Friday, March 21, 2008

Maundy Thursday 2008

Some twelve years ago, Brenda and I bought a house in Stockton, California, where we were living at the time. It was a grand old home, built in 1916, but it was definitely what you would call a “fixer upper.” It suffered from poor taste, compounded by years of neglect. But we looked at it, and we both liked it, and over the loud protests of our real estate agent, who thought we were nuts, we bought it. We had great plans. We worked like pack mules for about three months, and most of those plans were indeed turned into reality. We ripped out carpets and counters and refinished floors and laid ceramic tile and repainted walls and ceilings and repaired windows, and undertook several other smaller projects. We turned a dump into something livable.

But after we ran out of steam, and pretty much out of money as well, quite a bit yet remained undone. Quite a bit. And, to be honest with you, most of what still needed to be done, we just lived with, until we eventually sold the place and moved up the street five years later.

And so it seems to me that our not-quite fixed up old house is an apt sign of so much else in my life and in yours. We all have our inventory of “unfinished business.” We have unfinished business with things and we have unfinished business with people. We have loose ends in our responsibilities and loose ends in our relationships.

A few minutes ago, our Deacon read, from the thirteenth chapter of St John’s gospel, the scriptural warrant for what we’ll be doing immediately at the conclusion of this homily: “Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of the world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” That last phrase says so much more than its brevity suggests. Jesus loved “his own” to the end. Jesus loves us to the end. This is the pivotal sentence in John’s narrative of our Lord’s Passion, the hinge on which he makes the transition from the tumultuous events of that last week in Jerusalem, to the actual arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus. The words “to the end” therefore refer to everything that follows, culminating in his death. Jesus followed through on his plans. He brought them to completion. He attended to the details. He didn’t leave any unfinished business. In his submission to death on the cross, Jesus loved us “to the end.”

But, we might ask, to what “end” did Jesus love us? The word “end” is a rich word. It has more than one connotation, more than one shade of meaning. If Brenda and I were to have actually completed the unfinished projects in that home we bought twelve years ago, it would have represented the conclusion of our plans, and would have been the cause for some celebration. We could have said that we had reached the end of our project. But even in that case, achieving our goal would not have been, so to speak, an “end in itself.” Rather, the completion of our task list would have served a greater “end,” the end of heightening the beauty and utility and harmony of our home—and, thereby, the beauty, utility, and harmony of our lives. Similarly, if we take care of the unfinished business in our relationships and responsibilities, it is not merely to have them “done,” but is directed toward the end that lives be enhanced, wounds healed, wrongs righted, obligations fulfilled, justice served, and love manifested.

So what, once again, is the end to which Jesus loved us fully when he suffered and died for us? This is a profound question, and the clues which point us to an answer are contained
in the very actions which characterize the liturgy of the Church on Maundy Thursday. That strange word “maundy” comes from the Latin mandare, from which we get “mandate” and “command.” There are two mandates, two commands, from our Lord, which we fulfill tonight, and they are both ordered to the end that we, Jesus’s disciples, take on his character, that we become like him, that we are so formed in his spirit that we don’t have to stop and ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?”, we just do it.

The first of these commands, these mandates that serve an “end,” is concerned that we be formed in an attitude of servanthood and humility. The ordained leaders of this community,
standing in the place of Jesus, will wash the feet of a representative group of individuals who stand in the place the twelve apostles whose feet Jesus washed. This re-enactment is a lesson to all of us. It requires humility from all of us. Deacon Marion and I will be humbled, because we will be on our knees in front of those whose feet we are washing. Those whose feet are being washed will be humbled, because we’re not used to having our shoes off in church. To those of us raised in western culture, at least, being barefoot is a sign of unsophistication and vulnerability. And those who simply sit and watch—and, one hopes, pray as well—those who are just ordinary members of the congregation are formed in humility by the mere fact that they are … just ordinary members of the congregation. How difficult it is, very often, to content ourselves with being ordinary, with not standing out from the crowd. But finding contentment in whatever state we find ourselves is a critical threshold in our progress toward humility. Thus, we all serve one another in this liturgy of footwashing—those who wash the feet, those whose feet are washed, and those who prayerfully observe the ceremony.

The second command which we observe tonight, as we encounter it in the first epistle to the Corinthians, is that to take bread and wine, and set them apart through prayer, and then consume them. On that night in the upper room, after he had given them a lesson in humility by washing their feet, and as they were sharing what may have been a Passover Seder, or may have been another sort of Jewish ritual meal, Jesus took the elements of that meal and re-invigorated them with a new level of meaning. This is what we call the Eucharist, the Mass, the Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Divine Liturgy. In the Incarnation, God humbled himself to the point of sharing our human nature, but he did so with a particular end in mind, and that is that we should thereby share in his divinity, that we should become, as St Peter tells us in his second epistle, “partakers in the divine nature.” Even before he had completed his plans, before he had yet loved them “to the end,” Jesus connected those friends and followers who were with him then to the power which would be unleashed in the 48 to 72 hours that followed—the cosmic and redemptive power which would manifest itself in darkened skies at midday, and an earthquake, and the rending of the temple veil, the rolling away of a stone in front of a tomb.

Two thousand years later, you and I are still connected to the source of that power. When we take and bless and break and give the elements of the Eucharist, we are sharing in the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, as surely as a rapid transit train receives power from the third rail to which it is connected.

My friends, this liturgy, this “work” in which we are engaged, will not have a definite conclusion. We will simply finish when we’re finished, and then adjourn for another few hours before we return tomorrow night to continue the Triduum. But although there is no certain conclusion, there is a definite end to what we do here tonight. Our work will serve this end, our work will be accomplished, to the extent that we follow through on it, that we see to the details, that we do not leave any unfinished business before the altar of God, that we give ourselves to our work—heart, mind, and body. Amen.

No comments: