March 24, 2005
Holy week is always a challenge to those who take their faith seriously. Not only is it a busy week, but it is also a time when one must spend a considerable amount of time reflecting on the what, why, and who of one's faith. Maundy Thursday can be a very dramatic counterpoint to this, one in which we start with a "normal" Eucharist and finish by stripping every adornment from the sanctuary and walking from a darkened and bare church. For me, as a minister, it is not only dramatic but very, very distressing - precisely because it reminds me of the reaction of the disciples to Christ's arrest, and that my own would almost certainly have been the same.
Picture, if you will, the events of the evening. First, as St John tells us, an Eve of Passover meal, shared by close friends and family in an upper room - probably the living floor of the house of John Mark's family. Mark himself was there, but not yet an adult, a teenager sent to bed around the time Jesus and his disciples set out to keep a vigil in Gethsemane. The meal followed the traditional pattern, light brought to the table and blessed by the women, the bread blessed, broken, and presented by the man they all deferred to as their leader - and this time their host - with the curious statement "this is my body which is broken for you". This would have been a major jarring in the usual blessing of the bread, and one which may well have unsettled more than one of them.
This would have been followed by a meal of freshly slaughtered and prepared lamb in accordance with the instructions in the Torah and Jewish custom. At some point before the end of the meal, came the first break with tradition - Jesus himself got up and washed the feet of those present. Despite their protests he did this to demonstrate the underlying principle of leadership in the Gospel sense. The leader is also the servant to those he leads. It served, too, to underscore the link with Isaiah Chapter 53, the "Suffering Servant" prophesy.
Then he completed the meal in the traditional fashion, but with a new emphasis. Instead of offering the Cup of Fellowship in the Mosaic manner, he blessed it, and added the words with which we are now familiar - "this is my blood, which is given for you, do this in rembrance of me." Again, this would have jarred and unsettled some - for all we know this may have been the point at which Judas Iscariot chose to denounce him. Then, after Judas had excused himself and left, Jesus took the remaining disciples to Gethsemane.
Now we have a small window onto another aspect of the arrest. St Mark's gospel tells us that the boy John Mark (although he doesn't name himself!), followed, wrapped only in his bedclothes. This suggests that the boy followed someone else - after being disturbed in his sleep and being in such a hurry he hadn't time to dress. What could have disturbed him? Perhaps Judas brought the guards to the house, expecting to find Jesus still there, perhaps another visitor came to the house to warn the household. We do not know and are not told. We are told that he was in Gethsemane when Judas betrayed Jesus and the guards arrested him. This is where Mark's story is mentioned, as the guards tried to seize him, too - and he slipped from his wrap and "ran away naked." For a Jew, this naked dash would have caused him much embarrassment and perhaps even got him a beating from his father.
When, in the context of the service for Maundy Thursday, the Priest wraps a towel around his waist and takes a bowl and pitcher and washes the feet of twelve members of his congregation, we are reminded of this first action of Christ. In the Eucharist itself, we are reminded of that last meal as friends, pupils, family, and disciples. After the sharing of the communion, we take the remaining wafer breads, the "Host", the Body of Christ, and lay it in a prepared Chapel where a vigil is kept by members of the congregation overnight.
Once the Host is laid in the Garden Chapel (in the case of the Abbey, our Lady Chapel dressed with flowers and greenery), the Priest and Servers return to the Sanctuary and strip it in silence while the gospel story of the events that led to the crucifixion are read. When the last item is gone, and the Gospel is finished and closed, the reader departs, and all the chior, minsters, servers, and the Priest leave - all by different exits and routes.
Just so was Our Lord left by His followers, and just so do we often leave Him today.
Easter, and the days preceding it, serve as a powerful reminder of our own fickleness and frailty, and of how far we have yet to go to fully understand the Gospel and the promises that Easter brings. Once again, we will play out the commemorations and ponder the story, but we must also find the courage, the faith, and the strength to carry it out into our daily lives - or it remains just a story.
Walk with us all to Gethsemane and through the Good Friday trauma to the joy of Easter. Let us all, then, carry it out into our lives, our work, and our world in the months to come so that, at the next Easter, we can look back without feeling we have missed the purpose and the point.
Peace be with you all this Eastertide.
Posted by The Gray Monk at March 24, 2005 11:26 AM