Maundy Thursday (a day late)

Yes, I know it’s Good Friday, but I had some thoughts about Maundy Thursday last night; so please forgive me for the tardiness. Anyway, here it goes:

There’s a LOT going on at the Maundy/Holy Thursday liturgy. It’s often seen as celebrating Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. At the same time, we have a ritual of footwashing as a liturgical enactment of Christ’s example in the Gospel of John. Of course, there’s also the Stripping of the Altar and, depending on your particular parish, an Altar of Repose where the Sacrament reserved for communion on Good Friday is placed so that people can keep watch and pray or meditate upon Christ’s Body. However, I’m going to focus on the first two, Eucharist and footwashing.

Not surprisingly, it can be hard to keep a whole bunch of different themes running at once, kind of like juggling several balls . . .  or prayer books, hymnals, and bulletins. . . . or even chainsaws. In that case, one of them tends to come out on top. At most of the Episcopal churches I’ve belonged to, the emphasis has often been on the footwashing. The institution of the Eucharist doesn’t get lost so much as held not quite as high, leaving me a little hungry, so to speak. (Btw, if you’re interested in learning more about the ritual of footwashing, I suggest reading the M.A. thesis by one of my seminary classmates, Fr. Chris Arnold.)

During the sermon at last night’s liturgy, I was suddenly reminded of Bishop Frank Weston’s address to the Anglo-Catholic Conference in 1923. At the end he tells his listeners, “Now go out into the highways and hedges where not even the Bishops will try to hinder you. Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.” Yes, footwashing, Jesus’ command to love one another and do as He has done.

What does that have to with Eucharist? Well, before that Bishop Weston also says, “But for the truth, because the one great thing that England [and I’d add the U.S. today] needs to learn is that Christ is found in and amid matter—Spirit through matter—God in flesh, God in the Sacrament. . . . You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum. . . .If you are Christians then your Jesus is one and the same: Jesus on the Throne of his glory, Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus received into your hearts in Communion, Jesus with you mystically as you pray, and Jesus enthroned in the hearts and bodies of his brothers and sisters up and down this country.”

As with the Gospel stories of the Transfiguration, we are not called to stay cooped up in church but to listen to Jesus and go with him down the mountain into the world. Maybe I tend toward the mystical side, but I truly believe that Christ is present in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. By consuming His Body and Blood, we the Church become more fully the Body of Christ. We are then sent out (in the Latin Mass: Ite, missa est) as the Body of Christ into the “highways and hedges” to wash the feet of the least in this world.

That means being truly present to the vulnerable, and we can’t do that without being present in our own vulnerability. I don’t hold myself up as a model. Being vulnerable is hard, especially in a world that teaches/shouts/threatens that being “weak” is bad, that you’re a “sucker” if you’re nice or gentle. If you don’t fight back or build a wall around yourself, you deserve whatever bad things happen to you. On Maundy Thursday we encounter vulnerability in the footwashing. Touching someone’s feet and letting your own feet be touched are very intimate acts. Likewise, it’s an intimate act to take Christ into ourselves and carry Him out to others. After the Resurrection, Jesus still bore the marks of the Crucifixion, wounds he took with him when he Ascended. In consuming the Body and Blood broken and shed for us, we bear those wounds as well. Again, I don’t hold myself up as a model. Instead, our model is Jesus Christ crucified and risen. . . .

[As the Triddum liturgy on Maundy Thursday does not conclude but continues on to Good Friday, I’ll continue this later tonight.]

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