March 20, 2008

Maundy Thursday

We call this Maundy Thursday. It is a strange phrase, because of that unfamiliar word—Maundy—not one that we use in any other context. It means commandment and is similar to words that we do use—mandate and mandatory.

But what is there in this Thursday that is mandatory for us? Is it just that we must walk through this sad time of betrayal to get ready for what will come tomorrow, and the next day—and the next? Maybe. Is it necessary somehow for us to feel abandoned, to suffer at the hands of those closest to us, just as Jesus did? Maybe. Are we required to confront our own capacity for betrayal? Maybe that, too.

In some ways, I find Maundy Thursday the hardest part of week before Easter, in some ways even worse than Good Friday. By Friday it is all done, or at least set in motion in some irretrievable way. On Saturday, he is dead and in that moment it seems so final. But Thursday -- Thursday, it could all have been changed. At least, it seems there was that possibility. It did not seem so irreversible. It is the point in the chain of events where there are still choices, decisions to be made, options available. Maybe Judas could have changed his mind on Thursday night.

Yes, it seems there are options, and even so, we know how this will turn out. And maybe those who gathered around the table with Jesus knew it, too. This was not the first time they had shared a meal. They must have eaten together hundreds of times. Heaven knows, he would eat with anyone, he was not picky about that. That was part of what had stirred up all the trouble.

But this was not just any other meal. It was different. There was something not right, a heavy, nameless anxiety, and even though they could not have said exactly what it was, it must have weighed on them, settling in the pit of the stomach like a stone.

He knew. He knew that God had given all things into his hands and that he had come from God and was going to God. And so he got up from the table, laid down his robe and wrapped a towel around himself. He poured some water and began to wash their feet and wipe them with the towel.

He had done some strange things, but nothing like this, at least not to them. He had touched the untouchables, he had raised he dead, he had confronted the religious leaders, he had restored sight to the blind and multiplied the loaves. And they had watched, they had been with him. But they had not been the recipients of his action in quite this way—until now, at the end.

And wasn’t it just like him to take this simple little ritual of welcome and stand it on its head? Of course, they were used to washing their own feet. Any good host would provide the necessary container of water and a towel. It was almost a habit. But it was the most menial of tasks, something not even the lowest Jewish servant could be ordered to do. And here he was, down on his knees, taking their tired dusty feet in his hands and washing and drying them, the towel around him becoming soiled with the dirt from their feet.

He washed them all – the faithful who would follow him to death, the doubting who wanted to believe but could not, the one who would deny him, the one who would betray him. He washed them all. He poured out the water on all of them; just as he poured out his love. No exceptions, no test of worthiness, just the service of love from their Lord on his knees.

But it was not what they had hoped. It was not what they wanted. They did not want a savior who would be kneeling down before them. They wanted a savior who would cause their enemies to kneel down before them. They wanted their savior to come in the world’s way of power and might, and instead he came in God’s way, on his knees. It must have seemed that he had betrayed them, that his taking the form of a servant was somehow a reversal of roles that almost mocked their hopes and dreams.

No, it was not what they wanted. And truth to tell, it is not what we want, either. We, too, want a God who will conquer our enemies, one who will affirm that we are entitled to the power and might that we claim as our own, who can make things turn out the way we want, or at the very least, solve our problems. Instead we find ourselves confronting the One who kneels at our feet.

Our Lord does for us what he did around the table that night. His love is poured out on us like sweet water. He cradles our lives in his hands, soothing hearts that have grown tough and hard and callused, cleansing the places in us that have been soiled by the journey of life. He kneels at our feet and he pours out his life for us. He kneels in obedience, in obedience to the Holy One who sent him to this work, but also in obedience to us.

Because the choice is ours. This is Thursday and we have time to change our minds. There are still options available. We can receive love from his hands or we can nail those same hands to the cross. And the terrible part of his love for us, almost too much too to bear, is this: he will honor our decision, even if it is our will to reject him.

But know this: even if we deny him, if we doubt, if we desert him, if we betray him—he loves us still. Even in our rejection, his love is poured out for us. He empties himself, giving us all he has, all he is, until it must seem there is nothing left. But the love he gives comes from an endless supply, endless because it is of God and endless because it is always being multiplied in the world.

He has set us an example, that we also should do as he has done to us. We also should lay down our robes, that which gives us identity and status and protection. We should allow ourselves to be open and vulnerable. We should lay down our lives. We also should kneel down in service to those whom we love and to those who have deserted us and those whom we know will betray us. We should pour out our love for each other. And in order to do that, we must empty ourselves of judging and power and pride and disappointment and anything that is not Love. Then we can do as he has done.

This is his mandate to us: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

This is his mandate. It is not easy, sometimes not even possible, unless. . . unless we know in our heart of hearts that we are loved and loved to the end. And then, of course, all things are possible.

Our Lord and Teacher kneels before us. The grit and grime of our journeys cling to our lives. He pours out love over us. He is tender and gentle with us, with the places in us that are bruised and sore, with the parts of our lives that have grown hard and callused and unfeeling. He lays his hands on us, his wounded hands, on the places that have grown weary, the parts of ourselves where we feel the effects of the hard traveling that has brought us this far.

He washes us as a service of love. He takes the stain of our sin upon himself. And bathed in his love, we are refreshed, restored, made clean.

Do you know what he has done to us? Do you know that we must do the same?

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

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