Maundy Thursday 2016
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Maundy Thursday 2016
Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Assistant Priest
The French theorist Guy DeBord wrote a book at the height of the student riots in 1960s France titled, The Society of the Spectacle. Like a lot of French Marxist theory, the book is tough sledding, but I’ve always found the title to be an amazingly prescient evocation of the age in which we live. One cursory look around our contemporary moment is enough to demonstrate that we do indeed inhabit a society entranced by spectacle. We are a society of watchers, a world of spectators waiting to be entertained by modern day Coliseum circuses. We watch things on our phones, on our televisions, on our computers. From the comfort of our armchair we can journey to deepest darkest Peru, Paris, or Papua New Guinea, and pause the vicarious adventure to go pop some more low-fat, low-salt microwave popcorn without missing a beat. The troubling thing about being a culture of watchers is that this habit instills in us the mistaken notion that all of life, not just the latest episode of the latest t.v. show, can be consumed at our convenience, on our own terms. We watch what we want, when we want it, where we want it, and for however long we want.
Into this society of the spectacle, into this consumer-entertainment mindset comes the liturgy for Maundy Thursday, a liturgy that explicitly challenges our tendency to stand back and remain watchers. On Palm Sunday, we all got to be members of the crowd—both as the palm-waving crowd cheering, “Hosanna in the highest!” at the start of the service, and as the murderous, heckling, mob howling, “Crucify him!” during the reading of the Passion Gospel. In both instances, however, we were positioned as watchers of the unfolding drama, spectators (however complicit) of Jesus’ life and death.
Tonight, that kind of arms’ length stance of the aloof watcher and the cozy spectator changes. The liturgy for Maundy Thursday is an invitation to intimacy and vulnerability. The intimacy of being welcomed, loved, and washed just as we are by God, and the intimacy and vulnerability of reaching out to those in need of washing, those pushed to the margins of the spectacle and for whom the spectacle is specifically designed to help us avoid. Maundy Thursday calls us to be participants—participants in Jesus’ life as the God who humbles Himself to come among us and wash our feet, and participants in God’s life in the world, as the gathered, fed and sent community with Christ at its center that adventures to the boundaries, and borderlandstravels beyond the entrancing thrall of the spectacle to wash the feet of those we are trained not to see.
Tonight’s liturgy asks that we step out of our spectatorial relationship to Jesus as a figure of history, or as someone to look up to and admire, and imitate and embody Jesus Himself in our ritual behavior towards one another. Tonight, we enact in ritual form, the life that we are to live out as Jesus’ disciples often referred to as the mandatum (the new commandment)—Love one another. As it says in the bidding of the foot-washing,
Therefore, I invite you who share in the royal priesthood of Christ, to come forward, that I may recall whose servant I am by following the example of my Master. But come remembering his admonition that what will be done for you is also to be done by you to others, for “a servant is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”
As we begin the Holy Week Triduum, we are faced with the stark challenge of the life of discipleship. We are called not just learn to about Jesus, but to “put on the mind of Christ,” to practice in the world the very same service to the “least of these” that we enact in the liturgy. Like all liturgy properly understood, this service points beyond the beautiful walls of this Cathedral what lies right outside our doors—hunger, homelessness, brokenness, hurt, forsakenness, grief, and the hell of isolation and being invisible. Tonight, we make visible the invisible, put faces on the faceless, and reclaim our identity as disciples of Jesus, to be a force for love, justice, and reconciliation in the world. As contemporary liturgical scholar Archimandrite Robert Taft, S.J. writes,
[…] the point of liturgy is that we are supposed to become what we celebrate. The purpose of the Eucharist isn’t to change bread and wine into Jesus Christ; it’s to change you and me into Jesus Christ. That’s what it’s all about. We are supposed to become the word of comfort and forgiveness. We are supposed to become the bread of life for the world. We are supposed to become the healing oil.
And likewise, if we are to become what we celebrate—the purpose of all ritual—then we are to become waters of love, warm towels of tender compassion for those places in our world that need us stripped to the waist, kneeling, and pouring ourselves out for them.
Feet are funny things. They are often ugly. Sometimes they are little whifffy. They are covered with callouses and bunions. Toenails are often chipped, or misshapen by unsightly fungus. In short they are the perfect embodiment of our humanness. They bear the wear and tear of our lives—the struggles, pain, and, yes, shame, that come along with trying to do our best and often falling short in a world that seems to just want to chew us up and spit us out. And yet, it is these very feet—these stinky, mangled, calloused feet that tell the whole messy truth of our lives and that no pedicure can hide—it is these very feet that Our Lord stoops down to wash. Facing his, by this time, inevitable violent, humiliating execution at the hands of ruling elite hell-bent on maintaining its own power, control, status and esteem, Jesus takes off his robes, and kneels to wash the feet of his disciples—the very people who will desert him, abandon him, and betray him to the authorities, and deny they even knew him.
I’ve always been bashful about getting my feet washed. My university girlfriend used to make me leave my beloved Army Surplus Store boots outside the door, and ever since I’ve been a little self-conscious. But I’ve been wondering this week if that bashfulness—or more pointedly that sense of shame and unworthiness—isn’t exactly what this sacramental act of foot-washing is meant to provoke in us. We are all, in this post Freudian age, savvy enough to know that oftentimes, “the issue isn’t the issue.” Yes, sometimes “cigars are just cigars,” but often they are not! Whether we come forward to have our feet washed in the midst of the liturgy or not, this ritual is a powerful and provoking sign that can reveal to us an immense amount about our relationship with God, our relationship to ourselves and our relationship to others.
Do we think that we can only come into God’s presence after we’ve powered our toes, and painted our nails? Do we harbor a belief that there are some things about us that we need to keep covered up under layers of wool and leather, away from the prying eyes of the world? Are there things about other people from which we’d rather protect ourselves and like good Episcopalians keep things light and jocular over a cup of hot coffee and some lovingly prepared hors d’oeuvres after mass? As it says in the New Zealand Prayer Book—“Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.” Hear what the Spirit is saying to each one of us about where we are holding back and preferring the comfortable distance of watching as a spectator to the risky, adventurous, and uncomfortably intimate encounter with the Living God.
At the conclusion of this Liturgy, we are going to strip the altar. The candles will be removed, and the sacrament processed to the Altar of Repose. This is a powerfully symbolic act, rich in possible connotations. In a way, I hesitate to put words onto it, as it is probably best left (like so much of Holy Week) to speak, and to preach, itself. But I would like to tease out one thread, and that is that the stripping of the altar might be a sign of the kind of stripping to which we as disciples of Jesus are called. Perhaps the empty space, bereft of images, smells, and sounds is a call to let our limiting beliefs of God, ourselves, and others be stripped lovingly, contemplatively away. Perhaps this open place, gently washed clean of our images, where we have nothing on which to rely, is where we discover who God is, who we are, and who those we are called to serve really are. Perhaps in this imageless, wordless silence, we find ourselves drawn into the torrent of self-offering love that flows through the very center of our being and constitutes our true identity. Beyond family, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, national or political identity, perhaps we hear that voice in the silence that speaks our true name—Love. Love serving love in love.
We are the people who discover that it is going out of ourselves towards those we are told to fear, ignore, or simply don’t even see, that we know ourselves most deeply and authentically. We are the ones who journey forth. The adventurous ones. The fearful and abashed ones who go anyway. The stubborn, stiff-necked ones who go grumbling and muttering to ourselves. The ones accepted in their unacceptableness who follow their Lord into the midst of the fray. We are the washed and washing ones. We are the fed and sent ones. We are love.