Saturday, April 07, 2012

Maundy Thursday

What would you do if you knew that tonight would be the last night of your life?  How would you spend those last precious hours?  For many of us, of course, the end of our earthly life will come in the normal course of events, creeping up on tiptoes at the end of a long life and maybe after an illness like a long-awaited and not unwelcome friend.  Our final hours might not be ours to dispose of, as we drift quietly into God's waiting arms.  But if you could decide what to do with that evening, how would you plan it?

Tonight we are invited to a dinner party.  Jesus knows that he is about to die – whether we accept St John's picture of Jesus as filled with prophetic insight and serenely foreknowing everything that is about to happen or St Mark's grittier version of Jesus filled with horror and praying that the events about to unfold might be averted – the likely consequences of Jesus' actions since arriving in Jerusalem the Sunday before wouldn't have been hard to work out.  Entering the city, he had taken part in a volatile and provocative bit of street theatre that mocked the triumphal procession of the Roman governor.  On the Monday, Jesus creates a public disturbance surrounded by crowds of pilgrims in the Temple, and in full view of the Roman troops stationed in the Antonia fortress overlooking the Temple courtyards.  On the Tuesday, he goes head to head challenging the authority of the chief priests who collaborated with the Roman forces, directing against them the pointed little parable of the wicked tenants.  Roman governors didn't tolerate that kind of rabble-rousing, and certainly not during the Passover, when an extra 100,000 or so pilgrims posed a worrying threat to public order. Do what Jesus did that week, and unless you've got a pretty good escape route, there's only one possible outcome.

Jesus spent the last week of his life deliberately challenging the power of the Roman occupation army and the Jewish authorities who used the Temple system to oppress and extort unfair taxes from the people.  He knew what was about to happen next, and yet, this evening which was really the last chance the authorities would have to arrest him before the preparations for the great Passover began, the last chance Jesus himself would have to get out of town while the going was good – the only place Jesus is going is to dinner with his friends.

Although we know what day of the week it is, this last night of Jesus' life, we don't know the day of the month.  We don't know whether it was 15 Nisan, the day of the feast of Unleavened Bread, as Mark, and following Mark, Luke and Matthew, assume it was – or 14 Nisan, the day before the Passover celebration, as John assumes in his gospel.  So we don't actually know whether this dinner party with his friends was a Passover meal.  Perhaps it was.  But if the timing in St John's gospel is correct then Jesus was executed at almost exactly the same time as the Jewish clergy were engaged in the bloody business of slaughtering the lambs for the Passover meal to be eaten on Friday evening – which clarifies for us that as Christians, we celebrate the Passover of liberation from death to life with the rising of the sun on Easter morning.  The ambiguity in the gospel accounts warns us – not yet.

But the story from the Old Testament for today directs our minds to the ancient Jewish memory of the Passover, which continues to echo for us within the meal of the Eucharist instituted on this last night of Jesus' life.  The Passover is a feast of storytelling and reminiscence, a telling and retelling for Jewish people of the generations and centuries of who they are as God's people – and yet the story at the heart of it is solemn and even frightening.  A story soaked in blood for a people who have had more than enough of it.  A river turned to blood.  Lives and livelihoods lost in plagues of flood and famine.  The death of every firstborn Egyptian son.  A household going to bed that night having smeared their doorposts with lamb's blood would do so with an awe tinged with dread at God's power to protect and the horror of what would befall others.

There is no explaining away the horror of this story, no moral arithmetic that makes the lives of Hebrew slaves worth more than Egyptian sons.  For Jewish people the celebration of Passover is not just the ancient memory of the liberation that is the ground zero of their own religious and ethnic identity but the moral imperative to call to mind the long forgotten victims of oppression in every time and place.  To remember not just the graciousness of God in delivering the Hebrews, in giving the Torah, in forming a people to be a light to all nations, but also the terrible losses, the grief of those who loved a son touched by death's angel or swallowed in the Sea of Reeds. Indeed, some ancient Passover haggadot present the bitter herbs dipped in salt water as a call to grieve on behalf of oppressors and enemies.

So, whether or not it was this most solemn meal, tonight we are invited to dinner with Jesus' friends and followers, with the one who already is planning to hand him over to the temple police, with the disciple who refers to himself as the one whom Jesus loves, with Mary who the week before had anointed Jesus' feet with perfume and tears.  It is a dinner party which, as Luke's gospel suggests, Jesus himself has gone to great lengths to ensure is undisturbed – with elaborate precautions including a rendezvous with a stranger and an exchange of passwords leading to a room in a secret location.  What sort of dinner party is this?

It's hard not to wonder what goes through Jesus head on this last night.  The next day he would hang on a cross – the means of execution reserved for those who challenged the Roman occupation forces – and die a humiliating public death deserted by nearly all of those who called themselves his friends.  Tonight Jesus knows this, and he knows one of his followers is planning to hand him over as soon as he can make his excuses and leave.  He knows, if Mark's gospel has got it even half right, that the rest of them simply don't understand.  These must be just about the loneliest hours of Jesus life.  So, what does he do?

Well, he washes their feet.  He takes off his robe and wraps a towel around himself like a slave, and when they come in covered with the dirt and rubbish of the crowded alleyways of the city, he washes their feet.  There are a couple of things here that are really important to notice.  One, the obvious reversal of roles, the washing of feet which actually was a practical necessity in this city where, not to put too fine a point on it, every imaginable sort of garbage and waste was simply sloshed out the front door, would normally be done by the lowliest member of the household.  And the second is that it is their feet.

In this culture hands and feet stand for action, for your deeds, for everywhere you have been and everything you have done.  When Jesus washes his followers' feet – when he washes the feet of the one who will betray him - he is also making their actions clean in a hands-on demonstration of forgiveness.  He washes their feet and then he eats with them - this is Jesus' behaviour toward his betrayer, his clueless friends, and his stumbling followers on the last night before he died.

So this is what he commands us, and this is what – imperfectly – we do.  We gather in front of Jesus' table, and before we eat, we forgive and are forgiven and we allow him to wash off some of the rubbish – some of what St Paul indelicately calls, in Greek, skubalon – you probably don't need me to translate that for you?  Some of the skubalon we have smeared on ourselves.  And then we come, with clean feet and hands and hearts to break bread with him and one another.

If this was the last night of your life, what would you do? 

You'd probably think about who you really were, what your life has taught you is most important and what has given you the greatest joy.  I expect that was what Jesus was thinking about, too.  And so he did what he did, and actually it wasn't so different from what he had always done, forgiving and cleansing and feeding people.  Living out his full humanity in every moment in the awareness that his actions brought to flesh and blood the image of God.  It seems to me that to speak of the perfection of Jesus is nothing more than this – to recognise that he lived the fullness of his life in every moment and on every night including this loneliest night of all.  Do you imagine he was terrified?  Did he feel angry or lonely?  Who knows, but although he might well have felt all of these things what he actually did is to spend the night with his friends, including the friend who he knew had put friendship aside for money – and cleansed and cared and forgave and broke bread.

Do this, and remember.