Today is Maundy Thursday of the Holy or Passion Week. As we have mentioned in many postings during Lent, sometimes the scriptures turn our ideas upside down. In today’s texts, we consider the call to be a SERVANT.
This call first asks that we be willing to have others serve us, as well as to be served. It’s harder than you’d think, to be the one that needs or allows someone else to care and support you. It’s hard to accept help, even by having someone else cook for you or wash your feet. After all, letting someone else wash your feet requires that you expose yourself, make yourself vulnerable, and put yourself into someone else’s hands, someone else’s care.
For many of us, it’s easier to be the one doing such tasks for someone else. In fact, even when we are called to be SERVANTS, as long as we’re doing something for someone else, like fixing a problem or taking action, we often feel empowered and somewhat in control.
On the other hand, sometimes it’s tough to be willing to humble yourself to the role of SERVANT. There’s an awesome column in the April 2016 Rotary magazine about an airline executive in an expensive suit, who came to deliver airline tickets to Mother Theresa of Calcutta. He was directed back to the toilets, where she was scrubbing them. Not missing a beat, she assumed he was a volunteer, so she handed him a brush and showed him what to do, and left him there to scrub toilets. He told that story for the rest of his life, because for that brief span of time, he was part of her work and mission.
Those with the greatest earthly political and social authority and power are called to be SERVANTS and disciples, just as are the most humble. Our faith calls us to an ethical accountability to each other, from those we love dearly to those we have never met. We are also responsible for creation’s well-being, starting with this planet.
Jesus’ final commandment, which is one of today’s texts, gives the standard by which we measure our service. It is rooted and channeled as love for one another, as Jesus loved us.
This may sound simple enough, but think about a lifetime of scrubbing toilets for thousands of sick people, and it may take on a new perspective. Yet we don’t all dedicate lifetimes to such pursuits, but we can set aside segments of time and attention to support such work, one way or another. That has certainly been an invitation of Lent.
As God’s people, we are asked to submit, by choice, to the love and leadership of God. In ancient Hebrew writings, this submission was directed toward God, often through God’s representatives, and often in sacred spaces such as the temple. Kings, queens, priests, judges (some judges were women) and prophets bowed their heads, made their confessions, offered their sacrifices, followed the law, and raised up their praise to One with greater power than they could embody. In Gospel texts, submission comes by following God through the embodied, incarnate presence of Christ, who calls himself a servant to those who follow him.
Today, on Maundy Thursday, faith communities offer many spiritual practices that allow us to serve each other. Below are some of them:
- Prepare suppers: light meals at common tables. Often we feature bread and soup. We are cooking and preparing food together, and offering it to each other, serving and feeding one another. We are enacting the final commandment, the great commandment of Christ, to love one another.
- Celebrate communion today, moving from the shared meal to the shared sacrament. During communion, also called eucharist, we offer bread and wine (or juice) as the formal elements.
Hopefully our tables are open and welcoming to everyone. This remains a challenge for many churches, who impose limits on those who are formally invited to partake of the sacraments.
Together we remember and bring into this moment: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus whose whole existence was an act of servitude and passionate teaching and risk-taking for justice and outpouring of transformative love and tender grace.
- Offer foot-washing tonight, following along with the act of servitude and blessing that Jesus offered his followers after the passover seder meal, which we call the Last Supper. This appears in today’s texts.
Jesus washed his friends’ feet physically with water and towel, and washed their lives symbolically, purifying them and blessing them and consecrating them to ministry.
- Prayers will be offered. Ultimately we are seeking “help”, sighing “thanks”, and shouting “wow.” These are the three essential human prayers as suggested by Anne Lamott. Whether spoken aloud or in silent meditation, alone or in community, prayer will open a dialogue between us and Godself, who is eager to be in a relationship with us, and will welcome and hold whatever we share, spoken or unspoken.
God listens. We may not see or know the response we receive, until we look backward across events. And I can admit, we may not like the answer we receive. Yet I believe God hears and answers all prayers.
- Read sacred texts. We can listen to the ancient Biblical stories of our spiritual ancestors, and how they approached encounters with holiness. We can hear the messy, imperfect human ways we bungled our lives and communities, and God found ways to heal and redeem us, whenever possible.
- Creatively express ourselves in worship. We will make artistic offerings of dance and music and poetry and many other creative mediums.
In this way, we use Spirit-given gifts to tell stories to each other, inspired by the themes and events of this Holy Week. Through our witnessing to each other, God continues to speak into our lives, not just through ancient texts, but in new expressions.
Selections from today’s lectionary:
- Psalm 116: 18a — O Lord, I am your servant.
- I Corinthians 11: 24 — And when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
- John 13: 5 — Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.
- John 13: 8-9 — Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”
- John 13:34 — 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.”
In anticipation of the coming Passion Week, which is the holiest week of Christianity between Palm Sunday and Easter, we are reminded that Jesus celebrated PASSOVER with his friends. It was a Jewish ritual.
This seder meal is an act of remembrance of the Jews suffering in Egypt, and God’s act of liberation: freeing the Jewish slaves in the time of Exodus. The great Hebrew narrative goes on to tell of Moses’ leadership through his people’s times of trial and being lost in the wilderness, and acknowledges their wandering and forgetting the covenant with God, and celebrates receiving the ten commandments, and coming to their promised land.
This seder meal continues to be celebrated by Jews each year. Over time and layered by Christian tradition, we now symbolically honor a form of the seder meal as communion: our Last Supper. And during Passion Week, our Maundy Thursday supper is often a seder meal, similar to what we understand was shared by Jesus and his followers.
Below is a diagram of the seder plate in traditional Jewish customs today:
The meal that we celebrate at communion holds echoes that reach back through millennia, into deep memory. Yet it also has meaning now.
People continue to suffer. To seek liberation. To desire their promised land, their home, their place and way of belonging. To need redemption.
I would argue that we share spiritual ancestors and relations. And these meal hold as much meaning now, as they did thousands of years ago. Our faith ties us to our spiritual cousins: Jews and Muslims. We are all connected by our faithfulness to One God.
This PASSOVER meal, now transformed Maundy Thursday’s meal and communion, reminds us that inside Holy Week, Passion Week, which starts and ends triumphantly, also contains the trial and execution of our Messiah. It holds its own time of suffering and loss, and three days of absence and separation. Like those who sat down to the seder meal, remembering their past, when we partake of communion, we also remember oppression and liberation. I don’t claim that it’s the same, but that we are bound together by this shared narrative.
Like the seder meal, the Christian communion also ends in hope. Yes, we look backward, rooting ourselves in time and place and history. And yet, we also look forward with hope, believing in the transforming grace and love of God to heal and restore all of us, and ultimately, this whole world. We hope in God’s capacity to bring all of us to a common table in a mutual home … someday.
Excerpts from today’s lectionary:
- Leviticus 23:4-6 — These are the appointed festivals of the Lord, the holy convocations, which you shall celebrate at the time appointed for them. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, there shall be a passover offering to the Lord, and on the fifteenth day of the same month is the festival of unleavened bread to the Lord.
- 22 Luke 22:1 — Now the festival of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover, was near.
- 22 Luke 22:7-8 — Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. 8 So Jesus[b] sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover meal for us that we may eat it.”
- 22 Luke 22:13 — So they went and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.
Anointings can be a revolutionary act. And it can be done by common people: you and me.
Anointing was first reported in Hebrew scriptures as an event that sets aside priests and prophets. That happens in today’s Exodus text. After the time of Samuel, anointing with oil acknowledges kings and judges, starting with David and Solomon.We see it here in Psalms, when a king raises up a song of victory and praise to God.
In later Christian traditions, oil was also applied sacramentally for healings. Or to bless the dying. It was often called extreme unction or last rites, but has since been called ‘sacrament of the sick.’
In the Gospel story, the woman’s act of anointing is personal. Yet it can also be heard as political and public, since she stands in the tradition of prophets who anoint kings. She marks Jesus as a leader. And as we know, his coming death on a cross was a political form of execution by the Roman empire.
Since this anointing is also done by a woman, in a patriarchal society, it’s even more unusual. Lots of layers of social and cultural and spiritual complexity!
Anointing shows up in today’s texts in more traditional ways. Oil is used to mark something as holy. In Exodus, it is used to mark generations of priests descended from Moses’ brother Aaron. And it marks the tabernacle as holy. Plus anointing shows up in the song of the king.
Yet in yesterday’s story, a woman anointed Jesus. A regular person, a householder, sees the holy identity of God walking among us, and lavishly pours herself and her resources into naming and claiming that One with expensive oil.
Note to self: We tried anointing each other in church yesterday, and I learned not to use tea tree oil again; it’s very pungent. Try olive oil, right? We didn’t have access to nard …
Others in the house, in the Gospel story, protest the expense and waste of pouring so much oil on Jesus. She uses the equivalent of a year’s salary in this act!
Jesus defends her. He says her act shall be remembered, and that she’s preparing him for burial. He foreshadows the events of the Passion Week.
Jesus’ language of remembrance recalls the sacramental language of the Last Supper. “When you do this, remember me.” And in the versions of the story wherein she pours oil on his feet and washes his feet with her hair, it also recalls the foot-washing by Jesus for his disciples after the Last Supper.
This story shows up in all 4 Gospels, and in two versions, the woman who anoints Jesus is unnamed, in one she’s called a sinner, and in one she’s named as Mary of Bethany. So over the course of history this woman’s identity has often been collapsed into that of Mary Magdalene, and she has been labeled as a sinner, ie prostitute, which makes the scene seem even more sensuous and outrageous. Scholars and church authorities now admit that Mary Magdalene wasn’t aligned with the woman called ‘sinner’ in some texts, so that complexity has been lifted, although its hard to rid ourselves of hundreds of years of storytelling.
Anyway, it’s a sensuous, fleshy story. It’s a bodily sign-act.
Such perfume – nard — is often used to tend to the feet of a corpse. And in one version of this story, Mary and Jesus are indeed in the home of a former corpse, Lazarus, who was raised by Jesus from the dead. More allusions to death and resurrection.
On Sunday, the fifth Sunday of Lent, we anointed each other in church. We claimed the same role as the woman in the story. We put oil on each other, and gave each other blessings. Because in the UCC tradition, we are all empowered to do so. We are all ministers. We are all followers and servants and doers.
We are — each and all — allowed to receive such a blessing. And we are invited to offer it! Not just kings and prophets and priests. Regular people. Common folk. Householders. Women. Lepers. People brought back from death, or the edge of death.
When you think about it, the woman in the story lavished such oil on the body of Christ. And who is now the body of Christ? Us … you and me.
Selections from today’s lectionary:
- Psalm 20: 6 — I know that the Lord will help his anointed;
he will answer him from his holy heaven
- Exodus 40:9 — Then you shall take the anointing oil, and anoint the tabernacle and all that is in it, and consecrate it and all its furniture, so that it shall become holy.
- Exodus 40:15 — And anoint them, as you anointed their father, that they may serve me as priests: and their anointing shall admit them to a perpetual priesthood throughout all generations to come.
- Hebrews 10:22 — Let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
It’s early in the season of Lent to contemplate a word like CELEBRATE, yet that’s the image that rises up in today’s texts. And after all, while people often associate Lent with a solemn time of fasting and deprivation, it can also be a time of lightness and being present. It can be a timing of giving, versus giving up. It can be cause for celebration.
Perhaps we should consider why we celebrate. In Joshua, the Israelites mark Passover, which is always a time of remembrance of Exodus, and their liberation from slavery. It is both bittersweet and joyful, it has a sense of obligation and ritual, but it is also an important time of family gathering and community-building.
In Psalms, people are invited to rejoice and shout for joy from a place of righteousness. I would interpret this to mean celebrating once we are in right relationship with God, self, and other people, as well as creation.
Finally, in the parable in Luke, the feast is laid when one son returns after an absence that his family experienced as if it were a death. His homecoming has the element of resurrection in it, a return to life and renewal of connection with everything that gives meaning to his life.
Remember, it’s too soon to say Alleluia … we don’t say that until Easter. Yet we are preparing for this day, for the time when Love overturns death and returns into the world to meet us where we are. Isn’t every communion both a remembrance and a celebration? And doesn’t every meal, shared with others, hold this same potential?
So in this season, celebrate with intention. Celebrate thoughtfully. But do celebrate. This, too, is a spiritual practice.
Excerpts from today’s Biblical passages:
- Joshua 5: 10 — While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho.
- Psalm 32: 11 — Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous,
and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.
- Luke 15: 31-21 — Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”