In Anglo-Saxon times, another name for the Paschal Triduum was “Still Days”, due to the lack of bell-ringing. This and other liturgical details marking the next few days will help us enter more fully into this difficult, disturbing, and intense liturgical season. But in addition to the stripping down of our liturgies, for the next couple of days, might we benefit also from becoming more “still” in general: slowing down, taking a break from school, work, hobbies, and even Easter preparations - so unusual, and so freeing…
But, today is only Thursday, and so the two special details to note are the ending of the service, and the washing of feet. Tonight, we will go home in darkness and silence, leaving our church stripped of adornments, without a blessing or communion bread left. This will represent that sense of utter abandonment, despair, chaos, and perceived absence of God that would have characterized the days when Jesus suffered and died. When the disciples struggled with the loss of their teacher, and their faith in his purpose. When Jesus was disowned by his friends, and felt forsaken even by God. When the whole creation is said to have grieved the absence of its Redeemer from the earth.
Just as we never know when the next season of despair will be upon us, the disciples who gathered at that last meal before Jesus’ death knew little of what was to come. They might have noticed some signs of the “gathering storm”: the increasing attacks on Jesus, and his words about his impending betrayal and death. But, they also enjoyed the early festivities of that Passover, made the preparations, and found reassurance in Jesus’ reception in Jerusalem with the shouts of Hosanna. Jesus, on the other hand, uses these final hours of seeming normalcy to share with his friends not only the last supper, but also the last lessons. In the Upper Room, he talks to them like an adult who is packing a bag for a child who doesn’t realize that she’d be traveling alone. This bag contains only the essentials, amounting only to the weight that the child could carry by herself. As the bag is being packed, the adult is rehearsing the use of every item, making sure that the child truly understands the significance of each one.
But of course, most things will never be fully understood until personally experienced. I still remember my first airplane ride that I undertook without my family. I was 8 years old, and I was being sent home to Moscow from Zambia where I’d spent a summer with my grandparents, accompanied only by my grandfather’s coworker whom I barely knew. Somehow I’d either never fully grasped the fact that I’d be traveling virtually alone, or it was simply that nothing could have ever fully prepared me for this first experience of a separation from my family. But, that overwhelming sense of sheer loneliness that quite suddenly overcame me half-way through the 12-hour flight, I will never forget.
I suspect that the fear of abandonment is a core human trait. Knowing this, Jesus was trying to prepare his disciples for his absence, while also recognizing that they wouldn’t be able to grasp his teachings fully: “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand. I am with you only a little longer; where I am going, you couldn’t come”. We still don’t fully get it. But, this final lesson of Jesus is what we recall tonight through the four focal events of the Last Supper: the institution of the Eucharist as a symbol of his sacrifice, the washing of feet as a metaphor for loving a neighbor, the compassionate stance towards Judas as the epitome of loving an enemy, and the agony in Gethsemane, as the sign of an infinite trust in God. These events have one thing in common: self-sacrificial love, offered unconditionally in the world where human goodness, kindness, and compassion will never guarantee safety, fairness, or peace.
At the end, Jesus says to his friends: “I give you a new commandment: that you love one another, just as I have loved you.” The Latin words “mandatum novum” meaning “a new commandment” give us the strange name for Maundy Thursday. The principle itself was, of course, not at all new, seeing that Jesus had already summarized the Law as “loving your God and neighbor”, and that he had lived his life out of such a stance. But the symbolic action that he chose to illustrate his final lesson, the one that gives this our service its central emphasis, was in fact, new. Jesus demonstrated a stance of utter humility in an act that in that culture was apparently so degrading that even a Hebrew slave would not be required to perform it (which in our context is difficult to grasp).
Perhaps, the application of this “new commandment” is actually two-fold: there is as much humility involved in giving love as there is in receiving. For us, isn’t it more humbling to be washed than to wash others? Aren’t we continually caught between that fear of abandonment of which I spoke earlier, and the misguided aspiration of self-sufficiency? Otherwise, why would we be reluctant to move to retirement residences in old age, choose medically assisted death over palliative care, try to instill emotional independence in babies and toddlers, suffocate them with helicopter-parenting while forgetting that it takes a village to raise them, measure the worth of an individual by what they do for living, and interact differently with CEOs and stars vs. cleaners?
Yet, our world forces us to “have our feet washed”, doesn’t it? It reminds us that we can’t always be independent and self-sufficient, and humbles us through power imbalances, loss of control, and sense of vulnerability. Thus, the willingness of the volunteers at this service to enter into such an experience here always touches me. I would encourage the rest of you, who will not be participating in the rite in this manner, to spend that time reflecting on a personal memory of surrendering into someone’s care. Maybe, you suffered an injury and someone tended to it, or received overwhelming kindness or financial help? This way, we will all respond to Jesus’ warning, “unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” For unless we make ourselves open and vulnerable to God and others, we will have no experience of the True Love which is the essence of God. Amen.