Maundy Thursday, Year B
1 April 2021
Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
I don’t know how to begin.
Shall I lament the fact we cannot gather in person? (Of course, you know that I agree with the suspension of in-person gatherings).
And yet lamenting on the day when we enter into Christ’s passion, the day we remember his betrayal by one of his friends seems misplaced, for it seems to make our momentary fasting from in-person gatherings more important than our act of remembering and our worship.
That is often our temptation that we elevate our suffering and our loss over the loss of others. Our niece calls most of that “first world problems.” I suppose that would apply here as well, for at least we have vaccines, yet many developing nations do not.
And yet, our grief that we cannot gather for the most holy days of the year is real and we must not dismiss it.
Holy Week is the time of the year when our liturgy makes it most obvious that our faith is not something for our hearts and lips alone, but wants to be enacted, in the procession with palms, in the laying on of hands for the forgiveness of sins, in the washing of feet (or hands), in the sharing of the meal at the table, calling to mind that Jesus commanded us to do these things.
Yes, Jesus did not command us to believe these things but to do them. Which is why he had disciples, which is a bit like apprentices, and which is why our faith is a practice. And we do not do it alone but we engage in it together, encouraging and correcting each other along the way.
I have been thinking for some time about what our Maundy Thursday worship might look like, stripped of the laying on of hands, the washing of feet or hands, and the celebration of Holy Communion. Of course, all our worship consists of actions: receiving and offering forgiveness, sharing the peace and thus working at relationships and reconciliation, offering our gifts, sharing the meal, singing God’s praise, being sent into the world to serve as Jesus served.
But I don’t think we usually think of it that way. Most the time we think of it as ritual, as something we just do, maybe because we have always done it. And yet forgiveness, sharing, giving, being bearers of peace, and singing God’s praises with our lives are not simply rituals but practices for our every day lives. Our worship is to inform and transform our lives.
Now, back to Maundy Thursday. You have heard the words of forgiveness at the beginning of the service, we have heard Jesus’ command to love one another, and while we will not celebrate Holy Communion virtually, our fast from the sacrament has only increased our longing to again gather around the table with Jesus himself both host and gift, to partake of him that we may become more like him.
What we have left of liturgical action that is particular to Maundy Thursday is the stripping of the altar at the end of the service. The Maundy Thursday service always ends with the reading of Psalm 22, the Psalm Jesus prayed on the cross. And then, those of us who are here will slowly remove all that adorns this space and strip it bare for us to enter together into the darkness of Good Friday and Holy Saturday.
And that we will do. It is an extension of any Lenten discipline we may have undertaken, stripping away the things of beauty to enter into the mystery of our salvation, after all we call Friday good.
The mystery is that God would enter our suffering, that God use suffering to redeem the cosmos.
God does not make suffering good, but enters our suffering in Jesus and transforms it into the place of God’s presence. It is the paradox of our faith.
“Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” (Psalm 139)
“My power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12)
“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor 1)
And so it may be appropriate for us that this year, when the suffering of the world is more present to us than other years, because this year it affects us too, to give up some of the things most treasured, even in our liturgy, in solidarity with those who know suffering far better than we do, whether they be far or near.
And perhaps such practice will make us less concerned about what my niece calls “first world problems,” and more concerned about things that deeply affect the lives of others, and about the ability of the cosmos to share in the redemption it longs for, so that the earth may breathe. (Romans 8)
This day received its name from the Latin word mandatum, mandate, command, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another,” says Jesus.
There is nothing sappy about this love, for we know that love is hard work that requires sacrifice.
We love because God loved us first. (1 John 4)
And may this love be our practice, for these holy days, and for all our days, the way to enact our faith.