Tonight, after the flurry of this busy liturgy is complete, we will go home in silence, leaving our church stripped of adornments, without a blessing or communion. This will represent that sense of perceived absence of God that would have characterized the days when Jesus suffered and died. I imagine that those who gathered at that last meal just before this happened knew little of what was to come. Sure, they might have noticed some signs of the “gathering storm” – the increasing attacks on Jesus, as well as his words and actions – but, they must have loved the anticipation of that Passover and associated preparations, and found reassurance in the shouts of Hosanna directed at Jesus. He, on the other hand, uses these final hours of seeming normalcy to share with his friends not only the last meals, 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: only the essentials that the child could carry by herself, their purpose rehearsed by the adult over and over to make sure the child really “gets it”.
But of course, most things will never be fully understood until personally experienced. I still remember my own first unaccompanied airplane ride. I was 8 years old, and I was being sent home to Moscow from Zambia where I’d spent a summer with my grandparents, with their coworker whom I barely knew. My bag was packed, but somehow I’d either never fully grasped the fact that I’d be traveling virtually alone, or it was simply that nothing could have fully prepared me for this first experience of separation from my family. That slowly dawning, yet overwhelming sense of sheer loneliness that 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 till they got there: “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 self-giving, washing of feet – of loving the neighbor, compassionate stance towards Judas – of loving an enemy, and the agony in Gethsemane – of trust.
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. 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, it wasn’t really all that new. But the symbolic action that he chose to illustrate this final lesson, the one that gives this our service its central emphasis, was in fact, very different in terms of the extent of self-degradation it apparently involved in his culture, which is, frankly, quite impossible for us to grasp.
And yet, isn’t it more humbling to be washed than to wash others? Could that have been THE lesson in humility, that Peter eventually grasped? The one Jesus had first learned from a woman who washed his own feet with her tears? For in general, isn’t it more difficult to accept love and care than to stretch ourselves to fulfill life’s numerous demands. The tension between the fear of abandonment and desire for independence is real. Otherwise, why would we be so reluctant to move to assisted living, choose medically assisted death over palliative care, force emotional independence on babies and toddlers even as we helicopter-parent our teens, and measure the worth of self and others by what they do for living? Yet, one day, life will force us to “have our feet washed”. Then, we do feel the power imbalance, lose control, and become vulnerable.
As such, the willingness of the volunteers to enter into such an experience at this service always touches me. If you will not be participating in the rite in this manner, consider spending this portion of the liturgy reflecting on a personal memory of surrendering into someone’s care. Maybe, you suffered an injury and someone tended to it, were hospitalized and cared for by nurses, were helped by “the village” to raise your child, received kindness or financial support. This way, we will all reflect on the ways we heeded Jesus warning, “unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” For until we learn to embrace our vulnerability and interdependence in our human relationships, it remains difficult for us to appreciate our need for God. Amen.
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