Between noon and three

…spare us in the youngest day when all are shaken awake, facts are facts, (and I shall know exactly what happened today between noon and three); that we too may come to the picnic with nothing to hide, join the dance as it moves in perichoresis, turns about the abiding tree. — W.H. Auden, "Compline"

Tag: imagination

Maundy Thursday 2018

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.

Readings: Exodus 12:1-14, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:10-17, 31-35

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.

“Catching” the Kingdom

A recent post of mine for The Living Church blog “Covenant.” It was written just at the end of May, as the “program” year here at CSMSG was winding down and our students and teachers at St. Michael’s School were preparing for the summer recesses. Full text is below:

From 1910-1931, Miles Farrow was the organist and choirmaster of the cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.  One of his signature accomplishments was developing the famous “Purple Tone,” which was the unique sound of his choir of men and boys. When asked how he taught the boys, many of them very young, how to achieve this sound, he would always reply that he did not teach them: the younger boys would simply “catch it” from the older boys, almost as they would catch a cold. The youngest choristers would sit with the choir and just listen, sometimes for a full year, before being allowed to sing. When they were finally allowed to add their voices to the choir, the “Purple Tone” would come naturally. They had indeed “caught” it.

Farrow’s practice wasn’t unique to him, there are plenty of choirs around the world that still ask their probationers to listen for a period of time before joining their voices with the others’.  But to “catch” something, rather than be taught, is a wonderful image. In that moment it is clear who is the student, but the teacher is hard to identify: certainly Farrow, but also each of the older choristers, and the gentlemen too. No doubt the organist bore much responsibility, as did the building with its acoustic and visual adornment, not to mention the liturgies themselves and the calendar of services. All are inseparable from the act of singing worship, and all worked together to produce the “Purple Tone” for which Farrow was famous and which the youngest choristers “caught” from the others. It was not merely a skill they were learning, but a whole spirit, a “germ,” which lodged in their imaginations and issued in this particularly beautiful way.

Extend the image further: for as many critics as praised this choir’s tone, how many more people must have been moved to pray by their music, how many visitors to the cathedral saw this choir singing and heard “the very stones crying out” in worship? How many vocations to ministry were nurtured by their daily offerings, how many evangelists strengthened, how many acts of justice encouraged by this community of prayer and praise? However these choristers “caught” the Purple Tone, there is always something deeply contagious about such an intentional, integrated, and public life of faith.

This is the time of year when many of our churches give thanks to God for their students and their teachers. This year so far has been a time in my own life when I have been especially mindful of my own teachers, whose student I have been.  Some have died, many are growing older, and I am increasingly grateful for the role they have played in my life.  Still, when asked what they taught me, I am always at something of a loss.  I have lost count of the facts I have learned from them, the skills honed at their guidance, and even the wisdom gleaned from their lives.  I find myself completely unable to condense their lessons into a pithy saying or a satisfying thesis. If “What have they taught you?” is an impossible question, then “What do they mean to you?” hits closer to the mark. But even this falls short.

We often presume that the relationship between teacher and student is chiefly one of exchange. The teacher has knowledge to impart, and the student receives it, digesting it according to their interest, need, and ability. Under this system, any teacher could stand in just as well for any other, provided the same command of the material. Wikipedia could just as easily stand in for any number of human beings, and we could all get on with more enticing concerns than learning.

But when I think of my own teachers, their lessons are neither the first thing I remember nor the chief thing I value.  Harry Potter and his friends value Hagrid as one of their favorite teachers at Hogwarts, even though his classes are far from ideal. Even so with my own teachers. At their best, they have not impressed me with the elegance of their presentation; rather they have introduced me to a new world I didn’t know existed before, even though it was always right under my nose.  They have fired my imagination with all the possibilities that world contains.  And by their patient guidance and friendship, they have made their world my own, by long sojourn inducting me into its mysteries, its challenges, its promises, and its joys.

Of course the world my teachers inhabit is this world, our plain old, one and only, planet Earth. But their teaching enables me to see farther, understand more deeply, act more maturely, and love more fully. I have been shaped their own peculiar character, and found myself in a company of fellow travelers who have scouted the way ahead.

It is hard to say exactly who taught Miles Farrow’s choristers the “Purple Tone” without accepting his own explanation that they simply “caught” it from each other. Likewise it is hard to say what I learned from my own teachers, apart from their being the touchstones by which I began to see the world afresh.  It is the same in each of our lives of faith.  Paul writes to Timothy, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you.” (2 Timothy 1:6). John writes in his first epistle, “That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” (1 John 1:3). We “catch” our religion from one another, and, giving thanks for our teachers in the faith, we join them in their holy fellowship, the blessed company of all faithful people. In their steps we begin scouting the territory of the Kingdom of God, our prayers and praises inspiring the very stones to cry out in worship. Before long we find ourselves with students of our own, and so the Kingdom grows.

We live in an age where it is fashionable to be self-taught, self-made, self-fulfilled.  Meanwhile, teachers are not perfect. Miles Farrow finally suffered an alcohol-induced breakdown and died in an asylum. The fellowship of teachers and learners is a fragile one, requiring humility, sincerity, honesty, forbearance, and generosity, among other virtues. And yet to seek the kingdom of God by any other means amounts to the sin of Lucifer himself, who learned the hard way that heaven cannot be stormed by any amount of personal conviction, charisma, or force of arms. So, thanks be to God for all our teachers, and for all those from who we have caught glimpses of his kingdom. So let us, contagious with his praise and gentle with his love, guide others in the way that leads to eternal life.