today we continue the same dramatic reenactment we began on Sunday with palms and the triumphal entry. We continue our reenactment, but we also increase its intensity: in a few moments we will wash one another’s feet, in imitation of Jesus at the Last Supper the night before he died. Later we will take the Sacrament from the Chancel to the Altar of Repose, echoing Jesus’ own departure from the Upper Room to the Garden of Gethsemane. We will keep vigil there after the service in partial response to his request to Peter, James, and John, “Remain here and pray with me,” while he goes to his own Agonizing prayer. We will strip the church of adornment, and wash the altars clean at Jesus’ betrayal and arrest.
In our liturgy tonight, as on Palm Sunday, there is a difficult emotional transition: we begin with celebration, giving thanks for Jesus’ triple gift on this night: first his example of humility, leading his disciples by washing their feet. Second his new command that they love one another as he has loved them. And third by another new command, “Do this in remembrance of me,” introducing them to the gift of the Eucharist by which he remains with his church from age to age, nourishing us continually with his own body and blood. But then a spirit of trouble and even desolation descends on the liturgy, and we leave in silence to face the starkness of tomorrow’s death in a bare, evacuated church.
On Palm Sunday in my sermon I observed that all this drama is a way not of adding or creating what is missing, but of revealing what is already present. Today I want to reflect a little on how this liturgical remembering also accomplishes a reversal of our vision. If this kind of revealing adds clarity about the events at the core of our faith, it also increases the murkiness about how we view the world and the rest of our lives.
If you remember the story I told about King Nebuchadnezzar, the fiery furnace, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Nebuchadnezzar could see clearly that God was present with the three young men in the midst of the king’s attempt at execution; the episode certainly added clarity on that point. But if you’re Nebuchadnezzar, now what? What kind of world is it, where flames in a fiery furnace refuse to do their jobs, where angelic visitors side with prisoners against royalty? Without trying to elicit undue pity for the king of Babylon, it must have been a disorienting experience to say the least. Simply put, the world is not what he thought it was, and its mysterious powers not all under his thumb.
How many times has something similar happened to you? A surprise cancer diagnosis, or a compliment you weren’t looking for; a friend or cousin cuts you off, or a piece of particularly bad news brings you to your breaking point. Maybe it’s a pleasant surprise, or maybe it’s an unpleasant accumulation of small but lethal slights, or maybe it’s a death. Whatever the case, it disorients us. The world is not what we thought it was, and the news we’re given makes us rethink our assumptions and forces us into a new posture, a new manner of approach, a new way of seeing and thinking and imagining. When we’re in the middle of it, all we want to do is to come out on the other side intact. But on the other side, we see we’re anything but intact. We may have the same spirit, we may be made of the same physical stuff, but we can never go back; something is fundamentally different now.
Okay, so far so good. The question is, what reversal does Maundy Thursday accomplish? What disorientation does it initiate in us as we remember it liturgically, publicly, and inwardly? We call it Maundy Thursday from the Latin “Mandatum” for “Commandment” and we remember that tonight Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment, that they love one another. But that’s not the only commandment he gives. Jesus gives at least three commandments tonight. The first is the famous “Love one another” which concluded our Gospel passage tonight, symbolized by Jesus’ example of humbly washing their feet. The reversal here might be obvious, but it’s worth stating directly: whatever kind of authority we might associate with God, whatever kind of majesty or dominion, God exercises it not by edict, fiat, or imposition, but by washing feet, by serving the basic needs of creatures, granting them the dignity of God’s own attention and care. Any earthly authority that would claim God’s blessing or approval must do likewise, or be revealed a fraud. That goes for parents as much as it does for presidents, for priests as much as for police. If we wish to claim God’s approval on whatever leadership we exercise, we must do it wearing the servant’s towel. The further irony is that only one who serves in this way is free; any who would coerce or impose is a slave to violence and fear. This is a strange world that Maundy Thursday begins to reveal.
The other two commands come in the other Gospel accounts of tonight’s events, but no doubt they’re familiar ones. The second command Jesus issues tonight is, “Do this in remembrance of me.” And so we do, every week, nearly every day, and tonight especially. Scholar Dom Gregory Dix once wrote poetically, “Was ever any other command so obeyed?” The Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion, the Mass, has come to define the contours of corporate Christian worship, and has done since the earliest days. But obedience to this command is more than a memorial. There is a reversal here too. We generally think of the bread and wine as symbols which convey a deeper meaning, a deeper presence. But the meaning, the Presence of Christ himself changes the nature of the symbols as well. So for those who partake of the Eucharist, all bread in every setting now points us to Jesus, the Eucharistic Lord, not only the bread consecrated here; all wine points us to his passion, not only this chalice. All eating, all drinking, all human fellowship is a sign of his once and future presence among us and the unity of all creation in him. In short, the symbols themselves become signposts of the kingdom of God, and the world we live in becomes suddenly planted thick with the seeds and occasions of forgiveness, faithfulness, and light, despite the darkness brooding everywhere.
Finally, the third command Jesus gives tonight is perhaps the most disorienting of all. He turns to Judas and says, “Go, do what you do quickly.” Judas gets up from the table and goes to betray Jesus to his death. Recently I heard someone observe, that throughout most of history, people were scandalized not by the resurrection — what else would you expect from the Son of God? — but by the crucifixion, by Jesus’ death in the first place. Death is not something we expect of a savior or a god, let alone betrayal by one who was so close. In our world today, the reverse is true: we expect Good Friday, we’re not surprised by injustice, it’s not shocking for trust to be broken or honor discarded for profit. It’s the resurrection that surprises us, the resurrection that we find difficult to defend or explain. However we react to it, Jesus’ command to Judas, “Go, do what you do quickly,” introduces another reversal: here is someone not afraid to face death head-on, who knows he goes to suffering and worse, who will agonize in the Garden over whether or not to go through with it; who yet, at almost the critical moment, encourages his betrayer to go, and get it over with already. It really is an intimate moment, quietly spoken; it’s unclear whether the rest of the disciples even hear what Jesus says to Judas. His tenderness towards his betrayer reveals the last great reversal of the evening: here is the same Jesus who will say to the thief on the cross tomorrow, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” The stupendous gentleness of Jesus before all the forces of rack and ruin, destruction and dissolution: this gentleness of his person, a trait so often considered in this world as weak and easily taken advantage of, proves stronger and more enduring than death itself.
What does it mean for us? Find the gentlest person you know, and discover the invincible vanguard of heaven. Put aside the brash, the caustic, the pompous, and the self-promoting: they are nothing, a desert of ambition and vanity. Embrace the gentleness of Jesus and find an oasis of life.
In a few moments we will wash one another’s feet, share in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and before the end strip the altars and keep watch before we all depart in silence, while the shadow of death grows over the church and over our hearts. But as the drama continues, let the reversals which Jesus’ commands initiate, refocus our imaginations and recalibrate our expectations. The world we will discover is a strange one, bearing little resemblance to the powers that hold sway over the news, shareholder meetings, and geopolitics. But these days of remembering will help us put our feet on firmer ground and lift our heads above the fray, to see lasting joy springing from the mouth of despair, life emerging from the tomb, and love greeting betrayal with a kiss.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.